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Are there health benefits to eating placenta?

Photo Credit: whattoexpect 7 mins read

Claim: Some social media users have claimed that eating the placenta provides lots of health benefits.

There is no scientific evidence that eating placenta has health benefits. Experts say the practice may be harmful.

Full Text

The placenta is an organ that forms on the wall of the uterus during pregnancy and is connected to the foetus by the umbilical cord. It acts as a transport system to deliver oxygen and nutrients from the mother’s blood to the developing child, all of which are essential for the growth and development of the baby.

When a mother gives birth, the placenta is also delivered. During vaginal delivery, the placenta comes out right after the baby, but in cases of cesarean delivery, the placenta is removed during surgery.

Immediately after childbirth, some hospitals and birthing centers treat placentas as medical waste, but in some cases (especially in Africa), families may opt to keep them. In some Nigerian cultures, placentas are regarded as sacred or special items. Families bury the placenta to celebrate their baby’s life or fulfil tradition. But in some places, people are increasingly embracing the practice of eating the placenta.

On 9th April 2021, a twitter user @iam_mystiquee recounted her experience from eating a placenta. “Placenta bangs hard sha. I keep saying this. I don’t know what makes it sweet but it’s the sweetest meat I’ve consumed till date,” she posted.

Screenshot of the Twitter post

The post wasn’t received well by some users who hurled attacks at her. However, the poster was rather unbothered. She rebuffed her critics, urging them to “eat that thing (placenta) and see the light”.

Screenshot: The user reinforces her claim

The post was circulated by many blogs and shared on social media, including Facebook. When Dubawa sighted it, the post had generated over 2,900 reactions, 1,900 comments and had been shared 178 times.

Screenshot of the blog post on Facebook

Reacting to the post, some users condemned the act, while others encourage it, citing health benefits.

One user said there is no harm in eating the placenta. “IT MEANS NO HARMS (sic). People who eat placenta say that it can raise your energy and breast milk quantity. They also say it can level off your hormones, lowering your chances of postpartum depression and insomnia,” he wrote.

A user supports the claim/practice, says it “means no harm”

Supporting the claim, another user said eating placenta is “medicinal and good for the body especially (for) nursing mothers”. He revealed that he had a culture of preparing placenta for his wife to eat after childbirth. “She gave birth to my third child last week and I cooked placenta for her and she ate it as usual,” he said.

Another user claims the eating the placenta is medicinal and good for nursing mothers

On the same thread, another user said eating the placenta has a lot of health benefits “according to research”.

Yet another claim for eating the placenta

Verification

With multiple users spreading the gospel of eating placenta and listing various mouth-watering health benefits, Dubawa decided to research the subject and made interesting findings.

The human placenta

People eat placentas. Here’s how and why they do it!

The act of eating the placenta is officially known as “placentophagy”. Originally a practice amongst animals, Dubawa has found that placentophagy has also been adopted by humans. 

People who eat the placenta say it gives health benefits. They believe it can prevent anaemia, help increase milk supply, balance hormones and lower the chances of postpartum depression in women.

This blog says the valuable nutrients stored inside a healthy placenta are beneficial for human consumption. “One can get the richness of vitamins and minerals like B12, B6, and iron by consuming the placenta,” it reads. It also professes other benefits such as improving brain function, skin beauty, hair growth and reducing stress, anxiety and pain “by stimulating corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)”.

This practice has been adopted by many in different societies, mostly women, including Kourtney and Kim Kardashian, January JonesMayim BialikAlicia Silverstone and Chrissy Teigen.

The most popular method of placenta consumption is encapsulation, in which the placenta is dried, grinded into fine powder and put into a capsule. While some people would eat it raw, others prefer it cooked, roasted or blended into a smoothie. Would you like some placenta smoothie?

Are claims of these health benefits true? Experts react.

People who engage in the practice believe it has numerous health benefits. But how true are these claims?

Studies have shown that eating the placenta carries no health benefits. Researchers at Northwestern University School of Medicine reviewed 10 published research studies on the practice and found no scientific evidence to support the common claims that eating the placenta in any form provides any clinical benefits. 

The study noted that the practice “offers no protection against postpartum depression, reduces post-delivery pain, boosts energy, helps with lactation, promotes skin elasticity, enhances maternal bonding, or replenishes iron in the body”.

Contrary to beliefs of health benefits associated with placentophagy, the practice poses harmful risks, says Dr. Jen Gunter, an obstetrician and gynecologist. “Placentas are often colonized with bacteria. Many are infected. As a general rule, it’s best not to eat something that is potentially teeming with bacteria, many of which may be pathogenic, meaning they can cause disease,” she said.

Following a reported case of neonatal sepsis linked to maternal handling or ingestion of encapsulated placenta contaminated with the bacteria group B streptococcus, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caution people against the intake of placenta capsules, as they may contain infectious pathogens. 

“Placentophagy is potentially harmful with no documented benefit, counseling women should be directive: physicians should discourage this practice.” It adds that “in response to a woman who expresses an interest in placentophagy, physicians should inform her about the reported risks and the absence of clinical benefits associated with the ingestion.” 

Dr. Jerry Agim, a gynaecologist at the National Hospital, Abuja, who spoke to Dubawa, said there was a possibility of the presence of protein contents in placenta, but held that it was not safe for consumption. 

He said: “Just like other animal’s flesh, the placenta will provide protein when eaten, just as people eat meat, blood and bones of animals which are sources of protein and calcium. 

“But one can also get infected too from ingesting animal flesh or fluid. Why will one leave other protein sources and settle for a placenta? That’s cannibalism.”

Dr. Ajim also rejected claims that placenta consumption reduces stress, improves brain function, skin beauty, hair growth and other benefits professed by persons who indulge in the practice.

“Of all the hormones produced by the placenta, there is no one with an antidepressant effect that I know of. Even if there’s one, cooking the placenta will destroy it. You know once the placenta is cooked, the proteins, enzymes and hormones are no longer functional, so how will it help with skin?” he said.

“So you see, it’s in their head. Their belief is playing a trick on them, which is very possible what one’s beliefs can do to them.”

He adds that “the natural estrogen and progesterone from the placenta is metabolised and inactivated in the liver. So if the estrogen escapes being totally destroyed by heat, the liver will finish them off”. 

“Any medication taken orally passes through the liver and is metabolised by it in a process called first pass metabolism. So, not all the dosage taken will get to the blood for action. Also, the activities of some chemicals, medications are stopped by degradation of these substances in the liver,” he said.

Medical Uses of Placenta

Away from ingestion and other forms of placental consumption, Dubawa found that the placenta plays a unique role in clinical research. In countries like the United State of America, placenta donated by mothers are collected and stored for the purpose of surgery and medical research in regenerative medicine.

In severe medical conditions requiring the replacement of the patient’s blood and immune system, hematopoietic stem cells collected from placenta blood are used in the transplants. This has also been effective in clinical trials for neurologic conditions that occur in young children, such as cerebral palsy and autism. 

The placenta also possesses healing properties and has been used in ophthalmic procedures. Eye surgeons employ the use of the human placenta in procedures to repair damaged eyes. After delivery, the placenta is harvested to collect the amniotic membrane (or amnion) which is the inner layer of the placenta. Amnion can assist in ophthalmic surgeries, including the treatment of various eye wounds such as burns and infectious diseases.

Dr. Charlotte Wedge, the chief of ophthalmology at Toronto East General Hospital in Canada, says amnion acts much like a skin graft – healing wounds faster, with less scarring.

“It has qualities that quiet inflammation. It represses new vessels from growing and causing inflammation and scarring,” she said.

Researchers at Yonsei University in South Korea have also found that human placental extract (HPE) had the power to heal skin wounds, such as burns, ulcers and skin imperfections. Direct applications of these placental extracts not only promoted wound healing but also accelerated the process.

Conclusion

There are multiple claims that eating the placenta has health benefits, but research has shown that there is no evidence to support these claims. Instead, health experts and clinical researchers say placenta consumption could be dangerous and warn about the potential risks, owing to its bacterial and toxin constituents.

Despite these ills, Dubawa found that placenta also has important medical uses. It plays a unique role in healing surgeries and is contributing to giant strides in regenerative medicine and clinical research.

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