Is Placenta Encapsulation For You? Understand the Pros and Cons, Benefits, Risks, and Research on Placenta Encapsulation
I think you’ll agree with me when I say:
New moms face a lot of challenges – sleepless nights, stress, and exhaustion after giving birth. And for moms at high risk of postpartum depression or with other health concerns, these challenges can seem overwhelming.
Placenta encapsulation is touted as a completely natural, easy way to increase your energy, combat postpartum depression, improve milk supply/flow, replenish iron levels, and generally feel better after giving birth.
The best part?
It’s as easy as popping a few pills every day.
But what’s the real story?
Is placenta encapsulation really the cure-all that some doulas claim it is? Why did the CDC recently issue an advisement against taking placenta pills?
This guide is designed to help you separate the reality from the hype around placenta encapsulation, so that you can weigh the pros and cons, risks and benefits, and make an informed decision about whether or not placenta encapsulation is for you.
UPDATED: Recently the CDC issued an advisory statement based on a single case of a hypothesized link between a placenta not being properly sterilized, and a baby falling ill with late-onset Group B Strep (GBS). Doctors found no trace of Group B Strep (a common bacteria) in the mother’s breast milk, but did find traces in her placenta pills.
The CDC stated that “Consumption of contaminated placenta capsules might have elevated maternal GBS intestinal and skin colonization, facilitating transfer to the infant.” So the baby contracted GBS from his mother’s skin or other bodily fluids, not the pills. But the mother’s bacterial colonies MAY have been elevated by the contaminated pills.
Keep in mind that routes of transmission of late-onset GBS are poorly understood and that the CDC is making this recommendation based on a single case where the mechanism of transfer was hypothesized rather than proven.
Regardless, I want to emphasize that placentas MUST be properly handled before encapsulating them. The risks of placenta encapsulation are similar to the risks of consuming meat: proper preparation can minimize the risks of contamination or allowing bacteria to survive in the capsules.
Read on to understand how you can get the benefits of placenta encapsulation and minimize the risks.
Understand Placentaphagy (Consuming the Placenta)
If you’re pregnant or trying to conceive you may have heard about women eating their placentas – raw, cooked, or using placenta encapsulation.
Also called “Placentaphagy” (phagy is derived from the Greek word “phagein,” which means to eat) the practice of mothers eating their own placenta after giving birth is becoming increasingly popular.
Celebrity mothers like January Jones (of Mad Men fame) have sworn by placenta encapsulation, further increasing interest in the practice.
Placenta encapsulation is the most popular method of placentaphagy, as it allows new mothers to consume the placenta in tasteless, easy-to-swallow capsules.
WARNING: There is A LOT of hype and misinformation online about placenta encapsulation. This guide aims to give you actual research and a science-based understanding of the benefits of placenta encapsulation. You’ll also hear from women directly about their experience of placenta encapsulation.
Here’s the deal:
Placenta encapsulation has a number of potential benefits including:
- Reduced risk of postpartum depression
- Increased milk supply
- More energy and better mood
- Improvement in hormonal balance
- Reduction in postnatal bleeding
- Replenishing depleted iron levels
Full disclosure: I offer placenta encapsulation because as a doula I have seen placenta pills help SO many new mothers. If you’re interested in placenta encapsulation in Toronto or the GTA, you can check out my services and prices:
Placenta Encapsulation Services, Prices, and Information
Otherwise, read on to learn more about placenta encapsulation.
What Exactly is Your Placenta?
The placenta is the organ that develops in between the fetus and the uterine wall. The placenta serves a few key purposes: it passes oxygen and essential nutrients from the mother to the developing baby, it removes waste from the baby’s blood, and the umbilical cord develops from the placenta. (Image source: The BBC)
Many mammals have placentas, but the human placenta is unique in how extensively the placenta reaches into the uterine lining, and how large the placenta’s surface area is relative to the size of the fetus. The relatively large surface area of the human placenta is due to human fetal brain development’s massive requirement of energy and fat. Towards the end of the pregnancy up to 7 grams of fat per day pass through the placenta, which is much more fat than is required by any other mammal for brain development. (Source)
Increase Milk Supply: Hormones in the Placenta
The placenta also produces hormones that help the developing fetus grow. The placenta produces estrogen, progesterone, hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), and hPL (human placental lactogen). Estrogen stimulates milk production, while hPL promotes mammary gland growth during the latter stages of pregnancy. Both these hormones are essential to prepare the mother’s body to breastfeed, and the role of the placenta in their production is the basis of the belief that consuming the placenta supports milk production.
Combat Nutrient Depletion: What Nutrients Does The Placenta Have?
Because a developing human baby has such significant energy needs, the human placenta draws on (and often depletes) a pregnant woman’s stores of iron, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin B9, iodine, selenium, and omega 3 fats likes DHA.
Which nutrients are actually present in the placenta after birth?
Studies (source) have shown that a number of nutrients and hormones are present in the placenta after birth, and that these nutrients and hormones survive the heating and dehydrating process. Minerals found include potassium, iron, phosphorous, sodium, and calcium.
This is an important point, as all methods of placenta encapsulation involve heating and dehydrating the placenta for consumption. This must be done carefully in order to preserve the nutrients and hormones in the placenta.
Pregnancy and giving birth leave new mothers in a state of significant nutrient depletion. In order to recapture these nutrients, some women have started to consume their placentas in the hopes of naturally replenishing their nutrient stores, rebalancing their hormones, and realizing a number of other health benefits.
Placenta Pills: What Is Placenta Encapsulation?
Placenta encapsulation is the most popular method of maternal placentaphagy (mother’s eating their own placenta).
Placenta encapsulation is the process of preparing a mother’s placenta for consumption by either heating and dehydrating it, grinding it up, and encasing it in sterile vegetable or gelatin capsules – just like a vitamin. This allows women to consume their placentas over a period of a few months in a flavorless, easy to swallow capsule.
Your placenta pills would look and taste like any other vitamin you take. You typically get 100-200 capsules and take 2-6 per day, depending on the recommendations of your encapsulator.
You can read more about the process of placenta encapsulation, including the differences between the raw and Traditional Chinese methods on this site.
Interested in placenta encapsulation in Toronto or the GTA? See prices and contact me for more information.
Have Studies Proven the Effectiveness of Placenta Encapsulation?
Here’s the deal:
To date, there has never been a double-blind placebo-controlled study on placenta encapsulation.
In a double-blind study, neither the participants nor the researchers know which group of people is taking the placebo, and which are taking the experimental drug. This controls for the placebo effect, and helps to limit bias on the part of the researchers. Double-blind placebo controlled studies are considered the gold standard of research.
Now, stay with me here:
We are going to take a careful look at the research that DOES exist on placenta encapsulation.
In my 10 years as a doula, I have seen so many women benefit from placenta encapsulation. I have heard many women say they recovered better from their second baby when they took placenta pills versus previous births when they didn’t, and this despite having multiple children to look after. I personally feel I benefitted enormously from placenta encapsulation after the birth of my daughter. – Kelly Maslen, Doula
I want to state clearly that postpartum depression is a serious condition that can impact many new mothers and their families. I am making this guide because issues that affect new mothers are generally understudied, and mothers and soon-to-be mothers are looking for solutions.
Traditional psychiatric medications and even things like iron pills, have a number of serious (and well-documented) side effects, and mothers naturally worry about passing these drugs on to their babies through breast milk.
I believe that placenta encapsulation is an effective and natural form of supplementation and believe that women are embracing it because the traditional medical establishment often does not take their concerns seriously.
I think placenta encapsulation is like meditation – now we have many studies that prove the health benefits of meditation, but monks all over the world benefited from meditation for thousands of years before mainstream science understood WHY meditation works. – Kelly Maslen, Doula
While we wait for the benefits of placenta encapsulation to be proven, let’s explore the limited research that has been done.
** Note: many websites reference two poorly structured studies to prove the benefits of placenta consumption – one from 1918 and one from 1954. I do not consider either of those studies to have been sufficiently well-designed to use as evidence.
Be Confident in Your Decision: Scientific Studies of Placenta Encapsulation
While there is no research specifically on the effectiveness of placenta encapsulation, there IS research on the physiological functions, nutrient deficiencies, and hormone imbalances that contribute to the challenges that new mothers face.
By examining this research, we can see how placenta encapsulation helps new mothers overcome these challenges.
Prevent Postpartum Depression
One of the most common reasons that women encapsulate their placenta is to prevent postpartum depression.
The causes of postpartum depression are not well understood, and no single cause has been identified (Mayo Clinic).
Contributing factors include the drastic decline in estrogen and progesterone post-birth, nutritional deficiencies, sleep deprivation, and emotional factors like poor support systems, mixed feelings about the pregnancy, previous trauma, difficult birth, and a history of mental health or other health problems.
One way that I believe placenta encapsulation helps to address the physical risk factors is by balancing out the steep drop in estrogen and progesterone post-birth. The placenta is also rich in nutrients such as iron, B12, B9, and B6 – deficiencies in these nutrients have been identified as possibly contributing to low energy and low mood in new mothers.
The placenta produces estrogen and progesterone, so consuming the encapsulated placenta aims to give you back some of these hormones, making the drop in hormone levels less drastic.
Levelling off the estrogen and progesterone drop post-birth may be how placenta encapsulation helps prevent postpartum depression.
Replenish Depleted Iron and Nutrients
Another way that placenta encapsulation may help stave off postpartum depression and improve mood and energy is through supplementation of essential nutrients.
A female psychiatrist on the forefront of psychiatric research and clinical practice in treating pregnant women who have struggled with their psychological well being is Dr. Kelly Brogan. Dr. Brogan has been highly critical of the effectiveness of anti-depressant medications and the current psychiatric best practices around diagnosis and treatment.
Recently Dr. Brogan reviewed research into the causes of postpartum depression.
This is an excerpt from Dr. Brogan’s blog in which she reviews research showing that nutrient deficiencies can contribute to inflammation, which in turn may be causing postpartum depression (emphasis mine):
“B12, B9, and B6, all of which have been fingered as important nutrients for mood and brain health, are directly involved in the “one-carbon cycle,” which recycles homocysteine. Hence, low intake of these nutrients can promote inflammation and mood destabilization.
• Individual genetic variants that determine how well we traffic and metabolize these nutrients are being elucidated. For instance, MTHFR genetic mutations can render you up to 70% less efficient at converting food or synthetic folic acid into a form that your brain can use to make DNA, RNA, neurotransmitters, and fatty acids.
• The “bioavailability” (the form in a given fortified “food” or supplement) of these vitamins may make the difference between a happy mama, healthy baby or the opposite.
Polyunsaturated fats, like fish oil, may have a sweet spot in terms of minimizing inflammation:
• There is precious little data to support using omega-3 fatty acids as a treatment for perinatal depression, but there are a number of correlative studies identifying deficiency as a risk factor. This paper suggests that DHA specifically, and at lower rather than higher doses, may perform antioxidant roles. The ability of omega-3s to oxidize is related to pro-oxidant factors like dietary sugar, trans fat, alcohol, pathogen exposure, and stress.
• Our fats and our cell membranes are happiest when they’re in good dietary supply and in a non hostile bodily environment.”
So how can placenta encapsulation help? Well we know that the placenta is rich in vitamins B12 and B6, as well as omega-3s and important fatty acids. So it stands to reason that consuming these nutrients after birth, in a form that the body can absorb easily, would help resolve any nutrient depletion that could contribute to postpartum depression, low mood, or low energy.
Improve Milk Supply and Flow
Two specific hormones found in the placenta play a role in breastfeeding: hPL (human placental lactogen) and estrogen. Estrogen stimulates milk production, while hPL promotes mammary gland growth – it is the consumption of these two hormones from the placenta that likely contribute to improvements in milk supply and flow in new mothers who consume their placentas.
Reduce Postpartum Bleeding and Relieve Pain
One study found that after female rats ate their placentas (which they naturally do) they had a significant increase in natural opioids produced in their bodies. This seems to have provided some pain relief for the postpartum female rats. While it’s a bit of a jump to conclude that the same could be observed in humans, there is a reason that rats and mice are studied so often – a lot of things that work for them work for us too!
With regards to postpartum bleeding and tissue healing – the B vitamins and iron present in the placenta will support healing. Iron plays a very important role in healing tissues.
Don’t Be Fooled By This Particular Claim
However, there is one substance that many doulas claim speeds healing that I’m not even sure exists: Urokinase Inhibiting Factor and Factor XIII. It seems to me that one website lists this as a substance that exists in the placenta and “stops bleeding and enhances wound healing” without citing any study (even a bad one!) to support it.
And every doula and placenta encapsulation website just copied this site’s list of substances present in the placenta and the purpose they serve. Go ahead, Google “Urokinase Inhibiting Factor” and you will see hundreds of doulas citing this as a thing that exists in the placenta.
Now Urokinase is an enzyme that is produced by the kidneys and can help dissolve blood clots. But from my research, “Urokinase Inhibiting Factor” is not a thing that exists AT ALL, let alone that exists in the placenta.
Maybe there is a study somewhere showing that this factor inhibits Urokinase and therefore limits bleeding – but I cannot find it, and cannot even find a reference to it.
Please email me if you find a study that references “Urokinase Inhibiting Factor and Factor XIII.”
Review of Recent Research
As I mentioned, there is not much quality research on placenta encapsulation; however, more is underway!
First the good:
A 2013 study of mother’s experiences with placentaphagy (eating the placenta in some form) found that 96% of mother’s had a “positive” or “very positive” experience with placentaphagy, with 98% of mothers reporting that they would eat the placenta after another pregnancy. You can check it out here.
This is a great overview of some preliminary findings of recent research on iron levels of mothers taking placenta capsules.
Did a Study Find That Placentaphagy Has No Benefit? (Spoiler Alert: NO)
I’m discussing this study in particular, because in my experience it is the ONLY study that people and media sources quote when they say that the benefits of placenta encapsulation are “questionable” or “unproven.”
Let’s have a look:
A 2015 study that has been reported on as “proving that eating your placenta has no benefit” proves no such thing. What it proves is that there has been NO good research on placentaphagy to date (which is exactly why I created this guide!) You can read an interview with the lead researcher here.
This study is essentially a review of the existing literature (10 studies) on mothers consuming their placentas – only four studies reviewed actually related to human placentaphagy. The other 6 studies examined mothers’ and physicians’ attitudes around placentaphagy and/or placenta encapsulation.
Only one (1!) study actually tried to measure the impacts of placentaphagy, and I believe this was the study from 1918 that I referenced earlier. It examined the impact of placentaphagy on milk supply, but there was no control group used, and the mothers just gave their own subjective evaluation of their milk supply, rather than it actually being measured. But for the record, that study did find that overwhelming the mothers who ate their placentas had “good” or “very good” milk supply.
There was another poorly designed study on human placentaphagy in 1954, and it’s not clear whether this study was reviewed. It is no surprise to me that these studies were found to not provide evidence of placentaphagy’s benefits.
Rather than prove that placenta encapsulation and other forms of maternal placentaphagy don’t work, this study makes it clear that there is no good research on mothers eating or otherwise consuming their placentas.
The study also points to limitations in studying mice and rats eating their placentas, since those animals (and all mammals that engage in placentaphagy) eat their placentas raw, in one go, immediately after birth. Most women opt to encapsulate their placentas rather than eating them immediately after birth, and I would never advocate eating the placenta raw without proper treatment.
The researcher also raised concerns about the lack of regulation regarding how placentas are handled before they are consumed. I agree with her on this: it is essential that placentas be handled and prepared properly before human consumption.
This study is essentially a review of all the research related to placentaphagy and I agree with its findings: that placentaphagy has not been adequately studied. We need more studies on placentaphagy and placenta encapsulation specifically!
I want to emphasize that I have seen placenta encapsulation help so many women over my years as a doula that I’m confident it has immense benefits that will be discovered in time.
Stay Safe: What Are the Risks of Placenta Encapsulation?
The risks of placenta encapsulation are minimal, but not non-existent. The main risks are contamination of the placenta during the encapsulation process, and that the placenta will not be prepared properly allowing some bacteria that are naturally present on/in the placenta to survive the encapsulation process.
The placenta is not sterile as some people suggest. The placenta naturally has some bacteria from your body on it and in it. Additionally, the placenta filters toxins for the developing fetus, and without proper preparation there is a risk that small levels of these toxins could survive the encapsulation process.
You can read more about the methods that I use for placenta encapsulation here, but both methods thoroughly clean the placenta and sterilize the environment it is encapsulated in, in order to ensure that the capsules are safe.
It is VERY important to choose an encapsulator who is experienced and knows how to mitigate these risks. Placentas need to be properly cleaned and prepared before consumption.
Interested in placenta encapsulation in Toronto or the GTA? See prices and contact me for more information.
The other thing that I want to emphasize is that placenta encapsulation should be seen as a preventative and complimentary treatment, NOT as a substitute for other forms of medical care or methods of treatment should serious postpartum depression arise. Familiarize yourself, your loved ones, and your support system with the symptoms of postpartum depression and talk to your doctor right away if you start to see these symptoms arise or if you feel unwell.
Choose The Right Service: What Should I Look For in a Placenta Encapsulation Service?
Your encapsulator should have specialized, sterilized equipment for handling your placenta at all times to prevent cross-contamination and potential mix-ups.
Ask your placenta encapsulator what their process is for sterilizing the placenta and make sure you’re comfortable with it.
Your placenta pills should be stored in the freezer to preserve their freshness.
Interested in placenta encapsulation in Toronto or the GTA? See prices and contact me for more information.
Testimonials From My Clients
Here are just a few testimonials from my clients, who have seen a wide range of benefits from placenta encapsulation.
I didn’t have my placenta encapsulated with my first child and I found myself really exhausted and hormonal for the first 2 years of my daughters life. After taking my placenta pills after my second daughter I noticed I had a lot of energy and stamina to take care of both my daughters. – Karen S.
After my first child I had milk production issues I just couldn’t make enough milk to feed my son. After my second child I decided to try placenta encapsulation with Kelly and I was pleasantly surprised to have an abundant milk supply so much so I still have a freezer full of pumped milk! Now I’m pregnant with my third and looking forward to my magic pills! – Sandra M.
Just a note to say that I am nearing the end of my placenta capsules, and I truly believe they have helped me so very much. I did not experience postpartum depression, or even baby blues. The doctor I spoke to said that it is very rare for someone as at-risk as I was in my 3rd trimester to end up feeling fine postpartum. I know so much of that was was due to taking my placenta. Just wanted to say thank you so much. – LJ
Hi Kelly – I was really worried about postpartum depression with my first child so we did a lot of research and after a lot of recommendations from a couple of my friends (about the benefits of consuming the placenta), I decided to try placenta encapsulation. I didn’t necessarily have any immediate effect but the fact that I didn’t have any postpartum depression and was generally pretty energetic I thought was probably helped by the placenta pills. I just want to be proactive and avoid problems by any means necessary! After I stop taking the pills regularly if I was having a bad day I would take one and it might’ve just been the placebo effect but I thought that it boosted my energy levels and reduced minimal anxiety. Generally, I’m not that ‘granola’ or ‘health conscious’ but this is the one thing I felt strongly about. – Carla
After taking my placenta pills I felt a constant flow of regulated energy inside me, an overall calmness and I feel like I healed a lot faster than the last time. I have shared my experience with the process with many women, in hopes that they too will at least know that this is an option for them postpartum.
Thank you for providing me with your service and if anyone would like to speak to me personally about the pills and how I felt while on them, please feel free to contact me.
I am just about done them now and really feel that they had a huge impact on my mental health and my physical well being. – Cathy, mother of two
Placenta encapsulation is a generally safe form of postapartum supplementation that I have seen help countless women, and that the vast majority of women feel that they have benefitted from.
While research on placenta encapsulation and other forms of placentaphagy is nascent, we have reason to believe that mothers who consume their placentas see improvements in vitamin depletions and hormonal imbalances that contribute to postpartum depression, low mood, low energy, anemia, and poor milk supply. Placenta encapsulation, when performed by a professional encapsulator, is a safe and natural way for improving maternal well being and supporting new mothers in having a happy postpartum period.