Despite the lack of scientific evidence to support perceived health benefits, the practice of placental placenta – or placentophagia – after delivery, has attracted attention in recent years with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Hillary Duff, who praise her influence on their postpartum health.
While the placenta – a body responsible for nursing and protecting the fetus during pregnancy that is expelled at birth – is usually consumed cooked, dehydrated or encapsulated in the form of pills, some advocates of practice even eat organic raw materials.
With several published studies on the subject, researchers at the University of Toronto began to learn who eats placenta and why.
Although placentaophages have traditionally been associated with births and natural births, study authors say that the practice is becoming more common in women giving birth to hospitals and asking their doctors to return their placenta back home.
The study published in the January issue of the Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecological and Neonatal Nursing used social media to engage Canadian and US participants in surveys and online discussions to measure their beliefs and motivations for placentophagia. The researchers also compare the demographic difficulties of the respondents to determine who is likely to participate in the practice.
Of the 1.088 participants, the survey showed that 271 (24 per cent of all respondents) said they had passed their placenta after delivery.
The authors of the study acknowledged that it was likely "overestimated" by women who ate their placenta in their findings, as they sought mothers in parenting groups on social media.
The researchers also found that American women – who make up the majority of survey participants – are more likely to eat their placenta (244 out of 271 respondents who say they joined in practice) than their Canadian counterparts (27 out of 271).
Women who have never experienced such pregnancy-related complications such as preeclampsia, postpartum bleeding, placenta previa, gestational diabetes, or newborn infancy have also been more likely to consume placenta than those with birth-related difficulties.
Another factor that seemed to have a significant impact on whether a woman is more likely to eat her placenta is the number of children mothers had before the study.
The study showed that participants are likely to engage in placentophagia after the birth of their second child.
The data collected in other demographic variables, such as the age of the respondents, household income, marital status, ethnicity, employment status and the population of living, are less related to their tendency towards placentophagia, according to the study.
The study found that women who ate their placenta were primarily motivated by "vague benefits", such as the prevention of postpartum depression and anemia.
Through research and online discussions with participants using Google Groups, the researchers learned that the interest in alternative health practices and the belief that the alleged health benefits of placentophagia are the most common causes of involvement in this practice.
Respondents indicated an increase in iron levels (50.6 per cent) and a reduction in postpartum depression (50.4 per cent) as the highest perceived benefit of consuming their own placenta.
Other purported benefits include increasing energy, improving lactation, relieving pain, and reducing vaginal bleeding after delivery, according to the participants' responses.
Regarding the risks associated with placentophagia, women have listed the unpleasant taste or smell as the highest negative effect following the possibility of infection and exposure to heavy metal or toxin.
As for the respondents who said they consume their placenta, they chose to do so, the study showed that the majority (21.4 per cent) said they believed that the proposed benefits outweigh the potential risks.
Among those who answered that they had never tried, the main reason for not eating placenta was that the idea of it was "tasteless."
In conclusion, researchers say their findings are a "comprehensive picture" of which benefits and risks are most important for women when it comes to placentophagia. The authors of the study said they hope information will provide the basis for future research on practice, in particular the recent concerns about the safety of infection from the preparation and handling of the placenta for consumption.
"Although placentaphages gain popularity, they remain unregulated, and safety and efficacy data are limited," the researchers write. "A safe, standardized preparation process is needed to minimize potential damage before further efficiency studies are made."
The researchers say that the women who participated in the study and joined the placentophagia were motivated by "vague benefits".
Council of Health in Canada:
In November, Health Canada advised mothers about the potential risks associated with getting the placenta. The agency has announced that at present there is no scientific evidence to support the health benefits of placentophagia.
"The human placenta is a biological material and it can contain infectious agents such as bacteria (for example, Group B Streptococcus) and viruses (eg Hepatitis, or HIV)," the statement said.
Computers Canada also said the process of preparation could introduce infectious bacteria or viruses in the placenta, which could lead to infections in mothers and their babies.
The advisory also quoted a case in the US – published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – in which the child was hospitalized for infection by a bacterium found in his mother's paternity pills.
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