When the presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall served his TV guests a dish made of human placenta, viewers felt nauseous. An official complaint was made to the Independent Television Commission. In turn, the commission pointed out that eating human afterbirth was not illegal but is even considered to be highly nutritious.
Some mammals do indeed eat their placenta after giving birth, and therefore the habit must be natural and healthy also for humans – at least this is what proponents so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) like to think. Thus, the oral consumption by a woman of her own placenta after childbirth, placentophagy, has become an increasingly popular SCAM . The placenta can be eaten raw, cooked, roasted, dehydrated, encapsulated or in the form of smoothies and tinctures. The treatment is being advocated for all sorts of problems affecting women after childbirth. One website, for instance, argues that human placenta can balance hormones after birth, decrease the risk of postpartum depression, facilitate post-birth healing, lessen bleeding and promote breast milk production.
But is there any good evidence that any of this is true? The short answer is NO. A small study showed that maternal consumption of steamed, dehydrated, and encapsulated placenta postpartum does not appear to affect maternal postpartum prolactin or neonatal weight in the first 3 weeks postpartum. The largest study so far concluded that the data provided no support for the idea that postpartum placentophagy improves mood, energy, lactation, or plasma vitamin B12 levels in women with a history of mood disorders. And a review of the current best evidence concluded that there is no evidence of benefit from its consumption.
Not only is it ineffective, placentophagy is also not risk-free. The US ‘Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’ (CDCP) issued a warning after a new-born infant developed recurrent neonatal Streptococcus sepsis following the mother ingesting contaminated placenta capsules. More recently, a case was reported of vaginal bleeding and breast budding in a 3-month-old infant whose mother had employed placentophagy while breast-feeding. After the mother stopped the intake of encapsulated placenta, the infant fully recovered. The CDCP recommend that, owing to inadequate eradication of infectious pathogens during the encapsulation process, placenta capsules should be avoided. The CDCP also urges physicians to inform patients interested in placentophagy about its risks and the lack of clinical benefits.
Will this stop entrepreneurs offering the treatment?
Or will it prevent women trying it?
I would not hold my breath.
Why I call it so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) and not just alternative medicine:
• If a therapy does not work, it cannot be an alternative
• If a therapy does work, it is simply medicine
Prof Ernst has researched SCAM for more than 25 years. His latest book is entitled ‘Alternative Medicine, a critical assessment of 150 modalities’ (Springer 2019)