Inside the world of human placentophagia

Date

Jackie Dent

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Photo: Carla G.

As someone who ate little meat, Emmie Collins was having a tricky time working out how to cook the placenta of her soon-to-be-delivered baby. She considered a recipe for liver by British food doyenne Elizabeth David, but knew she couldn't stomach it. A friend suggested another recipe, which entailed marinating and oven-baking the organ.

A few weeks after Collins had her daughter Sascha at home on Scotland Island, in Sydney's north, she took the placenta out of the freezer and began cooking. "I tried baking it, but I still couldn't stomach it," she says. In the end, Collins ground the placenta down and stuffed it into in capsules.

The practice of placentophagia - the ingestion of the placenta after birth - has been observed in practically all animal species. But among humans, the practice is rare and confined to the natural-birth scene, where it is believed that consuming the organ can reduce postnatal depression, aid lactation and energise an exhausted new mother.

While human placentophagia feels instinctively revolting - after all, these women are cannibalising their own organs - recent research led by Professor Mark Kristal, an American behavioural neuroscientist, found a range of significant benefits from eating afterbirth in non-human mammalian mothers, including prompting interaction between mother and baby, although he also suggests that humans may have adapted to not having to eat it.

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So far, research on this dinner-plate size organ has been largely esoteric, anthropological and unverifiable. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 1909 reported that juice made with sheep's placenta prompted lactation in French women, while Czechoslovakian research in 1950 found that eating freeze-dried placenta prompted a "strong reaction" in a third of women who had problems lactating.

Despite limited scientific evidence of its benefits, Sydney-based corporate lawyer Sonia Sharma ate her placenta in capsule form after hearing about the practice through her doula, Lucretia McCarthy. "It was quite interesting in that my husband was the one who was up for it. His reasoning was that even if it didn't have a scientific effect, the possible placebo effect was a good enough reason to give it a go."

Sharma took one or two capsules a day for three weeks after her son was born and had an excellent recovery.

"I don't know whether to attribute it all to the placenta encapsulation, but it was certainly part of the mix," she says.

"A lot of people view placenta encapsulation as a hippie thing to do, and maybe I am a bit of a corporate hippie, but for me it was like the placenta had played such an important role in sustaining my baby during the pregnancy and it felt really sad for it to be medical waste. That just didn't feel right to us as a family."

There are no figures on how many Australians take home their placentas. Some hospitals double-bag a placenta and keep it in the fridge for up to a week - if the baby is sick, it is tested.

A small number of Australian mothers also take their placentas home and bury them, particularly under trees.

Placental burial has been practised worldwide throughout history - the French placed them in orchards, Igbo villagers in Nigeria still inter them in their banana fields - and the mysticism and reverence long attached to the organ is documented in Placenta: The Gift of Life, a book by German midwife Cornelia Enning published in 2007.

Not only does Enning have recipes for postpartum soup and placenta ghee, she also charts the history of medical practices involving the organ, which has been used in Chinese medicine for 1400 years and was a common remedy in European pharmacies until the end of the 19th century.

Associate Professor Andrew Bisits, of Sydney's Royal Hospital for Women, has been an obstetrician for nearly 30 years and first observed people taking placentas home as a trainee in Newcastle, NSW. While he says the practice remains fringe, he understands why the organ fascinates some women.

"Let's face it, pregnancy is a major life event," he says. "The placenta is quite an amazing organ that serves multiple purposes. For the baby it is like a set of lungs that helps supply oxygen, and it is almost a kidney as well that helps filter blood. It is a hormone factory that's got no equivalent - it produces every hormone known to man."

Renee Adair is a doula who runs the Australian Doula College in Sydney. When we meet, she is busy with a mortar and pestle, grinding a placenta that's been steamed, sliced and dried in an oven for eight hours. She passes me the pestle to sniff; the brown powder has an earthy, meaty, metallic smell, which instantly makes me feel nauseous.

Adair got into encapsulation about seven years ago after seeing women cutting their placentas into tiny slivers, freezing them and taking them like tablets. A vegetarian who couldn't stomach eating it in such a raw form, Adair experimented for a year with unwanted placentas and now encapsulates about six a month. She says she keeps doing it because she has seen so many positive results.

"I have always had a strange desire to know more about placentas. I think they are the great unsung hero of our lives. It's a remarkable organ. Without it we cannot survive. It is the tree of life, the basis of everything." •