Editor’s note: This story was originally published on omaha.com
Related reading: “Really? You eat your placenta?”
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By Bob Glissmann
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
It sounds cannibalistic, Laree Lindburg’s husband told her.
Lindburg acknowledges that eating her own placenta seems “a little odd.”
But the young mother thought she would try it after Baby No. 3 was born in March.
Lindburg, 31, has rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder. After her first two children, she said, she felt achy and sick.
“I had good pregnancies,” she said, “but coming down from the hormones (after delivery), I would feel just terrible.”
She had read that some moms had success with placenta capsules, and she thought they were safe. Her OB couldn’t come up with reasons she shouldn’t try it.
In most cases, the placenta, an organ that supplies nutrients and oxygen to and removes waste from the developing fetus, is incinerated after delivery.
Sometimes, a family will take the placenta home and plant it with a tree. Occasionally, women will take them home and eat them.
Before you imagine someone eating a raw human organ, know that Lindburg — and some other mothers — actually swallow capsules containing powdered placenta that has been cleaned, steamed, sliced, dehydrated and ground up. Other moms, however, do eat raw placenta. Or cook it. Or blend the placentas into a smoothie.
Disgusted yet? Intrigued?
Advocates of placenta-eating — or placentophagia — say it relieves “baby blues,” boosts moms’ energy levels and increases a new mother’s milk production. They generally don’t claim that it treats physical ailments. And one local doctor — Dr. Carl Smith, professor and chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the University of Nebraska Medical Center — said he doesn’t know of any science that would support human consumption of placentas.
But Lindburg felt good.
“I almost want to say crazily good,” she said. “I don’t think it was a placebo effect. I had lots of energy. My milk production was really good. I didn’t lose my hair,” as she had in previous pregnancies.
Jodi Selander, the Las Vegas-based founder of Placenta Benefits.info, said she has trained hundreds of people across the U.S. and Canada to encapsulate placentas through an online course. She also sells encapsulation supplies through her website.
Selander said women who take the capsules report better milk production (“They either supplement less or nurse their babies for longer”) and better moods than in their previous pregnancies. She also said that midwives have noticed that the uteruses of clients who have taken the capsules contract more effectively than those of mothers who have not. That, she said, can lessen postnatal bleeding.
Selander herself took the capsules after her second and third daughters were born, in 2005 and in 2011. After her first daughter was born in 2002, she said, she had to use prescription antidepressants.
Hoping to avoid that the second time, she asked for suggestions from an acupuncturist, who jokingly recommended that she eat her placenta.
She started researching the idea and found that “the results are definitely not robust, but enough to make it, ‘Hey, I can give this a shot.’”
After she took some placenta capsules, she said, she felt calmer and energetic and didn’t experience the weepiness and mood swings that hit her after her first baby. She said she keeps capsules in the freezer and takes a couple on high-stress days.
Placentas, she said, contain many kinds of hormones, amino acids, vitamins such as riboflavin, thiamine, B-6 and B-12, and high levels of protein and iron. A small study, she said, has found that levels of vitamin B-12 and prolactin, a hormone, were a fraction of what was measured before the placenta was prepared. But the amount of iron in the prepared tissue, she said, actually increased.
Selander admits that the scientific evidence of health benefits of placenta-eating is scarce, but said she has heard many positive reports from mothers who have used the capsules.
“It’s anecdotal, definitely,” she said. “This is a wide-open field for research.”
Mark Kristal, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University at Buffalo in New York, has studied placenta-eating in mammals for 40 years. There is evidence that nonhuman mammals benefit from the practice, he said, but there’s no evidence that humans do.
“The benefits to nonhumans are fairly specific,” he said, “limited to the time during delivery, like it helps to reduce pain and it helps to guarantee immediate maternal behavior during delivery.”
Because of physiological changes during pregnancy, Kristal said, land mammals, even plant-eaters, are
“intently attracted” to afterbirth materials by the time they deliver.
“There’s no evidence at all that women are or have been attracted to the stuff,” he said, noting that there also is no evidence that any past or present cultures have ever eaten placenta “as a routine part of the culture.”
“This is not a very well-studied process,” said UNMC’s Smith. “I neither support nor discourage its use.”
Smith said the risks to a person who consumes placenta “are probably quite small … if it’s properly prepared. Although I must admit to not being certain how you would prepare a placenta. I suppose it could be spoiled.”
Danielle Miles of Council Bluffs has been trained to prepare a placenta for human consumption. She took the online course from Placenta Benefits and has prepared about three dozen placentas for Nebraska and Iowa moms, including Laree Lindburg, over the last two years. She has done most of those in the last six months after actress January Jones talked about eating placenta capsules.
Miles is a doula, or labor coach, so she regularly deals with pregnant mothers. She also has her own housecleaning business. The idea of encapsulating placentas for moms, she said, “just captivated me.”
“I would have expected that the customers who came to me were kind of the earthy-birthy, hippie type,” Miles said. “And, yes, there are some people who are very much into the natural movement.”
But more often, she said, she is contacted by women “who had a negative postpartum experience in the past who either experienced postpartum depression or had a low milk supply.”
They almost always have read about the process and the reported benefits.
The dosage recommendation, she said, is for moms to start by taking two capsules three times per day for the first four days, then taking two twice a day through day 14. After that, she said, they scale back to two a day until they feel like they don’t need them. The unused capsules can keep for years in the freezer, she said.
Miles, who’s 47, has two kids and two grandchildren. She said if she had another child, she would try the capsules.
It’s possible, said Kristal, the New York professor, that there are components in the placenta and amniotic fluid that might be beneficial for humans, “but I don’t think eating placentas is a way to get those things.” Scientists, he said, should work to identify the molecule or molecules in afterbirth that could produce beneficial effects and either extract or synthesize them so they could be used to make a pain medication.
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FROM DELIVERY ROOM TO CAPSULE DELIVERY
The husbands of the women who want to eat their dried, encapsulated placentas usually get the job of taking the placentas home to put in the refrigerator.
After all, Danielle Miles said, the moms often stay overnight at the hospital with their babies.
Miles, of Council Bluffs, prepares the placentas in the new moms’ own kitchens within 24 hours of the birth. That way, she said, the women are familiar with her work environment and they or their relatives can see it’s the mom’s placenta that she’s encapsulating.
The placentas usually are double-bagged in zip-top bags and put on ice in an insulated lunch container or cooler.
After Miles cleans the kitchen counter with dish soap and water, she sprays the counter and sink with a 10 percent bleach solution.
She wears disposable nitrite gloves because she doesn’t want to use latex gloves to handle what’s essentially food, just in case someone is latex-sensitive.
Miles takes the placenta out of the plastic bag and holds it in her hands. It looks like a bloody blob of raw meat wrapped in a membrane. Clumps of coagulated blood dot the surface, and the veins on one side of the placenta contain blood. She scrapes off the blood clumps into a basin and pokes holes into the veins with what looks like a wooden kabob skewer. She squeezes the placenta to remove the liquid.
It’s a tedious process. When the water in the basin turns red, Miles sets the placenta in a bowl, adds bleach to the water and carries the basin to the toilet and dumps it. Each time, she changes her gloves and gets new water.
After she drains most of the blood from the placenta and the umbilical cord, she separates the cord and sets it aside. Much of the time, she’s able to fashion a heart out of the cord, but the cord she was working with on this day was small, so she made a ring out of it.
After the placenta is clean, she puts it in a steamer and steams it in water to which she has added myrrh and ginger — traditional Chinese herbs, she said.
The smell of the steam isn’t gag-inducing, but it isn’t pleasant, either.
The steaming turns the placenta into what looks like a small meatloaf or a large, rubbery hamburger. Miles then slices it into thin strips on a cutting board and arranges the pieces on white-paper-lined trays that she then puts in a food dehydrator. She sets the timer for nine hours.
The next morning, the dried strips resemble beef jerky. The placenta strips and umbilical cord circle are smaller than they were the day before.
Miles, wearing gloves again, puts the strips in a food grinder and reduces them to powder. Pieces that aren’t adequately ground up go back in with the larger pieces.
She then dumps the powder into a capsule
holder she has lined with empty capsule halves. When the one side is full, she puts the other capsule-lined side on top and presses down on the container.
This placenta produces 98 capsules. The average is 120 per placenta.
Miles usually charges $200 plus travel expenses for the service.
“It’s definitely not a high-profit deal,” she said. But “I get to do a good thing. It does my heart good.”