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."
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."