Unusual birth trends: Eating placenta

One of the most unusual and debated practices among births in the U.S. is placentology, the act of consuming one’s placenta. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)

Cultural traditions of childbirth vary worldwide, from shaving heads to painting the mother’s body.

But one, to many, may be particularly gruesome: eating the placenta, called placentology. Formed inside the female while she’s pregnant, the organ provides oxygen and nutrients to the fetus through the umbilical cord. 

Small businesses have formed to process the placenta, even in Tucson. It all represents odd cultural traditions that accompany childbirth.

“In Venezuela, they shave the eyebrows and hair off the baby shortly after birth,” said Lori Boggan, a neonatal nurse who works at a hospital in Sweden. “It’s because they believe the hair grows back thicker.” Some women delay cutting off the umbilical cord to allow more nutrients and blood from the placenta.

She recalls a patient from Iran who said women have a shower after their baby is born. “The mother actually takes a shower and then her family massages her with oil and paints henna on her.” The Spanish pierce a newborn baby girl’s ear so people are able to determine the baby is a girl.

A rise in non medical methods such as hypnobirth, a psychological exercise that helps ease pain while a woman is in labor, has become trendy in the U.S. lotus births too. This falls under the umbrella of natural birthing options, allowing the umbilical cord to fall off naturally.

But placentology continues to be a widely debated practice among births in the U.S. They claim it helps with postpartum depression such as pain reduction, increased milk production, energy and even bonding with their child.

Kayla Levine, a certified encapsulator charges $200 to encapsulate a placenta, which she does in her home in South Tucson. One placenta makes about 120 pills with a recommended dosage of 6 pills per day, gradually decreasing over time. Though the amount is open to how the mother feels. “I tell [women] to listen to their intuition and how they feel,” said Levine.

The process of encapsulation is rather simple. Once the placenta is detached from the baby, it’s double-bagged and put in the fridge until Levine comes to collect it. She brings it home and cleans, steams, cuts and dehydrates the organ in a food dehydrator for about 17 hours. After that, she grinds up the pieces into a powder form. Levine uses a two-piece pill encapsulating device, pressing the powder between the mold to form the pill.

 

A two-piece pill encapsulating device, which she presses the powder between the mold to form the pill. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk/Arizona Sonora News)
The placenta comes in a sack with the baby, which is removed for the encapsulation process.(Photo by: Sammy Minsk)
The placenta is said to look like the tree of life. The veins represent the branches and the umbilical cord is the trunk of the tree. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk)
The organ is steamed for a few minutes over medium heat. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk)
Levine removes the steamed placenta from the steamer. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk)
Once steamed, Levine cuts the placenta into thin slices. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk)
A sliced placenta before it goes in the food dehydrator. (Photo by: Sammy Minsk)
The placenta dries for about 17 hours until it is ready to be ground up.(Photo by: Sammy Minsk)

Li Shizhen, a major figure in Traditional Chinese Medicine, published a book in 1596 titled “Compendium of Materia Medica.” In it, he included ‘zi he che,’ which means human placenta, as a medicine to help with pain in various areas of the body, according to Placenta Remedies Network. 

Kim Kardashian, a major pop culture figure, increased awareness when she shared her experience in 2015. “I had great results and felt so energized and didn’t have any signs of depression!…Every time I take a pill, I feel a surge of energy and feel really healthy and good. I totally recommend it for anyone considering it!” Kardashian wrote on her app.

Because placentology is rather new, doctors have only recently been able to make claims for or against the practice. An article published last year by the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology said there is no beneficial evidence of eating a placenta among humans. They believe the change in behavior is a placebo effect. “No placental nutrients and hormones are retained in sufficient amounts after placenta encapsulation to be potentially helpful to the mother postpartum.”

Nonetheless, encapsulation continues to be a thriving business with positive testimonies fueling the business. Charlene Campbell, a Tucson native had her placenta encapsulated and said she would do it again. “I felt more energized, like I do more things. I didn’t feel so drained.”

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

Sammy Minsk is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at minsk@email.arizona.edu

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