New moms, doctors debate placenta consumption

  • Article by: ABBY OLENA , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Some new moms swear the organ’s hormones help, but doctors say benefits stem from placebo effect.

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After the birth of Georgette, Molly Halper of Arlington Heights, Ill., ingested encapsulated placenta pills made for her by her doula.

Photo: Stacey Wescott • Chicago Tribune,

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Molly Halper never dreamed she’d consume her baby’s placenta, an organ that serves as a link between mother and fetus and is usually discarded after birth.

“My husband and I used to make jokes” about people who did that, said Halper, of Arlington Heights, Ill. “We’re not vegetarians or tree-hugging, granola-eating people. We’re suburban Republicans. We thought it was some hippie thing.”

But after struggling twice with the baby blues and needing to supplement her breast milk supply with formula, she became intrigued by the idea that the hormones in a placenta could help. To reduce the ick factor, Halper paid someone to process the tissue into capsules when her third child was born.

Medical experts say there is no scientific evidence that consuming placenta benefits women, as no controlled studies have tested it vs. a placebo. Nor have placenta pills been analyzed to see what substances they contain.

“Until all the science is in, the cautions outweigh the expected benefits,” said Mark Kristal, a New York neuroscientist who has studied placentophagy — the scientific name for placenta consumption — in laboratory animals.

Yet the idea is popular enough that Halper’s doula, Deb Pocica, said she has encapsulated more than 250 placentas for about $250 apiece. Pocica said she also has trained 30 people to make capsules.

The practice was even debated by reality-TV star Kim Kardashian and her family on a recent episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

Women who have consumed their baby’s placenta claim benefits including reduction of fatigue, a more balanced mood and increased breast milk production.

Those reported gains also could be nothing more than the placebo effect, some doctors say. Encapsulation and digestion probably would destroy at least one class of hormones in the placenta, they note.

Halper said her doctors didn’t object to her plan. Worst-case scenario, they said, the pills would have no effect. Her husband also was supportive. So after Halper’s daughter was born, Pocica encapsulated the placenta and Halper took the pills for about six weeks. She said she felt energetic and recovered quickly. She was able to breast-feed her daughter without supplementing with formula, and she had no problems with the baby blues. At her six-week appointment, her obstetrician remarked on how well she seemed to be doing.

“I was so shocked at how much better I felt,” Halper said. “I can’t recommend it enough.”

Where’s the science?

In a survey of 189 women who had consumed their babies’ placentas — raw, cooked or in capsule form — 95 percent reported their experience was positive or very positive, and 98 percent said they would repeat it.

“Of course, we don’t know if those are placebo effects and their positive results are based on their expectations,” said Daniel Benyshek, corresponding author of the study.

The report disclosed that the first author, Jodi Selander, is the founder of Placenta Benefits, an online information source that also offers training for placenta encapsulators.

Kristal, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has documented some benefits among rats that consumed raw placenta and amniotic fluid after giving birth. But he cautioned against attributing benefits to placenta consumption by human mothers.

“The science in humans just isn’t there,” he said. “There’s nothing we can point to that says scientifically that eating placenta is helpful and that it is completely harmless.”

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