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Why do women eat their own placentas? Canadian study seeks to find out
Despite a lack of scientific evidence to support the perceived health benefits, the practice of consuming placenta – or placentophagy – after childbirth has gained attention in recent years with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Hilary Duff praising its impact on their postpartum health.
While the placenta – the organ responsible for nourishing and protecting a fetus during pregnancy that is expelled at birth – is typically consumed cooked, dehydrated, or encapsulated in pill form, some proponents of the practice even eat the organ raw.
With few published studies on the topic, researchers from the University of Toronto set out to study who was eating placenta and why.
Although placentophagy has been traditionally associated with home births and natural childbirths, the study’s authors said the practice is becoming increasingly common among women who give birth in hospitals and ask their doctors for their placenta to take home.
The study – published in the January issue of the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing – used social media to engage participants in Canada and the U.S. in a cross-sectional survey and online discussions in order to gauge their beliefs and motivations about placentophagy. The researchers also compared the respondents’ demographic backgrounds to determine who was most likely to partake in the practice.
Of the 1,088 participants, the survey found that 271 (24 per cent of all respondents) said they had consumed their own placenta following childbirth.
The study’s authors acknowledged there was most likely an “overestimate” of women who ate their own placenta in their findings because they sought mothers in social media parenting groups.
The researchers also found that American women – who made up the majority of participants in the survey – were significantly more likely to eat their placenta (244 of 271 respondents who said they had engaged in the practice) than their Canadian counterparts (27 of 271).
Women who had never experienced such pregnancy-related complications as preeclampsia, postpartum hemorrhage, placenta previa, gestational diabetes, or an infant NICU stay, were also more likely to consume their placenta than those who had birth-related difficulties.
Another factor that appeared to have a significant impact on whether a woman was more likely to eat her own placenta was the number of children the mothers’ had prior to the survey.
The study found that participants were more likely to engage in placentophagy following the birth of their second child.
The data collected on other demographic variables, such as the respondents’ age, household income, marital status, ethnicity, employment status, and population of residence, were less associated with their propensity for placentophagy, according to the study.
The study found that women who ate their own placenta were primarily motivated by “unproven benefits,” such as the prevention of postpartum depression and anemia.
Through the survey and online discussions with participants using Google Groups, the researchers learned that an interest in alternative health practices and the belief that the alleged health benefits of placentophagy were the most common reasons for engaging in the practice.
Respondents listed increasing iron levels (50.6 per cent) and decreasing postpartum depression (50.4 per cent) as the top perceived benefits of consuming their own placenta.
Other supposed benefits included increasing energy, improving lactation, pain relief, and decreased vaginal bleeding after delivery, according to the participants’ answers.
In terms of the risks associated with placentophagy, women cited the unpleasant taste or smell as the highest perceived negative effect followed by the possibility of infection, and exposure to heavy metal or toxin.
As for why the respondents who said they did consume their own placenta chose to do it, the study found that the majority (21.4 per cent) said they believed the proposed benefits outweighed the potential risks.
Among those who responded they had never tried it, the top reason for not eating placenta was that the idea of it was “unappetizing.”
In conclusion, the researchers said their findings present a “comprehensive picture” of what benefits and risks are most important to women when it comes to placentophagy. The study’s authors said they hope the information will provide a foundation for future research on the practice, particularly recent safety concerns about infections from preparing and handling placenta for consumption.
“Although placentophagy is gaining popularity, it remains unregulated, and safety and efficacy data are limited,” the researchers wrote. “A safe, standardized preparation process is needed to minimize potential harm before further efficacy studies can be done.”
The researchers said the women who participated in the study and engaged in placentophagy were motivated by “unproven benefits.”
Health Canada advisory:
In November, Health Canada advised mothers of the potential risks associated with consuming placenta. The agency said there is currently no scientific evidence to support health benefits from placentophagy.
“Human placenta is a biologic material and can contain infectious agents such as bacteria (eg Group B Streptococcus) and viruses (eg hepatitis, or HIV),” the safety alert said.
Health Canada also said the preparation process may introduce infectious bacteria or viruses into the placenta, which can lead to infections in mothers and their babies.
The advisory also cited a case in the U.S – reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – in which an infant was hospitalized for an infection from a bacteria found in his mother’s placenta pills.