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October 20, 2017

New moms are eating their placenta. Here's why that may be risky.

Daily Briefing

    A new study is urging providers to warn patients against the "trendy practice" of consuming their placenta after childbirth, citing a dearth of evidence supporting the purported health claims—and research that it could actually pose health risks, HealthDay/Chicago Tribune reports.

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    Who's eating placenta? And why?

    During pregnancy, the placenta filters out toxins and transports oxygen and nutrients from the mother to the developing fetus, according to HealthDay/Tribune.

    While many animals eat the placenta after giving birth, it's uncommon for humans to do so. However, the practice—called "placentophagy"—has gained popularity in recent years, thanks in part to endorsements from celebrities such as Kourtney Kardashian and Katherine Heigl.

    In response to the trend, several companies now offer to prepare the placenta for consumption for a fee that usually ranges from $200 to $400, according to the study authors. Common methods of preparation include: raw, cooked, roasted, dehydrated, steamed, in capsule form, or in a smoothie.

    Proponents of the practice claim the practice boosts energy, improves lactation, and can aid with postpartum depression, HealthDay/Tribune reports. However, according to HealthDay/Tribune, a recent survey found that more than half of OB-GYNs felt uninformed about the risks and benefits of the practice, and 60 percent were unsure whether they should support it.

    The risks of eating the placenta

    For the new paper, a panel of experts from New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, reviewed dozens of studies about placentophagy.

    The researchers found that various preparations of placenta could be insufficient to eradicate infections the mother may already have, such as hepatitis, HIV, and Zika—including methods such as freeze-drying and encapsulating or grilling.

    The researchers pointed out that CDC has recommended against placenta capsule consumption over infection concerns. The agency issued the warning in June after a newborn developed recurrent group B Streptococcus sepsis following the mother's consumption of group B Streptococcus-infected placenta capsules. That warning, according to the researchers, was the first "solid evidence that contaminated placenta capsules can be a source of infection."

    The researchers added that there was no evidence in clinical studies supporting the purported benefits of placenta eating. They also debunked claims by some health professionals who have said the practice is common in other cultures, stating that the review "only found one culture where eating the placenta has become more 'fashionable,' and that's upper-class women in the United States."

    Senior study author Amos Grünebaum, a professor of OB-GYN at Weill Cornell Medical College, said the takeaway is: "Don't eat your baby's placenta. … There are no benefits, and there are potential risks."

    OB-GYNs, hospitals seek information

    Grünebaum said the study can help inform providers' response to women considering consuming their placenta, particularly given the wide variety of hospital policies on the practice and the lack of state regulation or safety guidance on the topic.

    A woman's decision on placenta consumption "should be based on scientific information," Grünebaum said. "Ethics is among the most important subjects in medicine. We need to be able to tell our patients what's right and what's wrong … and be ready with a response based on science."

    Separately, Matthew Hoffman—chair of OB-GYN at Christiana Care Health System, who was not involved in the study—said, "What this [new study] really helps us to do is say to patients, there are some concrete risks, and a lot of the touted benefits may not necessarily be true based on science, and help them make the best decision for them."

    He added that the new research is "both timely and useful," as Christiana Care is handling more requests from new mothers to release their placentas for consumption. "Our challenge is, we see a variety of responses from both our physician and nursing colleagues and our midwives," Hoffman said. "We have folks who act with revulsion and decline the request, and other folks who are boxing it up with a bow for them" (Salamon, HealthDay/Chicago Tribune, 10/2; Sabin, LiveScience, 10/14; Zoellner, Daily Mail, 9/29).

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