Do humans eat their placenta?

Eating the placenta after childbirth, known as placentophagy, is a practice that has existed for centuries in some cultures but has become more popular in recent years. There are many claimed benefits to consuming the placenta after birth, but the practice remains controversial. Here we’ll explore the history, purported benefits, risks, and current attitudes toward placentophagy.

Quick Overview: Do Some Humans Eat Their Placenta?

Yes, some humans do eat their placenta after giving birth. The practice of consuming the placenta postpartum is known as placentophagy. It has existed for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine and among various cultures, including indigenous tribes in North America and Mexico. In the modern era it has seen a resurgence in popularity, especially in the past 10-15 years, among advocates who promote its many claimed benefits.

However, placentophagy remains controversial. There is limited scientific research on its effects and safety. Much of the touted benefits come from anecdotal reports. The placenta does contain potentially beneficial hormones and nutrients, but also waste products filtered from the baby’s blood. Overall, more research is still needed on the impacts of placentophagy.

History and Traditional Practices

Recorded accounts of postpartum placentophagy date back thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine texts. The placenta was believed to replenish a woman’s qi, prevent postpartum problems, and enhance lactation. Consuming dried human placenta, known as ziheche, continues to be practiced in parts of modern China.

Among North American tribes, including the Navajo and Apache, customary preparations involved drying, roasting, or steaming the placenta for later consumption. It was seen as a sacred, life-giving organ that deserved respect. The placenta was sometimes buried under a favored planting spot to fertilize the earth.

In Mexico and Central America, traditions involved specially preparing the placenta in a soup or stew to help the mother recover strength and health after birth. Beliefs also intertwined the placenta with the spiritual essence of the newborn child.

The Placenta’s Role in Pregnancy

During pregnancy, the placenta is a temporary organ that develops attached to the uterine wall. It provides oxygen and nutrients from the mother’s blood supply to the developing baby via the umbilical cord. Waste products are filtered back out from the baby’s blood. The placenta also secretes hormones like progesterone, estrogen, and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) that help support pregnancy.

Many mammals eat their placenta instinctively after giving birth, which is thought to be a survival mechanism. Consuming the afterbirth delivers a boost of nutrients and hormones when the new mother needs replenishing after the demands of pregnancy and labor. It may also help eliminate the strong scent that could attract predators.

Modern Resurgence of Placentophagy

Interest in placentophagy saw a resurgence in the 1970s within some natural birthing and home birth communities. The practice gained more mainstream attention after celebrities like January Jones, Alicia Silverstone, and Holly Madison announced they had consumed their placentas.

Today, placentophagy remains most common among women having home or natural births, but some hospitals allow women to take their placenta home. A small but growing number of specialists offer placenta encapsulation services to process the afterbirth into pills.

Protocols for Placenta Consumption

Here are some of the main methods for preparing and consuming placenta:

  • Raw – Small pieces eaten right after birth or preserved raw for later.
  • Cooked – Placenta cooked as part of a meal, like in a stew or lasagna.
  • Dehydrated/Encapsulated – Dehydrated and put into capsules to swallow.
  • Tincture – Steeped in alcohol to make a liquid tincture.
  • Homeopathic Remedy – Extremely diluted and potentized doses.

When encapsulating or making remedies, the placenta is first cleaned, sliced, and dehydrated at low temperatures. Herbs or supplements are sometimes added in the process. The placenta can also be steamed before drying.

Claimed Benefits of Placentophagy

Advocates cite many purported benefits to placentophagy:

  • Replenishing hormones – The placenta contains hormones like oxytocin, progesterone, and estrogen that rapidly decrease after delivery.
  • Increasing milk supply – Estrogen levels are thought to play a key role in lactation.
  • Decreasing postpartum bleeding – The placenta has high levels of prostaglandins that encourage uterine contractions.
  • Replacing iron and nutrients – The placenta contains iron and nutrients that support recovery.
  • Pain relief – May have a mild opioid-like effect.
  • Promoting bonding – Honoring the placenta’s role can increase maternal feelings.
  • Postpartum mood support – Hormones may help stabilize emotions.

However, these benefits currently lack strong scientific evidence, with research limited mostly to animal models and anecdotal reports. Small studies have found some possible improvement to iron levels, milk production, and mood from placentophagy but further research is needed.

Risks and Safety Concerns

Consuming the placenta does carry some potential risks and safety concerns:

  • Bacterial contamination – Raw placenta could contain dangerous bacteria like Group B Strep.
  • Viral transmission – Viruses like HIV or hepatitis could spread from an infected mother.
  • Accumulation of toxins – Environmental toxins and medications can accumulate in the placenta.
  • Lack of regulation – Placenta encapsulation is not regulated for safety or consistency.
  • Allergic reaction – Possible allergies to placental tissue.
  • Hormone fluctuations – Too much placental estrogen could inhibit milk supply.

Proper heating techniques and food safety practices can reduce the chance of bacterial contamination. But viral transmission and environmental toxins remain a concern. The lack of regulation also means placenta capsules could have inconsistent hormone levels.

Current Medical Perspectives

The medical establishment today has mixed and cautious perspectives on placentophagy:

  • The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology takes no official stance but notes a lack of data on benefits or risks.
  • Many hospitals still prohibit taking placenta home due to legal concerns.
  • Some doctors actively discourage it due to minimal proven benefits and possible risks.
  • Other doctors allow placentophagy if performed safely, seeing minimal downsides for healthy women.
  • Most agree much more research is still needed on the practice.

While not advocated, placentophagy is generally not forbidden medically either provided proper protocols are followed. But patients are encouraged to discuss options with their obstetric provider first.

Placentophagy in Other Mammals

Nearly all mammals naturally consume their placenta after giving birth, including:

  • Herbivores – Cows, deer, horses
  • Omnivores – Bears, raccoons
  • Carnivores – Cats, lions, ferrets
  • Primates – Chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys
  • Rodents – Rats, mice, voles

It is thought to be an innate, adaptive behavior that helped species survive in the wild. The main benefits for animals are nutrition and predator avoidance rather than the hormonal effects claimed in humans. Still, placentophagy remains nearly universal in the mammalian world.

Prevalence of Placentophagy Among Humans

It’s difficult to pin down exact numbers, but some key statistics on human placentophagy:

  • Up to 1/3 of women report interest in placentophagy surveys.
  • Around 3-5% of women in North America engage in placentophagy.
  • Rates may be higher among home births, around 10-25%.
  • Placentophagy is still rare in hospital births, around 1-2%.

So while a definite minority, a small but significant number of women choose to consume their placentas each year for the hoped-for benefits. Rates seem to be steadily increasing over time as it gains awareness.

Placentophagy by Country/Region

Country/Region Estimated Prevalence
North America 3-5%
Central America 5-10%
China 5-15%
Western Europe 1-3%
Eastern Europe Less than 1%

Rates vary but are highest in regions where traditional practices exist. It remains relatively rare in Western medicine. The practice seems to be slowly gaining ground globally though.

Legality of Placenta Consumption

There are generally no laws prohibiting placentophagy in most countries. A few key legal considerations:

  • In the U.S., placentophagy is legal in all 50 states.
  • A few states restrict transfer of placenta between mom/encapsulator.
  • The sale of placenta or placenta products is illegal in Canada.
  • Italy and France prohibit consuming placenta but allow encapsulation.
  • Some nations restrict use of the placenta as a traditional medicine ingredient.

Provided there is proper informed consent, women are free to consume their own placentas in almost all countries. However, regulations on preparing, selling, or transferring placenta vary between regions.

Cultural and Spiritual Significance

Beyond the physical effects, placentophagy also holds cultural, spiritual, and symbolic importance for many throughout history:

  • Seen as a sacred life-giving organ deserving of respect.
  • Honoring the placenta’s role in nurturing the child.
  • Viewed as a part of one’s essence and identity.
  • Strengthening bonds between mother, child, and community.
  • Representing themes of renewal, transformation, and ritual.

These meanings underline why placentophagy persists in many traditional cultures. The practice takes on aspects deeper than just the tangible health benefits.

Arguments For and Against Placentophagy

Arguments For:

  • Thousands of years of traditional use globally.
  • Natural instinct in nearly all mammals.
  • Rich in hormones, iron, nutrients needed postpartum.
  • No evidence of significant harm when properly prepared.
  • Women have the right to autonomy over placenta decisions.

Arguments Against:

  • Limited scientific evidence, benefits are theoretical.
  • Risk of bacterial contamination if unsafely prepared.
  • Accumulation of environmental toxins is a concern.
  • Lack of regulation and consistency.
  • Cultural traditions should not dictate medical practice.

There are ethically compelling points on both sides of the debate. More research could help clarify if benefits truly outweigh the risks.

Key Takeaways on Placentophagy

In summary, key points about human placentophagy:

  • Consuming the placenta postpartum has happened for millennia in various cultures.
  • Purported benefits like increased milk production lack strong scientific evidence.
  • Potential risks exist like bacterial infection, but are low with proper handling.
  • The practice remains controversial with no consensus medical recommendation.
  • While not mainstream, rates of placentophagy are gradually increasing, especially in home births.

Further research is needed on placentophagy’s safety and efficacy. But women should be supported in making informed choices aligned with their preferences and values.


Placentophagy stands at fascinating intersection of tradition, natural instinct, and modern science. More research is still needed to unravel fact from fiction regarding its benefits and risks. But the available evidence to date does not indicate major harms either, at least with proper protocols. Much uncertainty remains around how much the practice actually impacts postpartum recovery and lactation.

The deeply rooted cultural and spiritual significance of placentas for many should also not be discounted. For women whose values align with consuming their placenta, there seem to be few drawbacks provided safety precautions are taken. However, placentophagy is unlikely to become a mainstream medical recommendation any time soon given the current modest state of the evidence.

In the end, an informed discussion between patient and provider is wise for any woman considering placentophagy. But there is also merit in being open-minded given the long histories of traditional use worldwide. Much remains to be learned about the amazing human placenta and how best to honor its role in giving life.

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