Seriously, Don’t Eat Your Placenta

An Oregon woman inadvertently made her newborn very sick.

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Jun 30 2017, 7:31pm

Human placenta and umbilical cord steamed prior to dehydration. Raphaelle Picard/AFP/Getty Images

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We could go through the list of famous women who've done it—Google 'em if you want; they're predominantly rich and white—but let's just cut to the chase, huh? Eating your own placenta (that bloody sack your body expels after you push a baby out of your vagina) could be harmful to your newborn.

The news comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), in which doctors recount the case of a Portland, Oregon, woman who unknowingly sickened her baby after taking pills containing her own placenta.

Shortly after birth in September 2016, the baby started showing signs of respiratory distress and was ultimately admitted to the hospital with a case of late-onset group B Streptococcus agalactiae (GBS)—basically, a strep infection. The baby was sent home after 11 days of treatment—but was back in the hospital five days later with the same infection.

Three days into the baby's second hospitalization, doctors found out the breastfeeding mother had been taking placenta pills; she enlisted a company (only known as "Company A") to pick up and encapsulate her placenta for ingestion. She had been taking the pills, which consisted of her cleaned, sliced, and dehydrated placenta, two at a time, three times a day.

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A midwife prepares a placenta for encapsulation in her home. Photo: The Washington Post / Getty Images

Upon testing the pills, doctors found the same strep bacteria that the baby had been diagnosed with twice before. Doctors instructed the mother to stop taking the pills, and after 14 more days of treatment, the baby was sent home once again.

Though researchers can't completely rule out the possibility that other family members passed on the infection to the baby, they say it most likely resulted from the bacteria in the pills being passed along during nursing. And according to the CDC report, it's possible that the placenta wasn't processed correctly—lacking the time and temperature required to kill all bacteria.

But even through "proper" processing—which is used very loosely since "no standards exist for processing placenta for consumption," per the CDC—popping placenta pills or chugging a placenta smoothie likely won't do a damn thing for you or your baby. And because of the risks, the authors concluded: "placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided."

There's been very little research on the subject of placentophagy to begin with—the first popped up in 1954, which followed 210 women who ate their own placentas. Of the women, according to the study, "71 [had] very good results, 110 with good, and 29 with negative results;" but those "results" only referred to breast size and milk production. Oh, and those initial finding have yet to be replicated.

More recently, researchers at Northwestern University reviewed ten studies on the topic (four human, six animal) and found zero proof that consuming one's placenta has any positive effects on depression, lactation, maternal bonding, or pain relief (all claims made by placenta-eating proponents). And a 2016 study from the University of Nevada Las Vegas found that encapsulated placenta had no effect on a woman's postpartum iron levels compared to a placebo. Sharon Young, a co-author of the UNLV study, talked to the Associated Press about the new CDC report and said: "I've heard physicians say there's no benefit to doing it, that it's pointless. But I can't remember a statement so strongly advising against it, from a physician or anyone."

In conclusion: Is eating your placenta beneficial? No. Is it harmful? Potentially. Should you do it just because rich women and other mammals do? Absolutely not.

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