Local Placenta-Eating Moms Look For Energy-Boosting Health Benefits

WASHINGTON -- Local midwife and doula Claudia Booker has a message for D.C.'s overachieving mom-types who want to take more than the recommended dose of placenta pills: don't.

On Wednesday, the Feminist Breeder's Facebook page had a feisty discussion with women sharing their placenta-eating plans in light of "Mad Men" actress January Jones' revelation to People magazine that consuming her placenta after giving birth helped her get her energy back.

New York magazine, among others, posits that placenta-eating is a veritable growing trend -- or at least it was in August 2011.

But just how common is the practice?

The always vibrant DC Urban Moms forum has had some of its own placenta-eating discussions -- one back in December, another in February that was especially fiery. (More current DCUM discussions are equally fascinating: they include "I'm fat ask me anything," "I’m 'closet' anti-LBGT" and "What if George Zimmerman DID act in self defense?".)

Citing purported health benefits and the prevalence of placenta-eating amongst non-human animals, a lot of the moms in these conversations said that they have eaten or will eat their placentas after giving birth. A fair number seemed passive-aggressively horrified.

I think its gross and that there are other ways to get iron, but to each her own.

Whatever, Hannibel Lecter. Try it with some fava beans.

Animals do this to hide their babies and keep them safe from predators. For a human, this is so beyond disgusting.

I am really disappointed in myself for not thinking of some disgusting "natural" act that I can trick gullible crunchy people into eating/ingesting/smearing on themselves. Maybe I can cleverly market some meconium stool wrap on the internet and people will start walking around covered in baby crap?

[y]ou say placenta, I say placebo.

Susan Gunn, a D.C.-based certified childbirth educator who's been teaching for 10 years, says she's noticed more women in her childbirth classes asking about placenta-eating but she thinks that the practice isn't mainstream in the nation's captial just yet.

"I think it's still overall a very small percentage" who are doing it, she says.

Gunn surveyed her students on Wednesday night and emailed the following about their reactions:

I asked the eight expectant couples in my natural childbirth class tonight what they think about ingesting the placenta postpartum to regulate mood/avoid PPD [post-partum depression]. The majority quickly and loudly said "Yuck! That's too weird," while a few remained quiet and thoughtful. I think it has a ways to go to be considered socially acceptable, even in the natural birth community where we tend to talk very frankly about all things related to birth.

Booker, who has been preparing placentas for consumption for some three years, says that the business is pretty stable, trend stories aside. In the three years she's been doing encapsulations, she's averaged about three placentas per month. When placenta-eating is big in the news -- like when January Jones is in People magazine talking about it -- she'll experience a spike; she did six in December, though she's not sure exactly why the number grew then.

What are the ways to consume your own placenta?

Placentas can be cooked in various ways (for some of these ways, see New York magazine's aforementioned placenta-eating trend piece).

Placentas can also be eaten in a kind of smoothie, by putting them "in a blender, with yogurt, ice cream, berries, chocolate, ginger. Something like that," says Booker. "With various kinds of flavors that make it difficult for your tongue to figure out what's going on."

To make it even easier, Booker will "encapsulate" the placenta by turning it into pill form.

She does the encapsulating at her home. Here's how she describes the process, which she developed after studying Chinese as well as Mayan and Incan placenta-eating practices:

First, Booker carefully washes the placenta, "using my fingers to express any blood that I can get out of the placenta. You don't want the blood to be a part of the placenta."

Then, she steams the placenta. "Like a broccoli steamer," adding ginger "and any other herb that talks to me that day" to the water. She stabs it "a lot" to get the blood out, using "a big fork, like a barbeque fork."

She lets the placenta cool "for about an hour," removes the membrane, cuts off the umbilical cord. She'll then put it in the refrigerator "for a couple of hours" -- then cuts it "into things that look like chicken fingers" and puts the pieces into a dehydrator, at a temperature of 170 degrees. After about eight hours, when "it looks like jerky," Booker puts the placenta into an industrial coffee grinder and grinds it until it's "finer than espresso."

Booker then recruits her daughter to put the powder into capsules -- gelatin or vegan, depending on the client's dietary needs.

The encapsulation costs $200 if the client
off the placenta 
up the pills. Booker will handle transportation for another $25. (Check in with your hospital or birth center before giving birth if you want to keep your placenta; different institutions have different rules and procedures.)

Booker recommends her clients start off eating two placenta capsules per day, then start cutting back to one after about two weeks. Not everyone follows this recommendation.

"I've had people call, taking six a day -- they've got their $800 baby carriage, running around the mall, just burning their adrenal out," Booker says. "This is not something to give you more energy. This is something to help restore your body. This is not something to pump you up. Two weeks from now, be back in pilates. I'm talking to overachieving D.C. moms."

But should you eat placenta?

That depends on who you ask. Those who encourage the practice say it eases post-partum depression and other post-childbirth ailments, and encourages breast milk production.

Former Washington City Paper sex columnist Amanda Hess reviewed the literature at Good and found that science has not yet come up with any good reason for humans to eat their own placentas.

Mark B. Kristal, the main scientist studying human placenta-eating has not, however, ruled out that there may be benefits to the practice (here's Kristal's recent paper paper on the topic -- it concludes that more research is necessary).

"The Chinese have been doing it for thousands of years and they don't usually waste their time on a thing that doesn't work," says Booker. "That's my answer."

"I'm sure it has some sort of placebo effect," Gunn says. "And are there any downsides?"

Well, one mom wrote in The New York Times about placenta pills filling her with rage. Of course, she apparently took eight pills within two days.

Here's another potential downside, according to the DC Urban Moms discussion:

it was *really* gross to burp up those pills for hours!