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The placenta, a rounded organ roughly the size of a Frisbee, grows inside the womb and serves as the boundary between woman and fetus, delivering nutrients and oxygen via the umbilical cord and carrying away waste and carbon dioxide. It also takes over a mother’s hormone production during pregnancy.
Many other female mammals, including primate relatives, eat the placenta soon after birth, but there is no evidence that the behavior is common in mothers from any human culture, Kristal and Benyshek said.
Kristal said he suspects most benefits that mothers report from consuming their baby’s placenta are rooted in the placebo effect. He notes that, among women who cite benefits, it does not seem to matter how the placenta is prepared, when the woman consumes it or how much she consumes.
“It’s almost part of human nature to assign causality where it doesn’t necessarily exist,” Kristal said. “Two things happen and people relate them in their minds. We all do it.”
Dr. Marybeth Lore, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said she also thinks benefits can be attributed to the placebo effect. Still, she added, it’s hard to find fault with a placebo if it improves symptoms.
Kristal said he thinks one type of placental product — molecules called peptides — would be destroyed during processing or later in the digestive tract. But steroid hormones, which include progesterone and estrogen, could be intact in placenta pills and survive digestion to be absorbed in the small intestine, he said.
None of those ideas has been scientifically tested, he emphasized. Nor is it clear whether consuming a placenta could be dangerous.
“I don’t think it’s a huge risk; I think it’s possibly a slight risk,” Kristal said. “We just have to be very careful about whether there’s a negative side to it or not.”