By Grace McNair
For centuries, placentas have been used in Chinese Medicine to support women during the postpartum period. Today, women choose to consume their placenta to
- combat postpartum fatigue/blues
- support lactation
- decrease postpartum bleeding
- replenish vital nutrients metabolized during pregnancy and lost during birth.
One of the most common questions I get as a placenta encapsulator is “What exactly is a placenta and what does it do?” It’s a good question because the placenta is rather mysterious. It is a temporary organ developed during pregnancy to provide the baby with nutrients and oxygen and remove waste directly from the baby’s blood, while never allowing the mother and baby’s blood to mix, which is how mothers and babies can have two different blood types. It also functions as an endocrine gland, taking over the production of pregnancy sustaining hormones.
Although placenta pills should not replace the prenatal vitamins doctors and midwives recommend women continue taking after birth and through breastfeeding, I like to think of placenta pills as a supplement—specifically tailored for your body by your body—that helps you achieve optimal wellness after birth by giving back some of what your body gave your growing baby. Other important hormones, proteins, and nutrients placentas contain are as follows:
- Prolactin—promotes milk production.
- Oxytocin—often called the “love” hormone, released during breastfeeding and sex to increase bonding. After birth, this hormone also helps the uterus return to its prepregnancy state.
- Thyroid Stimulating Hormone—boosts energy and helps with recovery after stress.
- Cortisone—promotes healing by reducing swelling and inflammation.
- Interferon—fights infection.
- Prostaglandin—has anti-inflammatory effects and helps the uterus return to its prepregnancy state.
- Iron—helps women recover after blood loss and increases energy
- Urokinase Inhibiting Factor and Factor XIII—slows bleeding and enhances wound healing.
- Immunoglobulin G (IgG)—an antibody that fights infection
Since women’s bodies undergo a significant hormonal shift immediately after the placenta is delivered, ingesting low levels of these hormones via placenta capsules can help lessen the mood swings, fatigue, and anxiety that often occur when the body is trying to establish a new hormonal equilibrium. In fact, humans are one of the few mammals who do not consume the placenta after birth. To learn more about the scientific research that has been done on placenta encapsulation, please visit Placenta Mom & Placenta Wise.
It is important to note that while consuming your placenta can help stabilize your mood, it cannot prevent postpartum depression, a form of clinical depression that is different than “postpartum blues” and requires professional help. If you or someone you know is experiencing signs and symptoms of postpartum depression, please contact your health care provider and visit http://postpartumny.org for resources and information.
If you are interested in placenta encapsulation, reach out to a placenta encapsulator and make sure to notify your doctor or midwife of your wishes ahead of time. Some hospitals require you to sign a placenta release form, others do not. In New York State, it is your right as a patient to take possession of your placenta. If your healthcare provider refuses or is not comfortable with your request, you can remind them of this. Some hospitals require that all placentas be sent to pathology before they are released—this is not a problem as long as the placenta is released within 36 hours and not exposed to chemicals, such as formalin.
After delivery, the placenta should be refrigerated and put on ice–although not directly–as soon as possible. Letting the placenta sit for 2-3 hours at room temperature will not harm it. Encapsulation should occur within 72 hours of delivery. If this is is not possible, the placenta should be frozen until it can be encapsulated. If you are having a hospital birth, you can bring a cooler for transport and four gallon sized ziplock bags. Use the first two bags to hold the placenta, and the second two to hold the ice. Most placenta encapsulators will pick up the placenta from the hospital—you can also arrange to have your doula, partner or friend transport the placenta to your home after the birth. If you had pitocin, an epidural, cesarean section, or if meconium was present during your labor and/or delivery, it is still perfectly safe to encapsulate your placenta.
The most common way women choose to consume their placenta is in capsule form, although some women ingest part or all of it raw, usually in a smoothie with fruits high in vitamin C. I offer both options/preparations, but here’s a breakdown of the four basic steps involved in placenta encapsulation:*
- The placenta is inspected, gently rinsed in cold water, drained of excess blood, and separated from the cord and membranes.
- Next, the placenta is lightly steamed (when using the Traditional Chinese Medicine method, the placenta is steamed alongside herbs like ginger, lemongrass, and cayenne pepper).
- After this, placenta is cut into strips and placed in a food dehydrator, where it dries at about 105-115 degrees F for 7-12 hours. (Note: this is the part most people prefer to have done for them; when drying, placentas can smell extremely strong!)
- After the placenta is fully dry, it is ground into a powder and encapsulated into vegetarian capsules, which should be stored in the fridge. The number of capsules depends on the size of the placenta. On average, most people will receive between 80-200 capsules.
- Once the encapsulation is complete, your placenta encapsulator will bring the finished product, which can includes prints, cord keepsakes, and tinctures, to your home and guide you through how to store and take it.
I recommend that the capsules be kept in the freezer and taken apart from all dairy products which block the body’s ability to absorb iron. The best thing you can take them with is a glass of orange juice because vitamin C facilitates iron absorption. During my drop-off visit, I also include a 45 minute breastfeeding consult, which many clients find especially helpful.
Over the last few years, many articles have been written for and against placenta encapsulation, and a few celebrities have even championed the practice. Of course, as a placenta encapsulator, I hear lots of wonderful things from my clients, however, the decision to encapsulate or not encapsulate is a deeply personal one that every woman should be allowed to make for herself.
*Safety Note: All my equipment is made from stainless steel or food-grade plastic, and I adhere to strict OSHA guidelines for safe handling and disinfection. Food-grade plastic equipment, such as my FDA approved dehydrator, is thoroughly sanitized with a bleach solution, while stainless steel equipment is boil-sanitized. I wear gloves at all times.
For centuries, placentas have been used in Chinese Medicine to treat lactation, fatigue and other common postpartum problems. Women choose to consume their placenta to strengthen their physical and emotional health during the postpartum period and to replenish the vital nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and iron) metabolized during pregnancy and lost during birth.