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Exploring the Potential Benefits of Ingesting Placenta

Published July 13, 2012

Ingesting components of afterbirth or placenta may offer benefits to human mothers, and perhaps to non-mothers and males, according to a paper by neuroscientists at UB and Buffalo State College.

“It is important for us to search for the medicinal or behavioral benefits of components of afterbirth for the same reasons that we search for plant-based medicinal substances.”
Mark Kristal, PhD
Professor of psychology and neuroscience

This possibility does not warrant the wholesale ingestion of afterbirth, but the subject deserves further study, says lead author Mark Kristal, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UB.

Benefits of Afterbirth Consumption Seen in Animals

Kristal has studied placenta consumption—or placentophagia—for more than 40 years and is a leading expert in the field.

He and his co-authors point out that non-human mammalian mothers reap significant benefits by ingesting placenta as well as amniotic fluid.

Placentophagia increases mother-infant interaction and the effects of pregnancy-mediated analgesia in the delivering mother.

It also potentiates opioid circuits in the maternal brain that facilitate the onset of caretaking behavior, and suppresses postpartum pseudopregnancy, thereby increasing the possibilities for fertilization.

“Human childbirth is fraught with additional problems for which there are no practical nonhuman animal models,” Kristal adds, citing postpartum depression, failure to bond and maternal hostility toward the infant.

While ingested afterbirth may contain components that ameliorate these problems, the many anecdotal claims to this effect have not been tested empirically, he notes.

“If such studies are undertaken, the results, if positive, will be medically relevant,” Kristal says.

Placentophagia Fad Spurred by Anecdotal Claims

The current fad of ingesting encapsulated placenta mirrors unverified accounts in the 1960s and 1970s of people in back-to-nature communes cooking and eating human placentas.

Recent anecdotal reports of its benefits—irrespective of dose, method of preparation or time course—suggest more of a placebo effect than a medicinal effect, Kristal says. Such reports should not be given much weight because they are neither reliable nor valid studies, he adds.

“The more challenging anthropological question is: ‘Why don’t humans engage in placentophagia as a biological imperative, as so many other mammals do? Perhaps for humans there is a greater adaptive advantage to not eating the placenta.

“Whether or not we learn why humans do not do this, it is important for us to search for the medicinal or behavioral benefits of components of afterbirth for the same reasons that we search for plant-based medicinal substances.”

Research Could Yield Pharmacological Aids

Such a quest could lead scientists to isolate and identify the molecule or molecules that produce placentophagia’s beneficial effect and use it to design pharmacological tools, Kristal says.

In earlier studies, he and his colleagues determined that the effect of placental opioid-enhancing factor (POEF)—an enhanced opioid-mediated analgesia—is not only nonspecific in regard to species, but also to sex.

“This means that males, who in all probability do not make the molecule, have the ability to respond to it,” says Kristal.

Kristal’s current paper, “Placentophagia in Human and Nonhuman Mammals: Causes and Consequences,” is published in the May 25 issue of Ecology of Food and Nutrition, which is devoted exclusively to the subject.