Mother’s Placenta as Nutrition After Childbirth
by Nikki Garrigan -August 4th, 2014
After giving birth, most mammals eat the afterbirth, the placenta. Most humans don’t. Several hypotheses have been suggested as to why placentophagy might have had evolutionary survival value. Regardless of this placentophagy has been recommended for various reasons, from nutritional benefit to preventing postpartum depression to “honoring the placenta” among a growing number of midwives in the United States. The act of ingesting your placenta, or placentophagy, isn’t new –traditional Chinese Medicine has used placenta for thousands of years to augment the qi (energy), nourish the blood, and augment the kidney essence. In layman’s terms, it brings the body back into balance, replenishing what was lost during childbirth. In China it is also used for debilitating chronic diseases and widely used as an anti-aging treatment, as well as a variety of other ills, including fatigue and insufficient lactation.
What is the Placenta?
The placenta is an organ that develops on the wall of the uterus during pregnancy, removing waste and providing oxygen and nutrients to the baby through the umbilical cord. Some mothers and midwives believe the placenta offers benefits that help recovery after birth – allowing women to regain energy, reduce bleeding, increase milk production and fight off “baby blues” or a more severe form of postpartum depression (Homes. Peter. 1993).
The baby and the placenta are made from the same cells, which are formed through combination of the egg and the sperm. Once implantation occurs on about day six after fertilization, the gestation period begins and the fertilized egg and the placenta begin to develop separately, still connected. The placenta stays attached to the uterine wall while the fetus has the ability to move around the uterus.
The placenta is the fetus’s only source of food, blood, oxygen, vitamins and nutrients. All of these vital resources are carried from placenta to fetus via the cord. These resources come from the mother’s bloodstream, which is why a healthy nutritious balance of whole foods is so important during pregnancy. Iron is especially important because iron increases the hemoglobin level in the blood; hemoglobin carries oxygen in the body. Once the baby is born and the cord stops pulsing, that baby is no longer getting its oxygen from the placenta. When baby takes a first breath, the lungs begin to work and baby begins breathing on his or her own. In order for the baby to receive all the blood and oxygen required, the cord must stop pulsing before being cut (Graff, Kelly, 2008)
Placental Hormones and Their Functions
The placenta is composed of beneficial hormones, chemicals, iron, and proteins. These healing substances include:
- Estrogen, Progesterone, Testosterone: Contributes to mammary gland development in preparation for lactation; stabilizes postpartum mood; regulates post-birth uterine cramping; decreases depression; normalizes and stimulates libido.
- Prolactin: Promotes lactation; increases milk supply; enhances the mothering instinct.
- Oxytocin: Decreases pain and increases bonding in mother and infant; counteracts the production of stress hormones such as Cortisol; greatly reduces postpartum bleeding; enhances the breastfeeding let-down reflex.
- Placental Opioid-Enhancing Factor (POEF): Stimulates the production of your body’s natural opioids, including endorphins; reduces pain; increases well-being.
- Thyroid Stimulating Hormone: Regulates the thyroid gland; boosts energy and supports recovery from stressful events.
- Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH): Low levels of CRH are implicated in postpartum depression. Regulation of CRH helps prevent depression.
- Cortisone: Reduces inflammation and swelling; promotes healing.
- Interferon: Triggers the protective defenses of the immune system to fight infection.
- Prostaglandins: Regulates contractions in the uterus after birth; helps uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size. Anti-inflammatory effects.
- Iron: Replenishes maternal iron stores to combat anemia, a common postpartum condition. Increases energy; decreases fatigue and depression.
- Hemoglobin: Oxygen-carrying molecule which provides a boost in energy.
- Urokinase Inhibiting Factor and Factor XIII: stops bleeding and enhances wound healing.
- Immunoglobulin G (IgG): Antibody molecules which support the immune system.
- Human Placental Lactogen (hPL): This hormone has lactogenic and growth-promoting properties; promotes mammary gland growth in preparation for lactation in the mother. It also regulates maternal glucose, protein, and fat levels.
One of the well-known TCM uses for placenta, or Zî hé chē, is to help with insufficient lactation. Interestingly enough, in 1954, researchers conducted a study on 210 women who were expected to have insufficient milk supply. They gave dried placenta to the women, and discovered that 86% of them had a positive increase in their milk production within a matter of days (Soykova-Pachnerova, 1954). More recent research has discovered that placentophagia could enhance pain tolerance by increasing the opium-like substances activated during childbirth. This would obviously be beneficial during the postpartum healing process.
How to Use the Placenta
Ideally, the placenta should be started within the first 24 to 48 hours, for the baby and mother to benefit from the most potency the placenta has to offer. Directly after the birth, the placenta should be placed in an enclosed container (the hospital will put it in a plastic container or a bag) in the refrigerator or in a lunch size cooler with ice if in the hospital, until it can be taken home and placed in the refrigerator. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 72 hours.
The recommended dosage of placenta pills, according to “Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica”, is one twice a day for two to three weeks. Each placenta can usually make about one hundred pills, depending on the size. The rest of the pills that are not used immediately can be stored (in the refrigerator) for “low” times, either emotionally or physically.
Nikki Garrigan is a Postpartum Doula & Mother Roaster in Kodiak, AK www.wildwomansouldoula.com
Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica.
Graff, Kelly. The Bridge of Life: Options for Placentas. Midwifery Today Issue 84, Winter 2008.
Homes, Peter. 1993. Jade Remedies, Snow Lotus Press, 352.
Society for Endocrinology:Glands- Placenta (2013).
Soykova-Pachnerova E, et. al.(1954). Gynaecologia 138(6):617-627.