More and more moms are trying placenta pills to relieve postpartum ills--but are they right for you?

Credit: Blaine Moats

Could the organ that protected and fed your baby for the past nine months hold the key to an easier postpartum period? That's the belief behind one of the hottest new-mom trends in Hollywood--turning the placenta into pills, to be taken several times daily in the hopes of improving breast milk supply, minimizing postpartum depression, and speeding up recovery.

And that's the reason that stars like January Jones, Mayim Bialik, Holly Madison and (allegedly) Kim Kardashian have ingested their placenta after they gave birth.

Eating your own placenta may sound seriously nasty, but some decades-old studies suggested that placentophagy (the fancier term for placenta eating) can boost a new mom's energy, encourage uterine healing, minimize depression, and improve milk production. Unfortunately, those are all claims that are pretty hard to quantify in a rigorous scientific study. "It's a field that's going to be very difficult to research, in terms of measurable outcomes," says Siobhan Kubesh, a certified midwife with OB-GYN North in Austin. "We can't measure these outcomes of increased energy and avoidance of postpartum depression''what they're getting from it is not something we can understand or measure. But the women who are taking it swear by it."

Experts question whether it's that effective--especially if it's encapsulated, a process that often involves cooking, dehydrating, and then grinding the placenta into a powder that's loaded into pill caplets and taken several times daily. "There's no benefits I've read from placentophagy that you can't put down to the placebo effect," says Titi Otunla, a certified nurse midwife at Texas Children's Pavilion for Women in Houston. "There's iron, protein, vitamins, and hormones in the placenta, but the way that most women would prepare it, a lot of those things are lost."

And another concern is the safety of eating the placenta, for both Mom and baby. "While the placenta is in utero, it's almost like a filter, filtering out things the baby shouldn't get, including bacteria--and then you're going to ingest it," Otunla says. "It doesn't sound right to eat something that was used to get rid of some not-so-good things."

Even proponents are concerned that certain birthing situations may render the placenta unusable. "Sometimes birth is very messy," Kubesh says. "I would discourage moms from eating it if stool came in contact with the placenta during birth, or if the mother had an infection during birth. You don't want to reintroduce that bacteria into your body."

While some moms DIY their own pills, many turn to services, largely small operations run by other women, to process the placenta into usable pills. But experts raise questions about the safety of this as well, as these placenta encapsulation services often have little training in food safety and no oversight. "I have a feeling that the FDA or another government organization will soon be looking into the safety of it, and whether it can continue to happen," Otunla says. "They're promising that it has all of these benefits, and there is no research that is going to back it up." Whether you send your placenta away for encapsulation or have it done in your own kitchen, it can be difficult to ensure that it's being safely prepared--or that it's even your placenta that you're getting, or a very expensive placebo.

But the concerns about safety and effectiveness haven't stopped moms from trying it out. Solid numbers are hard to come by (especially as many moms may not share the info with their more squeamish pals), but anecdotally, some OBs and midwives suggest that the numbers are growing ever larger. "Ten years ago, I would say I had a few a year who were encapsulating their placentas, but now it's a few a month," Kubesh says. "It's undoubtedly growing."

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