With a Side of Fava Beans

I hope you’ve had a great Thanksgiving and that the following will not entirely ruin your appetite for leftovers.

Yes, I know moms who have eaten their placentas, and recommendations about doing this have been flying around my mom support board lately.  For a few hundred bucks, Sara Pereira, a licensed massage therapist who has been featured in Time Magazine, will come over to your house, cut up, dry out, and encapsulate your placenta, so you can ingest it.

This is all very clean, as she says on her website:

I have obtained the appropriate Bloodborne Pathogen course Completion Certification and adhere to the strictest standards of safety as set forth by OSHA and the EPA and conforming to local health department guidelines for food preparation and safety protocols.

I wonder what Bloodborne Pathogen Course she took and what certificate she got?  We have to get a certificate every year, as teachers for LA Unified School District, and here’s what we do to get it:  we watch a video about Bloodborne Pathogens.

Yep.  That’s pretty much it.

I might have the same certificate as Sara.  Maybe this will come in handy when I am laid off from my teaching job and I need to pick up some work preparing placentas.

So what are the supposed benefits of this practice?  According to Sara’s website, it can:

· Balance your hormones
· Increase milk supply
· Combat Fatigue
· Increase your energy
· Prevent signs of aging
· Recover more quickly from childbirth
· Replenish what was lost during childbirth
· Bring the body back into balance
· Prevent and treat the “baby blues”
· Shorten postnatal bleeding time
· Increase postnatal iron levels

And “some even believe” it can:

· Build baby’s immune system
· With any type of trauma and life’s many transitions
· Weaning from breast feeding
· Heal bone breaks
· Regulate hormones during menopause

But can it make me coffee in the morning?  Because that would be cool.

Sara isn’t entirely disingenuous on her site.  She admits that there isn’t a lot of evidence behind her claims:

Are there any research studies on ingesting the placenta?

Unfortunately the research is some what minimal, but as time goes on and more women continue to choose to benefit from their placentas I am positive that there will be more research proving the placenta’s immense benefits.  For now click here to read some of the studies that are out there.  I have prepared 200+ placentas now and every one of my clients have benefited tremendously!

I read the studies she lists.  A few are general papers on post partum depression and don’t have anything to do with placentophagia (the scientific term for placenta eating).  A few are by Mark Kristal, who discusses placentophagia in animals.  In a USA Today article, he’s quoted saying there aren’t any plausible human benefits:

“People can believe what they want, but there’s no research to substantiate claims of human benefit,” Kristal says. “The cooking process will destroy all the protein and the hormones. … Drying it out or freezing it would destroy other things.”

So Sara’s listed articles that have nothing to do with placenta eating and articles by a researcher who himself says it couldn’t work.  So far, so weak.

Then there’s a 1954 paper from Prague that suggests eating placenta might increase milk supply in new mothers.  I admit I always have a little trouble, since I’m not a scientist, reading studies and telling if they’re decent.  So here’s what should clue you in that this study was really silly:  even I can tell that it’s really silly.  There were 210 women who ate placenta and only 27 in the control group, but the researchers “lost sight” of six of them.  The way the results were measured for the two groups was different, and the way the researchers chose their subjects seems entirely subjective.  It’s just not really good.  It’s old.  It’s never been replicated.

One paper Sara lists has to do with the iron content of placenta.  Since it makes sense to me that the iron could survive the cooking process, just as iron in any organ meat does, I was curious as to how much iron each placenta capsule would contain.  According to this paper, there are 13.6 milligrams of iron per 100 grams of placenta.  (To compare, you can get about 12 grams from the same amount of beef kidney.  And weirdly enough, if you eat 100 grams of turmeric, a spice, you can get 67.8 milligrams of iron.  Curry powder is similarly high in iron.  I now feel justified putting it on popcorn.)

So let’s just take the averages here.  Your average placenta is 560 grams, which means it contains a total of 76.16 mg of iron.  Divide that by 150 capsules (about average from what I’ve read), and each contains .51 mg of iron.  If you charge $275 for this service (a lower end price from Sara’s website), each pill costs $1.83.  Pretty pricey.  I think I’ll stick to regular iron supplements.  (And more curry powder.)

If you really wanted to get a dose of iron, it seems like the best way to eat the placenta would be raw, all in one go.  But since that is disgusting, I’d suggest putting it in the crock pot with packet of Lipton Onion soup.  I’ve never made anything that way that didn’t turn out just fantastic, and it’s so easy.

Oddly enough, as I was researching all of this, Amy Tuteur covered it on Skeptical OB.  She’s characteristically blunt in her take down.  However, she links this practice to home birth advocates, and from what I’ve seen on the discussion board, there are plenty of moms who give birth in a hospital and then take the placenta home with them.  Sure, belief in placentophagia probably falls into the same “natural” equals “good” fallacy as home birth advocacy, but even among women who choose hospital births, placenta eating has another appeal.  It seems to be something that especially calls to second time moms who’ve had terrible experiences with postpartum depression.

One blog post I found gave this testimonial:

On day four I was feeling down and sad, and wanted to cry for no reason. After noting the feelings in my journal, I went and took my dose of placenta. Two hours later I reported that I was feeling just fine and dandy!

But the author says in this same post:

I wonder if my taking Zoloft will skew the results of my experience with PBi [Placenta Benefits.info]. I don’t think so. Because even while on the Zoloft, though I felt well, I still had moments of instability. Granted I didn’t go over an[y] depressive edges and felt well. The feeling I have now is much deeper- more organic. More from “within.” I thought I was feeling normal and good on the Zoloft. But the PBi has taken it to a whole new level I didn’t know existed. I wish I wasn’t taking the Zoloft so I could fully experience the miracle of placentophagy!

So she’s taking anti-depressants and still attributing her feelings to the placenta pills.  Wild.

Obviously, the real danger here isn’t that someone is going to be harmed by eating her own placenta.  If you want to do that, awesome.  (Try the crock pot.  And use curry.)

The danger is that moms seeking relief from post partum depression might be taken in by claims that placentophagia could help, and there’s just no proof of that.  When I started to research this topic, I was trying to keep an open mind.  And I figured there would be at least some valid studies about eating placenta to alleviate postpartum depression.  But there’s nothing at all.

Pec Indman, a leading specialist in postpartum depression, says:

Although there has not been one study (not even poorly done) about the effects in humans on placental ingestion, the claims are that it prevents the blues and PPD …which contributes the spread of misinformation about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. There is no evidence that the freeze drying processing of placental tissues maintains the integrity of the hormones, protein, and iron. There is no evidence about any part of this process to warrant a recommendation.

It bums me out that friends of mine, seeking genuine relief, are paying someone for this useless cure.  Sara Pereira also advertises that she can make a homeopathic tincture out of your placenta, so you can enjoy the “benefits” later in your life.  I don’t even understand how a homeopathic remedy works in this case, even according to the dubious laws of homeopathy.  Where’s the like cures like aspect of this?  Not that it has to make sense, but it’s just not even consistent with the nonsense it’s claiming to be, beyond the fact that it’s a diluted solution of something that probably won’t help in the first place.

When I hear about people who I like getting into something like this, I just cross my fingers and hope they’re okay.  Or that they’re seeking other solutions in addition to the placenta eating thing.

Kate S. Kripke, MSW, LSW, who writes about postpartum wellness, sums it up beautifully (and alarmingly):

What concerns many of us most is that women are receiving information about the Placenta’s role in PPD that is inaccurate and unfounded.  When a mom is really suffering, this can be dangerous.  Best case scenario?  A mom ingests her placenta,  feels energetic and empowered, and she does not suffer from depression or anxiety in the postpartum period.  Worst case?  A women is told that if she ingests her placenta she will not suffer from PPD.  And so she does.  This mom then goes on to suffer from debilitating anxiety an/or depression but she doesn’t speak up about it because, well, she “shouldn’t” feel this way since she ate her placenta and so this must just be her fault and she must just be a bad mom.  And so she suffers in silence and doesn’t reach out for the very important support and treatment that she needs from a trained mental health provider for her Postpartum Mood Disorder.  This, Dear Readers, is when misinformation can become dangerous.

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21 Responses to With a Side of Fava Beans

  1. Under the benefits, she forgot to mention that eating the placenta will hide the scent of recent birth and therefore not attract predators.

    Silly Sara – doesn’t she understand that this is the only proven positive effect of placenta eating? It should have been first on her list!

  2. Okay, I’ll admit it. When my daughter was born I asked to see the placenta. It was very cool, but second admission – I have a ridiculous amount of Bio type grad classes. Making a print of it, well maybe. Eating it? Yeah, so not doing that.

  3. Sara Pereira here, first of all Mr. Popular, mammals do not eat their placentas to keep predators away, if this were the case why do they not clean up any of the blood or other fluids that go along with birth? Why do they not leave the site where they delivered and find a clean one? I grew up on a dairy, watched cows calve and our dogs would stand by waiting patiently for the cow’s placenta and fight over it, highly doubt they were that protective of the cows. And all of our dogs lived very long lives, one to be 21…just saying.

    And to the author of this article, I don’t charge “a few hundred bucks”, it is $275, and only more depending on drive time, I drive up to 80 miles one way sometimes, so yea, I do charge more for that, its a two day process for me.

    I do not appreciate your implication that women who are genuinely looking for relief are being taken advantage of. The process I do with placenta preparation is the Traditional Chinese Medicine method, a method that has been used for thousands of years. I didn’t make it up. And yes, there does need to be more research on this, but unfortunately there is no money in it for those who would bother doing research on it. This will change soon, from what I hear Jodi of PBi is in the middle of studies at U.N.L.V.

    Hospitals have even been known to gather multiple placentas without the woman’s knowledge and sell them to cosmetic companies who use placenta in their anti-aging products. I had heard about this and had it recently confirmed by a nurse who saw it first hand throughout her job.

    I have prepared over 200 placentas in the past 2.5 years and many of my clients are 2nd and 3rd time mothers, they didn’t do this the first time around and noticed a drastic difference when they did take their placenta. Its beyond iron, it has a lot to do with the hormones that the placenta creates, many of which are post-partum beneficial hormones, one aspect I notice your article did not cover.

    Its sad to me that you are attempting to taint something that is helping so many. If a woman is going through depression and gets on anti-depressants she cannot breastfeed, which is very sad for a woman who wishes to.

    Oh, and the Bloodborne Pathogen Course I took is actually specific for placenta preparation, it is legitimate and I will retake it when the time comes. Thank you for notifying me of this unfortunate article.

    • littlez2008 says:

      Thanks for chiming in. I’m sure you believe in what you’re doing, but I didn’t see any evidence on your site that there’s any proven benefit to it. A practice being thousands of years old doesn’t prove that it’s beneficial. If cosmetic companies gather placentas, that still doesn’t prove any of the claims on your site. I did address the hormone issue with a quote from Mark Kristal, who says the hormones would not survive the process you use to encapsulate the placenta. This is the same Mark Kristal whose research you use to substantiate your practice, but he himself says the benefit is implausible. I’m surprised there is a blood bourn pathogen course regarding placenta preparation, but great that there is. That still doesn’t mean that the capsules would actually help anyone. I’ll be interested to see if further research proves this practice beneficial. For now, I certainly would not recommend it. Testimonials aren’t really great evidence. But I would not worry if I were you. I’m sure your customers will continue to flock to you on the basis of those testimonials. On this site, we explore science and evidence as they relate to various parenting claims, and I found your site lacking in evidence. And in fact, I did not find evidence to back up this practice anywhere, but instead found experts who were alarmed that placenta eating was being touted as a way to ward off PPD. So I feel it’s my responsibility to write about that.

    • littlez2008 says:

      I should add that Zoloft is okay for mothers who breastfeed. But more importantly, if a woman has PPD and takes capsules which do nothing to help, that’s the real tragedy.

    • My apologies, Sara. I guess we’re back down to zero proven benefits.

      I’m seeing a lot of anecdotes. That’s a shame. The placebo effect is something very real, and when someone pony’s up $275+ for a treatment she has been told will work, there’s a whole lot of psychological incentive to feel like it’s working, even if it isn’t actually doing anything.

      Fyi, traditional Chinese medicine makes hefty use of mercury, lead, and other not-so-good stuff. It’s not exactly an argument that’s going to make me run out and hire your services.

  4. Chris says:

    I am glad that the only edible thing we left the hospital after each baby was two servings of vegetarian lasagna and a bottle of sparkling apple juice.

    And it was very good lasagna. I’ve been trying for years to come up with something as tasty.

    • laura says:

      Please tell me….how did I manage to make an excessive amount of milk despite losing half of my blood volume and retaining a piece of placenta (not for a day or a week, but a MONTH), my uterus still managed to shrink back down to non-pregnancy size *and* I had “enough” strength to walk to the bathroom (before the blood transfusion)??? I think it’s because I was taking my placenta pills. And I didn’t pay for it, so there goes your placebo theory. Oh, yeah, and I had unfounded weepiness that disappeared within a couple of days. Please explain all of this to me, science people.

      • laura says:

        oops..this was in reply to MR Popular’s first comment.

        Anyway, apple juice will rot your teeth. I’d rather eat placenta.

      • littlez2008 says:

        You could have recovered from any of those things without placenta pills. You don’t have to pay for something for the placebo effect to be a factor.

        It’s sort of like saying, “Please explain to me how the rain came down! I think it’s because I did my rain dance!” Sure, one thing happened after the other, but that doesn’t mean the dance caused the rain. Your magic pills most likely did not help you, but you recovered on your own.

        I think the real question about your weepiness isn’t why it went away, but why did you have it in the first place? Shouldn’t your pills have prevented it? Why did it last several days? Why do you think a mood that changed was cured by the pills? This last part of your comment tells me that you are just going to believe in these pills, no matter what. Whatever good happens, you figure the pills that did it. If something bad happens and then changes, well, the pills did it!

        It sounds like you probably would have done just as well with a rabbit’s foot or a lucky penny.

        The thing is, it’s your life, and if you want to eat your placenta and you believe it helps you, great. We’re living in a free society and you get to do that. But from what I’ve researched, there isn’t ANY proof that this really helped you. And you haven’t offered proof here in your comment.

  5. TO Doula says:

    I understand your position in this article. I thought the same way a few years ago.

    But it’s really Mark Krystal I want to respond to: if cooking meat “will destroy all the protein and the hormones” then why does anyone eat any meat at all? And why are large numbers of well educated, mainstream people willing to pay a whole lot extra for organic, synthetic hormone-free beef? I’ve been in contact with the FDA, and they don’t think freezing or cooking destroys hormones in any significant quantity.

    I don’t think there are any placenta preparers who would advise a woman to consume placenta instead of seeing her doctor or taking anti-depressants if they’ve been prescribed to her. But if using her own placenta (which is the product of her own body) for a few weeks after childbirth can strengthen her enough to possibly ward off the spectacular hormone crash that happens in the early days, why would you or anyone else suggest that she’s wrong to give it a try?

    • littlez2008 says:

      I wondered about the protein in Mark Kristal’s quote, too. I thought it was a little weird that he said cooking destroyed protein, but he might have actually been referring to the whole dehydration process. How much protein would be in one capsule anyway? You’d really have to eat the placenta to get the protein, I think.

      But as far as your question about “why are large numbers of well educated, mainstream people willing to pay a whole lot for organic, synthetic hormone-free beef?” I’d say the answer is that they have money to burn. If you have evidence that hormone-free meat is better, let me know.

      How are you “in contact with the FDA”? Can you point out some reference or link to illustrate what you’re talking about?

      Look, if there is a benefit to the hormones, if they survive the dehydrating process, if the dose in a capsule is large enough, and if the body can actually metabolize it, that would be great. That’s a lot of IFs.

      Since there is no evidence that any of that is true, what you have is someone saying, “Hey, this might work!” and then offering it for a price to clients who need actual help. So we could really just grind up anything and claim it helps anything. And actually, a lot of alternative medicine is exactly that–just made up stuff.

      You don’t think there are placenta preparers who would advise against anti-depressants? How do you know?

      And how do we know that the placenta can “strengthen” a mother? There’s no evidence for it, beyond testimonials, which are kind of suspect when they’re on the site of a person who’s making money preparing placentas. The fact that the placenta is a “product of her own body” is obvious, but it doesn’t mean it’s helpful for the mother to eat it.

      I wouldn’t suggest any woman is wrong to try this. They’re well within their rights to do it. If a mother think it’s empowering or spiritual or just cool or whatever, awesome. If she has an extra $275 just looking for a home, why shouldn’t she eat placenta pills? Go for it, I say. If But I don’t see proof that it does any good, healthwise. And the potential harm is lost money and a substitute for real solution, in the case of PPD.

      What I’ve done here is do some research, come up with no evidence to back this practice, and then quoted experts who are legitimately concerned about its potential harm as an ineffective substitute treatment for PPD. Rather than asking if a mother wrong to try this, I’m asking whether it’s ethical for a business to claim that this works, when there is no proof that it works. We wouldn’t stand for that kind of unfounded claim from a pharmaceutical company. Why give alternative medicine a pass?

      If you look at the claims on websites advertising placenta preparation, they’re very careful to say, “Some people believe” instead of outright claiming possible benefits. But then the catch is that they can claim ANYthing. Sara’s site claims that “some even believe” placenta capsules can “heal bone breaks” or “with any type of trauma or life’s many transitions.”

      Okay, prove it. People can believe that Santa comes every year, too.

      • Chris says:

        If she has an extra $275 just looking for a home, why shouldn’t she eat placenta pills? Go for it, I say.

        Probably okay for the first baby. If she is having a second baby, especially if the oldest is a toddler, a better use for that kind of money is someone to watch the older child. I personally thought it was cash well spent to have someone watch the two year old, do some dishes, sweep the floors and do laundry during the first two to three weeks after dad had to get back to work (more if possible).

    • ” if cooking meat “will destroy all the protein and the hormones” then why does anyone eat any meat at all?”

      We eat to gain energy and to acquire the building blocks to create the components of the human body. We break down animal proteins to their constituent amino acids and then use them to build human muscle, proteins, hormones, etc.

      Advocates of placentophagia base their claims of benefits on the notion that large, biologically active molecules can survive the acid environment of the stomach intact and be absorbed intact from the intestine. Everything we know about digestion indicates that this is virtually impossible.

  6. Simon says:

    At the risk of questioning one of the few people who passes as an expert in this field. Are the quoted comments from Mark Kristal supported elsewhere?

    Cooking doesn’t destroy (all!) protein in commonly eaten meats, and I assume the effects on hormones will depend on the chemical structure of the hormone in question. I believe (I couldn’t find a reference) that thyroid hormone will survive light frying of the thyroid gland, since I recall this was one of the preparations done on sheep thyroids before standardised desiccated preparations became available. Since light frying is all I’ve heard of for cooking placentas….

    I can quite believe more complex hormones like Insulin are inactivated more easily by heat. Still butchers remove animal thyroids and some other glands because if you put them in beef burgers or sausages people get ill effects from the hormones.

    Not that this provides any evidence in support for eating placentas, I’m simply skeptical that cooking would completely destroy protein and hormones.

    • littlez2008 says:

      I did not research much further on this, so I have all these same questions. I don’t think there is any research on placentas specifically, but maybe on ordinary meats. Maybe hormones do survive the dehydration process. Is the dose in a placenta capsule enough to matter? Would the body be able to metabolize it? And is that actually a treatment for PPD or anything else? Those would be the next questions.

      Hey, maybe it would work. The point for me right now isn’t that it’s impossible. It’s just implausible and there’s no proven benefit. So that means there’s potential harm, if this is a complete quack cure (and yeah, I think it is) that women will seek help, not get it, and then suffer from PPD anyway, with all the potential harm that PPD entails.

  7. MmeZeeZee says:

    Ugh, you HAD to link placentophagia with home-birth, neither of which are “natural” as in, unrelated to cultural practices and human invention. Homes aren’t “natural”. Eating your own organs isn’t “natural”. We know there is a colony of people out there following some mystic, undefined cult of the “natural” and that they are generally not the most critical thinkers. However, not everything they do is only done by them, and even though they might do it for their own mystical reasons, there may also be good reasons to do that very thing.

    It’s weird, we don’t know anything about it, you shouldn’t eat a human organ prepared by somebody you don’t know that you met over the Internet, but people do it because PPD is just so incredibly awful and sometimes deadly that they’ll do anything, ANYTHING, to avoid it. (Guess what–you will find this shocking–Zoloft doesn’t work for everyone. In the best trials, it’s never effective for more than 75% of the group, and in some uses it’s no better than a placebo.)

    “A mom ingests her placenta, feels energetic and empowered, and she does not suffer from depression or anxiety in the postpartum period. Worst case? A women is told that if she ingests her placenta she will not suffer from PPD. And so she does. This mom then goes on to suffer from debilitating anxiety an/or depression but she doesn’t speak up about it because, well, she “shouldn’t” feel this way since she ate her placenta and so this must just be her fault and she must just be a bad mom”

    You know… the same thing can happen with anti-depressants that aren’t working with a specific person. The doctor might just up the dosage, the same as the nacheral crazies. “Just have more. Increase your doses. I’ll send you some of mine.” “We’ll up your dose to X grams per day… so you’ll be taking this much.”

    The problem here is not the specific form of quackery, but the whole sub-set of advocates that will not tolerate dissent, criticism, questioning, or failure. If it’s not working for you, you’re doing it wrong. Or it’s not enough.

    But please. If you want to have your baby in a hospital, go ahead. Don’t pretend that somehow, everyone that uses homebirth (especially not with licensed, regulated, insured midwives in states with homebirth policies and transfer policies) are placenta-eaters.

    Amazing how on a science-supporting blog, there are still so many myths and generalizations like this thrown around.

    I’m awfully tired of reading so much over-generalization and ranting on parenting blogs. I came here for a breath of fresh air, and I get stereotypes and hysteria (eating your placenta could kill you because everyone knows a placentophag would never consult a doctor if eating a placenta wouldn’t work, because those three crazy nuts on the mommy board I frequent didn’t, therefore this is a mass movement of sheer crazy).

    Stick to the facts: this woman is not qualified to prepare food or supplements. Placenta is not proven to prevent or cure any disease (nor is any specific healthy food like fava beans, cabbage, or, say, lettuce, but let’s just ignore the fact that there’s a reason that only mass-produced expensive things have scientific trials to market them, not that I’m opposed to that, it’s just a fact since we don’t fund much scientific research in this country and leave it to the private sector). It’s gross to eat your own bodily organs. Okay that last one isn’t a fact. But it’s a generally accepted truth.

    But why do I bother. Everyone who questions anything about the medical establishment is bound to be “anti-science” (because doctors are just soooo scientific… as shown by their intense desire to support studies of placentophagia, right?) and therefore, self-indulgent.

    It sounds like someone trying to justify a visceral reaction by attaching this to a lot of other emotional issues.

    “he might have actually been referring to the whole dehydration process.”

    But dehydrating meat doesn’t remove the protein, either. Placenta-jerky, anyone?

    And finally: Please, nobody eat raw placenta. It passes right next to the anus. I have seen that on mommy boards and it’s without a doubt the grossest thing ever. Like sucking on a tampon, but worse, because you could theoretically get that out while the anus was covered, whereas with the placenta–hardly!

    (PS Sorry if this pseudonym is different from the one I used here before… can’t remember which one.)

  8. I know testimonials might not be the most scientific method of research, but I did my own experiment with this, and I found it to be truly sanity saving. I am a skeptic at heart, so it wasn’t that I thought it should work, I thought it shouldn’t do much of anything, which would work against the placebo effect in my opinion. But I did it just to see, and when I developed a severe case of anxiety about a week after my son was born I took two of the placenta pills and the anxiety faded, then returned about 8 hours later, so I took another couple of the pills, and it faded again. I did this for a few weeks until I was out of pills. I don’t know what the mechanism was, but there was definitely something to it. So much so, that I decided to learn how to do it and maybe be able to help a few other mamas out there. If they can’t afford my services I will always pass on directions for placenta preparation for free.
    I fear that people here are confusing lack of research with lack of benefit. We need to trust women. If they say they benefit from this why is that not enough? There is zero profit motive for research, since there is nothing to sell, every baby comes with a free placenta. Sadly, research almost universally follows profit potential.

    • Simon says:

      We need to trust women. If they say they benefit from this why is that not enough?

      It should be enough to motivate research.

      But I bet for every woman you can find with a positive anecdote I can find 100+ espousing the positive benefits of homoeopathy, but it is still worthless. As Novella so frequently expounds – the plural of anecdote is not data.

      I fear that people here are confusing lack of research with lack of benefit.

      The piece is about claims for the procedure for which there is no research. Making medical claims for a procedure or product without reasonable proof is unethical and may well be illegal.

      It cuts both ways you also need the research to show the benefits, otherwise it is no better than any other quack remedy.

      As regards no money in researching it, this can be a problem, but the medical profession research a lot of things that offer little or no direct monetary reward (e.g. Perineal massage).

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