Momma Data

Debunking the latest studies about children's health and well-being

Placenta Stew with a Side of Pseudo-Science

Does eating a placenta prevent postpartum depression?

Eating placentae.

As if the sacrifices and indignities of pregnancy and childbirth aren’t enough, women are being told to eat their own placentas to avoid postpartum depression. Not malnourished women in some remote third-world tribal village but here in the United States, Prozac Nation, the land of plentiful and well-documented treatments for depression that don’t involve steaming and stewing one’s bodily organs. Some moms here are swapping recipes online and learning how to cook placentas, watch the video, I dare you. Those who can’t get past the ick factor of placenta paella or placenta jerky can hire someone to steal away the afterbirth and return it in capsule form.

The practice, aka placentophagy, has a Facebook following, a fashion line (I heart placentas) and a celebrity spokesmom, actress January Jones who credits her post-pregnancy figure and vigor to her placenta.

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Did I mention the loose smattering of so-called scientific evidence with the veneer of validity?

Let’s start at the afterbirth empire, PlacentaBenefits.info, the organization founded by the placenta-preneur who supposedly refined the process of turning bloody organs into pills. The bevy of Scientific Research there boils down to 9 references. The first, a 1954 article from Gynaecologia. Prehistoric. Two from 1980. Almost prehistoric. Five about not placentas but iron deficiency and/or postpartum depression. A 2004 study examined whether placentophagy had any benefits - in rats. The pregnant creatures experienced analgesic effects only if they ingested a small amount of placenta and also received foot shocks or morphine. Larger amounts of placenta didn’t provide any pain relief. So ladies, order the afterbirth appetizer if you must but don’t forget the side of opiates.

According to Wikipedia “there have been no scientific studies which show that placentophagy enhances analgesia in humans.” Nor does there appear to be any empirical evidence of placentophagy preventing postpartum depression or anything else in humans. True there haven’t been any human empirical studies. Attention pregnant women, anyone want to volunteer for The Maternal Gastronomy Project?

Even the rat study author, Mark Kristol, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of Buffalo and the reigning placentophagy expert dismisses accounts of medicinal benefits as mere placebo effects. He’s hoping for more research into potential benefits especially those that might lead to pharmaceuticals but until then he’s skeptical:

"People will do anything," Kristal says, "but we shouldn't read too much significance into reports of such exceptions, even if they are accurate, because they are neither reliable nor valid studies. Placenta on Toast? Science Daily, March 27

So even the expert isn’t recommending the placenta with a nice Chianti. He does wonder why more people aren’t feasting on organs. If I may… Exhibit A.

Even if we learn there’s a valuable compound or two in the placenta with demonstrated health benefits, does anyone truly think it would prevent postpartum depression? Treat it more effectively than everything else? If so, I have a turbo double breast pump to sell them. I’ll throw in a slightly musty boxed set of Baby Einstein DVDs.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., is a former research psychologist and founder of Momma Data, a non-profit organization that tracks and fact-checks parenting media. more...

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