In a quest to ease the emotional, physical and mental transformation that comes with giving birth, some Canadian women are eating their own placentas, a dubitable practice that promises to increase their milk supply, buoy their spirits and reduce their postpartum recovery time.
Thanks to its numerous and vocal proponents including Kim Kardashian, placenta encapsulation — once solely the domain of the crunchiest of hippies — has transformed from what was once considered a bizarre, fringe practice into a lucrative field in North America.
While it’s impossible to say exactly how many Canadian women are opting for the service, doula and placenta encapsulator Rean Cross of Toronto has seen a huge surge in interest since she started doing it in 2009.
“I went from doing one a month in the first year and a half, to three or four a month and then very soon after that three or four a week,” she tells Yahoo Canada News. “It’s been at that level ever since.”
Meaghan Grant, one of the founders of Toronto Family Doulas, said her company recently added placenta encapsulation to its list of services in response to increased demand.
“There has always been a small number of women asking for [placenta encapsulation],” she said. “I think it was something that a lot of women were peripherally aware of, but thought it was something the crunchy-hippie community does. Then they saw that Kim Kardashian had done it, and then lots of news agencies ran stories about how January Jones had done it, and Gaby Hoffmann, and the Mowry twins had done it. These are all A-list celebrities who have the best pre- and postnatal services, money, doulas, nannies and all the support in the world and they are still making this choice. I think people started to go, ‘Hmm, maybe there’s something to this.’”
Placenta encapsulation, of which there are several different techniques, involves dehydrating, grinding and encapsulating the placenta soon after birth so the new mother may ingest the capsules. One or two capsules are taken at a time three times a day for the first couple of weeks, after which the woman is advised to take a capsule a day or as needed. The service costs approximately $200-250.
The placenta is an organ that grows in the uterus during pregnancy and acts as the site of oxygen, nutrient and waste exchange between mom and baby. The placenta attaches to the wall of the uterus and connects to the baby via the umbilical cord. After the baby is born the placenta is naturally expelled from the uterus.
Among the many benefits reported by those who have had their placenta encapsulated are increased milk production, more energy, less “baby blues” and decreased pain and bleeding. In traditional Chinese medicine, the placenta is thought to strengthen one’s life force and is steamed with lemon, ginger and chilies in a method still used by some Canadian placenta encapsulators.
The research, however, is less conclusive than the practice’s proponents. A 2015 review of the literature on placentophagy — the eating of placentas — looked at the body of existing research on the practice among humans and animals. The review highlighted just how little research there is on human ingestion of placenta and concluded that there is not enough evidence to support the practice. Of particular concern to study authors was the preparation of the placenta. If consumed raw or processed improperly, infection or food-borne illness poses a threat.
However, contends Cross, when prepared professionally there exists little risk.
“The Health Canada standards for cooking meat, if they are observed in placenta encapsulation, make it safe.”
Health Canada, on the other hand, maintains that placenta encapsulation is a yet unregulated practice and as such, carries risks.
“Health Canada has not received an application for any such products, and has therefore not reviewed them for evidence of safety and efficacy,” a representative told Yahoo Canada News. “The practice of encapsulating dehydrated human placenta intended for consumption can present a risk of bacterial and viral contamination, in particular due to the potential for cross contamination between batches of placenta if the equipment used to process them is not properly cleaned, and sterilized. For instance, it may be possible to contaminate equipment used to process placentas if one of the placentas being processed is infected with a transmissible disease.”
In order to become a placenta encapsulator Grant said she must attend a two-day workshop, undergo interviews, write several tests, provide reviews from clients and undertake a blood-borne pathogens training course. Because her equipment is too large to be sterilized in an autoclave, when her company begins providing placenta encapsulation services in March she will be using bleach and water to sanitize the tools she carries to each woman’s home.
Though unavailable for comment when contacted, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada has said in the past that it believes placenta encapsulation to be a “personal decision” to be made on an individual basis. None of the obstetricians contacted by Yahoo Canada News was willing to speak on the record about placenta encapsulation, though traditionally physicians have been critical of the practice.
Cross and Grant believe there needs to be more research on the benefits and health concerns of ingesting placenta pills. Both cited a yet unreleased study conducted by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, a randomized, double-blind placebo trial, that was looking into the effectiveness of placenta pills vs. placebos against a range of physical metrics.
“We would love to see evidence,” said Grant, addressing the dearth of research on placenta encapsulation. “It would be very helpful to have a study concerning safety, especially in regards to the different types of preparation. I would love to see studies that look into whether or not the systems we’re using right now to clean our equipment are adequate. We believe they are.”