Becky Dickinson delves into the remarkable life of the placenta, and explores how this neglected organ carries on giving after birth. If you were to ask a pregnant woman what she was most looking forward to eating after giving birth, she may well say blue cheese, seafood, fresh chocolate mousse, or anything else that’s been off the menu for nine months - assuming she wasn’t a vegan of course. But for some women the answer is a nutritionally charged piece of placenta. Yes, that’s right – placenta!
In other parts of the world, women have been eating and honouring their placentas for centuries. Many cultures view this uniquely impermanent organ as having sacred or magical properties. And when you consider its life giving functions, it is easy to see why.
For nine months, the placenta protects and nourishes the developing foetus, while disposing of toxic waste. It joins mother to baby and baby to mother, keeping the unborn baby’s blood supply separate from the mother’s while providing a link between the two via the umbilical cord. As well as supplying nutrients, this truly amazing organ also secretes vital hormones needed to maintain the pregnancy and prepare for breastfeeding. And, as birth approaches, it floods the baby with antibodies to protect it for the first three months of life. The placenta is, in effect, the baby’s very own life support system. It holds our precious offspring in our wombs until the moment we can hold them in our arms.
To simply toss such a priceless organ into a bin labelled ‘clinical waste,’ without so much as a thank you, seems at best callous and ungrateful, at worst barbaric. Here in the West, it is a commonly held belief that the placenta’s role ends with the third stage of labour. Yet, in less medicalised cultures, the placenta enjoys a far more sacred send off, often involving a ceremonial burial.
POWERFUL AND SACRED
In some African nations, for example, the placenta is swaddled in blankets and buried beneath a tree as a symbol of on-going life. Other cultures, such as those in Indonesia, see the placenta as the baby’s twin. The placenta is said to be the baby’s guardian throughout life. Therefore, it must be treated well, and buried according to ancient traditions. New Zealand’s Maoris place the placenta within native soil and the word whenua means both soil and placenta. The Ibo of Nigeria and Ghana also give the placenta full burial rites. And Filipina mothers are known to bury the placenta with books, in hopes of a bright child.
Meanwhile in China, the placenta is considered a powerful and sacred medicine and women have traditionally eaten their placentas to increase their energy and enhance their milk supply. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, the placenta (Zi He Chi) is a full-of-life-force organ, essential in re-balancing a new mother after birth. In the animal kingdom, many mammals also eat their placenta to help stop postpartum bleeding and speed recovery.
THE BODY’S OWN HEALING TOOL
In recent years, the practice of placentophagy, or ingestion of the placenta, has gained a following in the US and Canada. And now, a small but growing number of women in the UK are also embracing the power of the placenta. Lynnea Shrief, Founder and Director of IPEN – the Independent Placenta Encapsulation Network, believes the placenta is not a waste product but the body’s own valuable healing tool.
28 year old Lynnea’s interest in placentas started during her second pregnancy. ‘I just knew I didn’t want to throw my placenta away,’ she says. And so her journey of discovery began.
After the birth of her son, Roman, at home, Lynnea placed a small piece of her placenta onto her gums, to allow the hormones and nutrients to be absorbed. She blended another piece of placenta with fresh berries to make a smoothie, which she drank. Within 10 hours, Lynnea’s milk had come in, her bleeding had almost stopped and she felt completely energised. Her midwife was amazed.
Inspired by her own experience and a desire to help other women, Lynnea spent two years researching the benefits and uses of the placenta. Many ancient healing techniques disappeared with the advance of modern medicine. But since the experience of childbirth is something that transcends time and place, placental healing is as relevant and empowering today as it always has been. Lynnea now trains doulas and midwives in placenta remedies and encapsulation – where the placenta is dehydrated, powdered and made into small pills for the mother to take.
ENERGY AND HAPPINESS
Mum of two, Krishna, from Guildford in Surrey, was one of the first in the UK to benefit from placenta encapsulation. After the birth of her daughter, Sitara, Krishna suffered badly with post natal depression and lack of energy. ‘I felt tearful, exhausted and overwhelmed,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t wait to hand the baby over to my partner as soon as he got in from work.’ When Krishna fell pregnant with her second child, she dreaded feeling the same way again. After searching the internet for help, she came across placenta encapsulation and decided to give it a try.
Krishna’s son, Nihal, was born at home. The placenta was placed in the fridge and the following day a placenta specialist came to the house. She used part of the placenta to make a smoothie, then turned the rest into capsules. Thirty minutes after drinking the smoothie, Krishna describes feeling a surge of energy and happiness. She also took three placenta capsules a day for the first six weeks, before gradually reducing the dose. She says the difference it made was amazing. ‘I didn’t feel depressed at all and despite having a toddler and a newborn to look after, I had loads more energy that I’d had the first time round. I also healed far quicker after the birth.’
Full time mum, Karen, from London, is another advocate of placenta encapsulation. She was introduced to the idea during her second pregnancy, after her midwife gave her a leaflet. ‘I’d never heard of it before, but it seemed like such a natural thing to do,’ she says. Following the homebirth of her son, Zachary, Karen’s placenta was made into 157 capsules. Karen took them regularly for the first few weeks and also took extra capsules whenever she felt particularly tired or run down. She says they made a big difference to her energy levels. She also felt less emotional and recovered faster from the birth. When her first child, Maya, had been born, Karen struggled with breastfeeding. But with Zachary she had a much more plentiful milk supply – something they both benefited from. ‘If I had another baby, I would definitely do it again,’ she says.
There are many types of placenta remedies and recipes, including tinctures, creams, smoothies and pasta sauces. What’s more, the placenta is the only ‘vegetarian’ meat, since nothing was killed to produce it. But for anyone of a slightly squeamish disposition, placenta capsules are perhaps the most palatable option.
Placenta encapsulation is best carried out as soon after the birth as possible, ideally within 48 hours. The placenta is washed and dried, then steamed with lemon, ginger and green chilli. It is then dehydrated using a food dehydrator (or placed in an oven for 8-10 hours until crisp) before being ground into a powder and ‘encapsulated’ into empty vegetable capsules. Placenta encapsulation is usually carried out by a trained specialist. However DIY kits are also available and come with full instructions so a family member, friend or doula can make your capsules for you. A healthy placenta will produce between 75 and 200 capsules, though the average is around 120. These capsules should be taken two to four times a day for the first six weeks, and then whenever there is a hormonal imbalance such as during menstruation or cessation of breast feeding, or even the menopause, as unused capsules can also be frozen.
The benefits of eating the placenta are not merely psychological or spiritual, but are connected to the substances it contains – including iron, amino acids, vitamins, essential fats and other nutrients. During a normal vaginal delivery, a woman will lose one tenth of her blood supply. This can result in a rapid depletion of iron levels, so it is no wonder new mums often feel faint and fatigued. Yet the placenta is loaded with rich, meaty iron, so offers a readily available and tailor-made antidote.
HEALING AND TISSUE REPAIR
The placenta is also packed with stem cells and cytokines, which play a key role in healing and tissue repair. Women normally bleed for up to six weeks after giving birth due to the wound left when the placenta separates from the uterus. But mothers who consume their placenta are said to bleed considerably less, for just five to ten days. Other important nutrients found in rich supply in the placenta include: oxytocin, the hormone entwined with breastfeeding; vitamin B6, and CRH – the body’s stress-reducing hormone. Studies have shown that there is link between post natal depression and a severe lack of both B6 and CRH. So it stands to reason that consuming the placenta after birth replaces these lost nutrients and hormones, and protects against post natal depression.
In short, the placenta contains everything needed to replenish the mother after the ordeal of birth. It is easy to forget that birth can be extremely traumatic, both emotionally and physically. After the joy and excitement of bringing new life into the world, comes the exhaustion, the after pains, the baby blues. We are constantly told that it is ‘normal’ to feel worn out, weepy and sore. That everyone goes through it, that we will feel better in time. But what is the point in suffering, when nature provides the perfect way of restoring our birth battered bodies? If only women were made aware of the healing power of the placenta, our post natal experiences could be so much happier and easier.
By reclaiming the placenta we are not only empowering ourselves, but reinstating the ancient wisdom of our ancestors. As our sisters before us knew, even in death the placenta carries on giving, by renewing and healing the mother and providing fresh nutrients to the baby, through her milk.
Placenta encapsulation on the NHS may still be a long way off, but growing numbers of women are discovering the benefits for themselves. I wish I had known about placenta encapsulation before my children were born, before our placentas were sent to the incinerator. But if I am blessed with another child, I know what will be on my post natal menu.
Becky Dickinson is a stay-at-home mum of two and a freelance journalist. You can read her blog about kids, veg and staying above the compost heap at www.allotmentmum.co.uk.
Independent Placenta Encapsulation Network (IPEN) www.placentanetwork.com
Placenta: The Gift of Life, by Cornelia Enning.
Placenta: the Forgotten Chakra, by Robin Lim (available to download from the internet.)
Gentle birth, gentle mothering, by Sarah J Buckley, MD
This beautiful image is from http://hollyhelps.us/.