The placenta is the lifeline between a mother and her unborn baby and arguably one of the most important organs in a human being’s life. It’s commonly discarded as medical waste after birth, but a new breed of mothers is adding the placenta to their birthing plans for its purported health benefits, which some claim include balancing hormones, reducing stress, and boosting energy. The second life of this ephemeral organ, also known as the afterbirth, sees it consumed via capsules, tinctures, smoothies, or other remedies, despite scientific research on the subject evaluating these claims in short supply.
Before becoming a 500g organ facilitating the transfer of nutrients and oxygen between mother and fetus, the placenta begins its life after the implantation of a fertilized egg on the uterine lining. Along with providing nutrients and hormones, it also protects the fetus against infection and removes waste. The placenta is usually expulsed within 30 minutes of giving birth and nearly all land-based mammals (except camels and humans) ingest their placenta after giving birth. This practice is known as placentophagy.
Human placenta has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. The 16th-century Chinese physician Li Shizhen was the first to record its use in his Compendium of Materia Medica but the first placenta capsule only appeared in the 1980s. “It is said that an American midwife named Raven Lang introduced the idea of consuming the placenta in capsule form and promoted the use of placenta remedies during an annual midwives conference,” says Elizabeth Ann Bain, a doula and childbirth educator at Dubai Doulas. Proponents believe that the placenta retains some of the nutrients it carried to the fetus after birth, which they claim can be beneficial to the mother if ingested.
While there is no scientific evidence to back up this theory, placentophagy hit the mainstream in 2015, when celebrities including the Kardashian sisters, January Jones, and Alicia Silverstone spoke out about their experiences. Today, placenta encapsulation specialists can be found in almost all major cities, including the Middle East. The process of encapsulating the placenta is straightforward. “It begins with safe handling, storage, and inspection in the hospital until it is collected by an encapsulation specialist,” explains Bain. From there, the process can take up to 72 hours. Amanda Denton, founder of Placenta Practice, the UK’s leading placenta encapsulation specialists, explains: “The placenta is dehydrated and then ground into a fine powder. It’s then manually poured into empty vegan capsules.”
Dubai-based mother-of-two Leah van Dooren discovered placenta encapsulation early into her second pregnancy while researching natural birth techniques. She worked with Jasmine Collin from Love Parenting UAE, with the process costing around AED 2 000. Van Dooren was not deterred by the lack of scientific research and clinical trials around placentophagy. “Mother Nature is intelligent and animals instinctively eat their placenta when they give birth in the wild, so it makes sense to me that we should too,” she says. She decided to ingest her second pregnancy’s placenta after having a difficult time recovering from her first. “I definitely feel that placenta encapsulation helped me in many ways,” she shares. “I didn’t experience the ‘baby blues’ this time around, which is a common symptom of the hormonal shifts in the days after giving birth. I had so much more energy and my recovery was fast and much easier than before.”
Those opposing placentophagy do so mainly due to the health risks attached to placenta encapsulation. Many placentas are infected with pathogenic bacteria, meaning they can cause diseases. Strict hygiene measures must be taken, with the placenta being processed in sterile conditions by a specialist. “There are a couple of scenarios where there may be a health risk,” says Denton. “One is if people try to prepare their own remedies at home. Another is using a specialist who may not have been audited and registered by a government health agency.”
Ingesting it is not the only way placentas are being utilized after birth. The organ is also showing up in skincare. “Placenta cosmetics are as exciting as placenta capsules,” says Denton. “A woman will not get many opportunities to have bespoke, handmade cosmetics, made with their very own placenta.” Placenta Practice creates creams, balms, and oils by blending it with ingredients like coconut oil. “I found that it really did hydrate my skin,” says Tracy Carlisle, a mother of three based in the UK. “My skin definitely felt smoother after using the cream, which lasted almost a year.” Not all experts believe in the power of the creams, though, with Bain arguing that “ingestion is always better and usually quicker to see results.”
Placental skincare mostly makes use of animal organs, explains Dr Lana Kashlan from Cosmesurge Dubai. “Sheep placenta is particularly rich in nutrients, more so than most mammals – including humans – due to their strong and vital immune systems.” While strict regulations and ethical issues are impeding the growth of placental skincare, there are a few brands pushing forward. One particular formula from MZ Skin, used in its Replenish & Restore Placenta & Stem Cell Night Recovery Mask and Rest & Revive Restorative Placenta & Stem Cell Night Serum, has developed a cult following for its purported results. Founder Dr Maryam Zamani explains, “It is made from sheep placenta, which is ethically sourced so no animal is hurt or killed for the placenta. It’s a byproduct of a natural delivery. It’s packed with growth factors, which help to nourish the skin.” Dr Kashlan, however, isn’t sold. “There are other anti-aging ingredients that can probably achieve similar, if not better, results. At this point, I don’t advise having your placenta made into a cream or using other people’s placentas because there is no evidence that placental extracts will be more effective than other anti-aging ingredients, including traditional antioxidants and other stem cell sources.”
Research into the possible therapeutic value of the components of the placenta – like umbilical cord blood and the amniotic membrane – is starting to be undertaken more actively by the medical industry. It seems the afterbirth has become more than an afterthought.
Originally published in the September 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia
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