Sandro Boticelli's painting "Birth of Venus"
Unlike Venus, land mammals are born with their placenta. Some believe eating the placenta of their child acts as a curative. (Photo Credit: CC BY/dave_pape/Selected works)

Liver-like and bluish in color, the human placenta is considered biohazardous waste by the U.S. medical community, so it is typically thrown away. Yet as a recent story in New York Magazine points out, instances of placentophagia – or the act of eating the placenta – are increasing among new American parents. True believers claim doing so helps combat postpartum depression, yet doctors fail to see eating the human placenta as anything other than pseudo-science at best.

Keeping the placenta for cultural reasons

Human placentas have been an ingredient in various traditional Chinese medicines. Dried human placenta is used in 紫河车, or “Zi He Che,” to treat wasting diseases, infertility, impotence and other maladies. In ancient Egypt, the placenta had its own hieroglyph. The Ibo tribe of Nigeria and Ghana treat the placenta as a child’s dead twin. Parents who practice Judaism sometimes keep their newborn child’s healthy placenta for cultural reasons, and U.S. hospitals will generally concede to such wishes upon request, going so far as to pack it up securely before the mother is discharged. Still other cultures bury the placenta and plant a tree over it.

Eating the placenta

Some people believe that if a human placenta is dried and cut up, it works as a medicinal supplement in clear, encapsulated pill form. Combating postpartum depression and replenishing nutrients lost during pregnancy are two uses. Uterine tonic and breast milk production/lactation aid are others. Considering that the placenta filters toxins and viruses while letting in vitamins, minerals, nutrients and oxygen for baby until birth, those who believe in placentophagia see it as a kind of super-food.

“They’re happy pills,” said Jennifer Mayer, a 28-year-old professional placenta preparer from upstate New York. “They’re made by your body, for your body. Why wouldn’t you want to try?”

Animals do it; why not people?

In 1930, researchers Otto Tinklepaugh and Carl Hartman observed a female macaque monkey eating her placenta. The reason was unclear, but it has since been observed that nearly every other land mammal does the same thing. The reason animals do this is still unknown. The best reason science has come up with to date is for nutrition. University of Buffalo behavioral neuroscientist Mark Kristal, who is the United States’ leading medical authority on placentophagia, notes that placenta consumption offers “a fundamental biological advantage” to mammals, but the exact nature of that advantage is still a mystery:

“In fact, a double mystery. We are not sure either of the immediate causes … nor are we sure of the consequences of the behavior.”

Kristal notes that placentophagia first gained momentum as a movement in the U.S. during the 1970s. Every 10 to 20 years, it picks up steam again.

“It’s a New Age phenomenon,” he explains. “It’s not based on science. It’s a fad.”

Placentas and composting

Sources

New York Magazine: http://nymag.com/news/features/placenta-2011-8/

Placentophagy Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placentophagy

USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2007-07-18-placenta-ingestion_N.htm

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