In our current model of healthcare, there is often quite a bit of emphasis put on pre-natal care and preparing for the birth itself, but when it comes to postpartum times, quality care (and education) for the mother is often lacking. However, in many traditional cultures the proper postpartum attention for both the mother and baby is of the utmost importance, with a myriad of time-honored treatments and protocols adhered to. In some of these traditions, incorporating the placenta as medicine is an important part of the postpartum recovery for the mother.
The oldest recorded use we have of the use of the placenta as medicine comes to us from Chinese Medicine, the system of medicine in China that is over 2,000 years old and still in use today. In this system the prepared placenta (more on how to make this preparation later) is called Zi He Chi, is considered a supreme medicine for restoration, and is said to store the vital essence for the baby. Some specific indications for its use postpartum in Chinese Medicine are fatigue in the mother and insufficient lactation. It is also used during menopause- a testament to the high hormone levels it contains.
Modern-day science on the benefits of ingesting the placenta (called placentophagy) is lacking, but on the rise, and we do have some scientific studies (see references below) and lots and lots of empirical evidence. Once study by the National Institute of Health showed that the placenta is very rich in Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH), which is a stress-reducing hormone, and that the placenta secretes so much into the bloodstream during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy that the CRH levels increase three times their normal levels. Normally this hormone is secreted by the hypothalamus, but during pregnancy it isn’t, as the placenta takes care of that. After delivery of the placenta, however, it takes the hypothalamus some time to get the signal that CRH levels are low and that it needs to start producing it again, and ingesting the placenta- rich in this hormone, and others- can help mitigate this fluctuation and also shows some scientific evidence for its use to prevent postpartum depression. Also, interestingly, nearly every mammal consumes its placenta after birth- even herbivores- and one study showed that animals refused to eat other meats offered and preferentially ate their placenta.
Other medicinal benefits observed by midwives, herbalists, placenta consultants, doulas, birth professionals and traditional healers include increased general energy, better mood and prevention of postpartum depression and the “baby blues”, improved sleep, improved milk production and nutritional quality of the milk, prevention of iron-deficiency anemia, and faster postpartum healing. The placenta may also be used anytime a mother is going through a time of increased stress- even if it isn’t immediately postpartum- and can be helpful during menopause as well, as mentioned above. It is sometimes recommended for the child too if they are undergoing a lot of stress.
It’s also important to take a moment to discuss the nutritional content of the placenta. Remember the placenta is an organ, which makes it an organ meat, which are universally revered in traditional cultures for their life-giving properties due to their high vitamin, mineral and hormone content, and the placenta is no different! We know it is high in protein, fat, iron, minerals including sodium, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese. It is also rich in hormones- many of which are in flux in the days and weeks following birth- including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, prolactin, oxytocin, thyroid stimulating hormone, corticotropin releasing hormone, cortisone. (For specifics on how these hormones effect the postpartum body please refer to item #3 in the references below).
Preparing and Using the Placenta for Medicine
There are many ways to take and prepare the placenta as medicine, including eating it cooked or raw, tincturing it, and preparing it according to Traditional Chinese Medicine and making a tea, or powdering the prepared placenta and putting it into capsules. The latter is my favorite for to work with the placenta in my herbal practice, and is the form I have the most clinical experience with and have seen excellent results both in myself and others. One study even showed that certain nutrients were increased by the heating process. I love it when scientific study validates centuries of traditional use!
Here’s how to prepare it according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. (This recipe comes from licensed acupuncturist Amy Mager of Mager Healing in Northampton, Massachusetts):
How to Dry a Placenta
1 Peel of grapefruit, lemon or orange
2-4 One inch pieces of fresh ginger
1 Fresh jalapeno pepper
Scrub out your sink and clean your counter to be used as well. Use a large clean bowl to rinse the placenta, removing any clots or loose blood. Wash and cut the other ingredients.
Place the ingredients in a stainless steel or cast iron pot and cover with filtered water. Simmer until completely cooked. Test with a fork: No blood should run and it should feel tender and not tough. Usually this takes about an hour and a half.
Remove the placenta from the liquid and cool to room temperature on a plate on which it can be cut. Using a very sharp knife, cut the placenta into very thin, long strips.
Lay the strips upon either oven racks, cookie sheets or on food dehydrator trays. Allow them to dry in the oven (or food dehydrator) on the lowest possible setting. Dry until the pieces snap. This may take 5 hours or longer. Leave in an uncovered glass jar for 1 day. Cover the jar after that for storage. Store in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.
A few more notes on this:
This is an excellent job for the partner, a close friend or family member, postpartum doula or a placenta encapsulation professional (a quick internet search may yield some in your area). The bottom line is that this is not a job for the mother. Also a few more considerations: For hospital births, bring a cooler to store the placenta in if it cannot be immediately refrigerated and be sure to communicate that you do not want it to be disposed. If birthing at home the placenta should be refrigerated immediately. If it cannot be processed as above with 24 hours of the birth it should be frozen. It can then be thawed out and prepared according to the recipe. Once it is prepared and stored in the jar in pieces, it can be ground as needed into powder and then put into capsules, which are available at most health food stores. A clean coffee grinder does a great job of powdering it. In my herbal clinical practice I have seen a dosage of 2 capsules/day be enough for most women, and taking them for 6-8 weeks after the birth is recommended, although I have often seen women intuitively know when they no longer need them.
The placenta can provide amazing postpartum support and I believe the more of us birth professionals sharing this option and information with our clients, the better!
1. Phuapradit, W. (n.d.). Nutrients and Hormones in Heat-Dried Human Placenta [Abstract]. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand,83(6), 690-694.
2. Bensky/Gamble. 1997. Materia Medica, Eastland Press, 549.
3. Research Studies Supporting Placenta Encapsulation. (n.d.). Retrieved June 22, 2016, from http://www.placentawise.com/research-studies-supporting-placenta-encapsulation/
4. Amy Mager, Lic. Ac., MS, Dipl. O.M. (NCCAOM). http://www.wellnesshousenorthampton.com/