Should I eat my placenta?

Well, not my placenta exactly, but … well, someone’s?

Did you now that the placenta that is born out of a female primate’s body is an organ of the infant also being born? It is the first body part you lose. I use the term “primate” here because, even though all the “placental mammals” as we are called share some basic reproductive gestational anatomy, there are major categories across the mammals in this area, and primates are distinct from, for example, carnivores. These differences are of course very important when one is considering placentophagy. I mean, you wouldn’t confuse a walnut with an orange when picking a snack, why would you confuse a dog placenta with a monkey placenta?

In humans and mice, and presumably therefore in all mammals, the placenta and the rest of the embryo/fetus have growth patterns that are controlled at some basic level by two distinct developmental genes, each of which has the property of methylation. This is an epigenetic phenomenon for those who like to see that word in use. Here’s what happens. The gene that engenders growth of the placenta is turned on by dad’s allele, turned off by Mom’s. The gene that engenders growth of the rest of the embryo is turned on by mom, off by dad.

The idea here is that mom and dad have difference interests in the outcome. Mom wants to have an optimal (not maximal) number of offspring, so she parses out energy appropriately. Dad wants to have more offspring than mom, using a number of different moms if possible. Thus, he wants the growing embryo and fetus to suck as much energy out of each mom as it can.

The Placenta is the energy-sucking organ. It insinuates itself greedily into the blood supply of the mother, like an alien internal parasite. The mother’s body resists the introduction of placental tissues into her blood supply, the placenta fights back, and the result is a compromise which usually works out. Part of that compromising system, over long term evolutionary time, has been them other’s systematic turning off of the gene that she provides instantiating the growth of the placenta. Dad counters by turning off the fetus/embryo gene. And so on.

Anyway, should I eat my placenta or not?

Across cultures, there are many different practices associated with child birth that have to do with the placenta. Among one group I worked with in the Congo, the Placenta is buried under the threshold of the hut in which the birth happens. This is done by the father. That, and having a sharpened arrow handy to cut the cord, are his only jobs during child birth. But nobody eats the placenta.

I normally don’t pay a lot of attention to the “complementary and alternative medicine” literature, thought I am sent regular notices of various publications. Today, though, something came across my desk that I thought you’d be interested in. I’ll give some of the basic results, you can draw your own conclusions. Feel free to comment below. The topic is, of course, placentophagy.

The Paper:

Schuette Stephanie A., Brown Kara M., Cuthbert Danielle A., Coyle Cynthia W., Wisner Katherine L., Hoffman M. Camille, Yang Amy, Ciolino Jody D., Newmark Rebecca L., and Clark Crystal T.. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. January 2017, 23(1): 60-67. doi:10.1089/acm.2016.0147.

Methods:

Two cross-sectional surveys with questions regarding placentophagy practice were distributed to healthcare providers and patients. The provider survey was distributed via email listservers to international perinatal professional organizations and to obstetrics and gynecology, nurse midwifery, family medicine, and psychiatry departments at three urban hospitals. Patient surveys were administered in person at an urban hospital in Chicago, Illinois.

Key results that jumped out at me:

Higher income, higher education, and whiteness seem to be associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in placentophagy, with various degrees of effect.

The most likely kid of provider to suggest considering this practice are midwives, with all the other kinds of providers (physicians and nurses, mainly) being in the main unlikely to suggest it. Sample sizes are small, but 100% of the 66 OB/GYN’s asked said no, they would not suggest this. For nurses, with only 16 in the sample, two thirds said no, they would not, and one third were neutral. Non said they would suggest it. Among Midwives, only 17.6% said they were unlikely, and 29.4% said likely, the rest being neutral.

The survey looked at multiple locations but with enough in Denver and Chicago to identify a vague pattern: A provider in Denver is slightly more likely to thing this a good idea.

The study looked at history of mental health diagnosis. 7.4% of those with no such history said they would consider placentophagy. 24.3% of those with such a history said yes. Across the board, asking about what form they would consider eating the placenta in, or if they thought there was this or that benefit, those with a history of mental health diagnosis generally thought it was good, low risk, and they would try a variety of methods.

There is no evidence that placentophagy has a benefit.

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7 thoughts on “Should I eat my placenta?

  1. Hi, Greg! Former Science Blogger Doc Bushwell here. That’s a neat summary of the interplay of maternal and paternal genes in placental and fetal development, and yes, the placenta is a pretty amazing organ! I tripped up on your use of the word methalization, however. I believe you mean methylation as epigenetic processes rely on enzyme-catalyzed transfer of a methyl group to specific nucleotides in the DNA strand.

    This over-educated white woman was not inclined to eat the placentas produced after the birth (<=heh) of my 2 spawn. However, I will forever regret not having the forethought of arranging to have one of my colleagues come over to the hospital with an ice bucket to collect the placenta from my second kid's birth. At the time, I was involved with research on steroidogenic enzymes. The human placenta is a rich source of aromatase, an enzyme that gives rise to the estrogens, and in those days before aromatase could be readily expressed using recombinant DNA technology, I – or rather my placenta – could have supplied the lab with human aromatase for at least a year!

    1. Doc: You are correct, my mistake, correcting the term.

      I also helped save and ship around some placentas back in the day when mtDNA was the most common type of DNA to use in phylogenetic analysis, an the highly active placenta had mtDNA flying out of it. Of course, methods have improved since then.

  2. dean @3: Certified Nurse Midwives generally have the same efficacy as OBs in normal deliveries (safety et al) and are cheaper, so more can be employed at one location which improves quality of care.

    CNMs should not be confused with other types of midwives, including the uncertified and those that assist with high-risk home births.

    (One of the OB/GYNs I went to school with could not praise the CNMs at his practice highly enough, or say enough nasty things about the skectchy home-birthers. CNMs usually practice out of hospitals or medical birthing centers.)

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