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Human placentophagy, or consumption of the placenta, is defined as, “The ingestion of a human placenta postpartum, at any time, by any person, either in raw or altered (e.g., cooked, dried, steeped in liquid) form.” Numerous historical occurrences of placentophagy have been recorded throughout the world, whereas modern occurrences of placentophagy are rare since most contemporary societies do not promote its practice. Since the 1970s, however, consumption of the placenta believing that it has health benefits has been a growing practice among clients of midwives and alternative-health advocates in the U.S. and Mexico.
Placentophagy can be divided into two categories, maternal placentophagy and non-maternal placentophagy.
Maternal placentophagy is defined as, “a mother’s ingestion of her own placenta postpartum, in any form, at any time.” Maternal placentophagy most frequently occurs among animals, particularly placental Eutherian (as compared to monotreme and marsupial) mammals. Of the more than 4000 species of Eutherian mammals, there are only a handful that do not regularly engage in maternal placentophagy, including modern humans.
Non-maternal placentophagy is defined as, “the ingestion of the placenta by any person other than the mother, at any time.” Such instances of placentophagy have been attributed to the following: a shift toward carnivorousness at parturition, specific hunger, and general hunger. With most Eutherian mammals, the placenta is consumed postpartum by the mother. Historically, humans more commonly consume the placenta of another woman under special circumstances.
In a 1979 volume of the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, William Ober’s article “Notes on Placentophagy,” evaluates the possibility that certain ancient cultures that practiced human sacrifice may also have practiced human placentophagy, including Egyptians, Tasians, Badarians, Amrateans, Gerzeans, Semainians.
Human placenta has been used traditionally in Chinese medicine, though the mother is not identified as the recipient of these treatments. A sixteenth-century Chinese medical text, the Compendium of Materia Medica, states in a section on medical uses of the placenta that, “when a woman in Liuqiu has a baby, the placenta is eaten,” and that in Bagui, “the placenta of a boy is specially prepared and eaten by the mother’s family and relatives.” Another Chinese medical text, the Great Pharmacopoeia of 1596, recommends placental tissue mixed with human milk to help overcome the effects of Ch’i exhaustion. These include, “anemia, weakness of the extremities, and coldness of the sexual organs with involuntary ejaculation of semen.” Dried, powdered placenta would be stirred into three wine-cups of milk to make a Connected Destiny Elixir. The elixir would be warmed in sunlight, then taken as treatment. It is not known exactly how traditional this remedy was, nor exactly how far back it dates.
Ober also identified many cultures known to have practiced placentophagy for medicinal purposes, and one for its flavor:
The Araucanian Native Americans of Argentina dried and ground a child’s umbilical cord, giving the child a little of the powder when it was sick.
In Jamaica, bits of placental membranes were put into an infant’s tea to prevent convulsions caused by ghosts.
The Chaga of Tanganyika place the placenta in a receptacle for two months to dry. Once dry, it is ground into flour from which a porridge is made. The porridge is served to old women of the family as a way of preserving the child’s life.
Modern practice of placentophagy is rare, as most contemporary human cultures do not promote its consumption. Despite a general cultural avoidance, however, instances of placentophagy have been recorded among certain modern cultures. In the 1960s “male and female Vietnamese nurses and midwives of Chinese and Thai background consum[ed] the placentas of their young, healthy patients” for reasons unspecified, as reported by a Czechoslovakian medical officer in at the Hospital of Czechoslovak-Vietnamese Friendship in Haiphong. Placentas were stripped of their membranous parts and fried with onions before being eaten.
A more recent cross-cultural ethnographic study by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Department of Anthropology surveyed over 179 contemporary human societies, and identified only one culture (Chicano, or Mexican-American) that mentioned the practice of maternal placentophagy. This account, centering on Chicano and Anglo midwifery in San Antonio, Texas, stated, "cooking and eating part of the placenta has…been reported by a couple of midwives. One Anglo mother ... was reported to have roasted the placenta." This instance, however, may not be indicative of any larger cultural trends, as no other records of placentophagy were found in the Chicano culture. This same study also recorded three references of non-maternal placentophagy:
In a follow-up study, the UNLV researchers were joined by colleagues at the University of South Florida, who surveyed new mothers, and found that about 3/4 had positive subjective experiences from eating their own placenta, citing beliefs of "improved mood", "increased energy", and "improved lactation".  The authors themselves, however, do state that "exceedingly little research has been conducted to assess these claims and no systematic analysis has been performed to evaluate the experiences of women who engage in this behavior."
The placenta transports nutrients to the fetus during gestation, as well as producing and regulating hormones and opioids. Proponents of modern placentophagy argue that the placenta retains some of these substances after delivery, and that consumption of the placenta by the mother will help her recover more quickly following childbirth by replenishing nutrients and hormones lost during parturition. One birthing website run by two Minnesota doulas lists possible health benefits including replenishing lost nutrients, increasing milk production, curbing postpartum depression and slowing postpartum hemorrhage.
In addition to protein and various vitamins, placenta contains high levels of CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone), known to reduce stress. Though CRH is normally secreted by the hypothalamus, during pregnancy production of CRH by the placenta dramatically increases levels of CRH in the blood stream, which peak at delivery. Even postpartum, the placenta still contains very high levels of CRH, and some believe eating it can bring the mother’s CRH levels back to a healthy range.
Consumption of the placenta is also believed to cause the release of the chemical oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin stimulates uterine contractions leading to the onset of labor, and after childbirth can also cause the uterus to contract and sooner reach its pre-pregnancy size.
In many major cities, according to Minnesota midwife Sarah Biermeier, a “placenta lady” can be found to professionally prepare the placenta for consumption. Also, many online alternative health sources give instructions for preparing it personally. One common method of preparation is encapsulation. An encapsulated placenta is steamed, dehydrated, and ground before being put into pills. Less commonly the placenta is drunk raw in a smoothie. Other recipes include lasagna, spaghetti, stew, and pizza.
Many researchers remain skeptical of whether the practice of placentophagy is of value to humans. Professor Mark Kristal of the State University of New York at Buffalo, wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1971 on why animals eat their placentas. He stated, “People can believe what they want, but there’s no research to substantiate claims of human benefit. The cooking process will destroy all the protein and hormones. Drying it out or freezing it would destroy other things.” Nevertheless, a number of midwives, doulas, and mothers who practice placentophagy claim that consuming their placentas has helped recover from childbirth in a variety of ways.
There is a risk of spreading blood-borne illness, only present in cases of non-maternal placentophagy, where the mother’s blood is shared with another human. As a meat, proper storage and preparation procedures must be followed to prevent bacterial infection in the placenta.
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