Kim and Kourtney Kardashian have tried them. So have January Jones and Holly Madison. And in recent years, more and more new moms in Toronto are popping vitamin-sized capsules of dried, ground placenta.
It’s a trend various members of the medical community are noticing among new moms. Advocates tout the potential — albeit unproven — health benefits of the pills, from reduced rates of post-partum depression to a post-birth energy boost. At the same time, some health professionals are raising red flags about the possible health risks surrounding preparing and consuming the organ that nourishes a growing fetus.
Meaghan Grant and Alexandra Weinberger, co-owners of Toronto Family Doulas, are rolling out “placenta encapsulation” as a major service starting March 1, partially thanks to rising demand.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in requests from our regular doula clients,” says Grant.
The supplement-sized capsules are made from the woman’s own placenta, which is expelled following the birth of her child. Moms who’ve tried the pills report an increase in milk supply and a sense of balanced hormones, Grant says.
Melanie Pereira, a 36-year-old mother of two from Mississauga, used the pills back in 2011 after the birth of her second child and sensed a boost in her emotion levels and milk production. “I felt amazing,” she says. “I really, really did.”
While she knows it could be a placebo effect, Pereira thinks it’s “wonderful” placenta pills have become more accessible to women in recent years, given the potential benefits.
Weinberger acknowledges there’s only anecdotal evidence about the efficacy of eating placenta.
In fact, despite the growing popularity of placenta pills, none of the limited amount of scientific research available shows any benefits from the practice.
A 2015 Northwestern Medicine review of 10 published studies on placentophagy — as in, ingesting the placenta — didn’t turn up any human or animal data to back up claims that consuming placenta in pill or other forms reduces post partum depression, boosts energy or aids in the increased production of breast milk.
None of the studies looked into the possible risks of ingesting the organ.
“There’s really no research in humans of any benefit (of ingesting the placenta) that’s been published — there’s nothing,” says Dr. Amanda Selk, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Women’s College Hospital. “And we don’t have any safety data either.”
Selk noticed a growing interest in placenta capsules among her patients. She encourages them to make up their own mind about what to do with their placenta after giving birth. But she says women should consider the limited research and possible risks.
“When you deliver, there are a lot of body fluids close together. You might have a bowel movement and it might touch the placenta. We can’t promise it’s not contaminated,” she says.
The practice of ingesting the placenta caused a stir in Europe in 2014, with the European Food Safety Authority classifying the organ as a “novel food.” Lawyers said the move undermined women’s rights to decide what to do with their bodies, according to the Independent. And last year, the BBC reported on a British doula who faced a ban on using raw placenta to make smoothies from her local authority, on the grounds that it was a risk to public health.
But on both sides of the pond, advocates stand by the practice. Kelly Maslen, who’s been a Toronto doula for around nine years, was an early supporter of placenta encapsulation. While she agrees there’s little research surrounding the service just yet, the feedback she’s received from women is “phenomenal.”
Since Maslen started offering placental encapsulation in 2008, she’s made placenta pills for upwards of 800 women, offering the service at client’s residences or preparing the pills in her own home. Women are provided around 90 to 200 capsules, depending on the size of the placenta. “It’s created this baby, this life — so many nutrients go into the placenta, the vitamins, minerals, hormones,” Maslen says.
One study, published in 2000 in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, assessed the protein, fat, minerals, and hormones in heat-dried human placenta, and found mineral levels were high — particularly for sodium, potassium and phosphorus.
Maslen’s goal is to take away the “ick” factor for women, and she prepares placentas in one of two ways. The traditional Chinese approach involves steaming the organ with chili, lemon and ginger before it’s dried in a meat dehydrator for around 10 to 24 hours, ground up in a high-end blender, and put into capsules.
Most advocates recommend taking one or two pills three times a day for the first two weeks after giving birth, then one or two pills a day as needed.
There’s also a newer, raw method of dehydrating the placenta at a lower temperature.
“People demand having a raw placenta so they feel that the nutrients haven’t been destroyed by heat,” says Maslen, regarding those who prefer the raw method.
Maslen charges $175 to turn the placenta into pills, and for $220 she’ll pick-up and deliver to her clients.
Weinberger and Grant say their upcoming placenta encapsulation service won’t involve them transporting the organ, but will instead be a service offered within a client’s home, in line with guidelines from a new placenta encapsulation certification program from the ProDoula certification organization.
Grant, a mother of two, says she’ll definitely be encapsulating her placenta if she has a third baby. “Well, Alex will do it,” she clarifies. “In my own home.”
The business partners say that, besides high demand, their second reason for launching a service now is the new ProDoula guidelines, which include a stipulation that the service is offered within a client’s home — meaning the pair brings their own dyhyrator and grinder to each mom’s kitchen. It’s a method Weinberger and Grant feel is more appropriate than preparing the pills in their own homes, a technique used by various other doulas.
“Because the placenta is leaving the client’s house, she doesn’t know 100 per cent that the placenta she’s getting back is her own,” Weinberger says.
Regardless of where placenta pills are prepared, there simply isn’t research available yet on safe preparation, says Dr. Selk. “We don’t actually know what’s safe — what preparation is safe, if high temperatures would kill bacteria and viruses,” Selk says.
Toronto lactation consultant Michelle Pensa Branco calls the issue of infection control “pretty scary,” and says the risk is becoming more urgent as the number of women requesting the pills increases. She also questions whether home kitchens, rather than medical facilities, are a safe place to be preparing placenta pills since they aren’t subject to Public Health inspections like restaurants and hospitals.
Branco says her concerns aren’t about scaring women, but rather encouraging them to consider the possible risks and lack of concrete research that the placenta pills actually work.
“Without evidence,” she says, “is this a reasonable tradeoff?”