Editor's Introduction: We get a lot of questions about the benefits of ingesting the placenta after giving birth, particularly placenta encapsulation. But did you know that there is a lot more to the placenta than just that? For starters, the placenta is the only temporary organ created by mamals. And, the placenta has been celebrated and honored throughout history by cultures around the world.
And yes, it can be eaten, too.
In this primer, you'll learn about this amazin organ. As a bonus, you'll find instructions for how to encapsulate your plancenta at the end of this article. Read on!
The Amazing Placenta
The placenta is an amazing vascular organ. The word placenta comes from the Latin for “cake”. It is the only organ that is grown to be temporary, and sheds itself after its primary use is finished. Placental development and circulation begins 3 weeks after implantation. There is both a fetal and a maternal component to the placenta, so it is actually a product both of conception and the mother’s body as well. It is the first bond between mother and baby, the communicative highway to transmitting hormones, nutrients, and blood – in essence, this is the first way in which a mother cares for her baby and that a baby communicates it’s needs to his mother. It is a fully functional organ at 12 weeks gestation and acts as the baby’s lungs, kidneys, liver, digestive and immune systems.
The placenta attaches to the baby through the umbilical cord, which attaches to baby through the abdomen. The umbilical cord inserts into the placenta via the chorionic plate. On the fetal side of the placenta, vessels branch out over the surface and divide to form a network covered by a thin layer of cells. The result is the beautiful and sacred shape of the tree of life – scientifically known as villous tree structures. On the maternal side, these villous tree structures are grouped into lobules called cotyledons.
The amazing placenta also transmits and produces hormones, sending messages advocating fetal demands to the mother’s body and helping to care for and grow the baby while also hiding it from the mother’s body so that the mother’s body doesn’t see baby or placenta as invaders. The hormones that the placenta creates and releases include:
- Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) - hCG is the first placental hormone. This hormone is only produced by a woman’s body when she is pregnant. hCG makes sure that the woman continues to produce progesterone and estrogen, two important hormones for keeping a baby in for 9 months. hCG also suppresses the mother’s immunological response that the baby and placenta are foreign objects and reject them.
- Human Placental Lactogen (hPL). This hormone has growth-promoting properties. It promotes mammary gland growth in preparation for lactation in the mother. It also regulates maternal glucose, protein, fat levels so that this is always available to the fetus.
- Estrogen. This ‘woman’s hormone’ contributes to the woman's mammary gland development in preparation for lactation and stimulates uterine growth to accommodate growing fetus.
- Progesterone. This hormone is necessary to maintain endometrial lining of the uterus during pregnancy. This hormone prevents preterm labor by inhibiting contractions.
- Two additional components of the placenta, Neurokinin B (containing phosphocholine molecules) and lymphocytic suppressor cells, help to cloak the placenta and baby from the woman’s immunological system. It is dark maroon in color and, at full term, the placenta weighs 1/6 of the baby’s weight and covers 1/3 of the inside of the uterus.
At the time of birth, as the baby is born out of the womb and the uterus has further to involute, it begins to slough off the placenta from the uterine wall, allowing the placenta to separate and be expelled by contractions. The placenta is usually birthed within 15-30 minutes, but can take up to 2 hours after child birth. After birth, it can continue to help mom and baby through nourishment, emotional and physical healing, and ceremonial purposing.
A Placenta Throughout History
Cultures throughout time honored the placenta in their own rites and rituals, including consumption, burial, ceremonies, and blessings. Cultural Customs Western culture, by and large, regard the placenta as biohazardous waste, something to dispose of or let medical students play with, but it is so much more to other cultures around the world. Whereas our culture looks at it in disgust, other cultures revere it’s purpose and blessing on a babies life. Among the Navajo Native Americans, it was customary to bury the placenta of a child within the Four Corners of the tribes boundaries. This essentially bound the child to his ancestors and his land.
The Maoris of New Zeeland have a similar practice, burying the placenta of a tribe member on their tribe’s soil. In the Maori language, placenta and land share the same name: whenua. Koreans, Cambodians, Malinese, and Balinese people are more cultures that routinely bury the placenta with reverence and symbolism. Cambodians are known to wrap the placenta in banana leaves and keep it with baby for 3 days before ritualistically burying it. In Mali, the placenta is rinsed, dried, and placed in a basket to be buried by the father of the child to ensure a happy and healthy child. An example of placenta burial can be found with the Balinese people. In Bali, the placenta is considered the baby’s twin and thought to act as the baby’s guardian angel throughout life. As such, it requires special reverence because of its job. The placenta is cleaned and prepared by the father, and buried by the mother. The burial takes place in the yard of the families home, the right side of the main house for a boy and the left side of the main house for a girl. It is placed in a coconut shell, wrapped in white linen, and buried with talismans, songs, prayers, and blessings for a healthy and happy lifetime for the child.
Some cultures believe that the placenta has its own spirit. The Bolivian Aymara and Quecha people are two such cultures. As such, the placenta is given the burial rites of any other living being. It is washed and buried in a secret, shady place by the father of the child with secret rite. It is thought that, if the ritual is not done properly, the mother or baby can become sick because of it. Just like the Balinese, many other cultures believe that the placenta is the twin, sibling, or companion of the baby. This is understandable as the placenta and cord is the first physical interaction a baby has and it provides the first emotional and physical contact to the mother that baby has. The Ibo of Nigeria and Ghana view the placenta as the dead twin of the child and give it full burial rites. Malaysians, the Parigi, and the Javanese all believe it is the older sibling that watches over the child and can even communicate with the child before the child learns it’s native language. The Toba-Bataks believe it is a younger sibling, while native Icelanders and native Australians believe it is a guardian spirit. The Bagada and ancient Egyptians preserved the placenta in order to protect it’s spiritual qualities and, oftentimes, they would hold elaborate ceremonies, including processionals, to honor and protect the properties of the placenta.
Filipina mothers are known to bury the placenta with books, in hopes of a smart child, while the Hmong bury a girl’s placenta under the parent’s bed and a boy’s placenta under the floorboards of the threshold to the house. This practice arises from the belief that, after death, the Hmong will retrace their life’s path, arriving back at life’s door – the place of placental burial. The Kikuyu and other African tribes will bury it with agriculture, believing it will nourish and sustain it’s people, as will the child’s heritage and future. Hawaiians practice a similar rite, believing the burial with a tree will root the child to his heritage, people, and land.
The Vietnamese and Chinese people believe in the life-giving forces of the placenta in another way – as being useful in consumption. As such, they are known to make tinctures, teas, broths, and pills out of the placenta. There are many recipes in ancient texts that are supposed to increase the vitality and potency of the placentas properties. In Korea, it has been practice to burn the placenta and keep the ashes. Then, in times of illness, the ashes are used to make a drink for the child in order to ensure health and longevity. Similarly, in some regions of South America and with some Samoan people, the placenta is burnt, then the ashes are spread on the land of the family so as to ward off evil spirits. More recent ceremonies include lotus birthing, placenta art, and cosmetic use. In France and, until 1994, in Britain, the placenta was used in numerous cosmetic produces such as cold cream and anti-aging products.
Claire Lotus Day began questioning the practice of cutting the cord in 1974, and the lotus birthing practice was born. Other Western women, in a search for reclaiming meaning from the institutionalized practice of Western birth, began making placenta prints as a way to commemorate and remember the transforming power of their child’s pregnancy and birth. The list goes on and on. The bottom line, there is great room for interpretation, practice, and honor when we consider the amazing physical, emotional, nutritional, and, sometimes, spiritual uses of the placenta even after birth If you are looking into one of these practices for your own birthing time, there are some things that you should know about preparation and care for your placenta.
Proper Care & Handling of Your Placenta
As soon as possible after the placenta has been birthed, it needs to be placed in a food-grade container (glass or ceramic is best, but double bagged Ziploc will also work), sealed tightly and refrigerated. If the family wants to delay cord cutting, this can be done up to three to four hours later, and then the cord must be severed, and the placenta quickly refrigerated in order to safely ingest the placenta later. Please note that you will be unable to have a lotus birth (leaving the cord attached until it detaches on its own) if you want to safely encapsulate your placenta. A fresh placenta should be ‘processed’ within 24-48 hours for maximum benefits (this includes encapsulation, consumption, or burial). It can be done up to 7 days later, but will not be as potent.
If it is not possible to process the placenta within 48 hours, it should be double bagged in Ziploc freezer bags and frozen. If encapsulating from the frozen state, the placenta should be completely thawed, which takes about 24 hours. If you are planning a hospital birth, be sure to tell your care provider ahead of time that you are planning on taking your placenta home. You should plan on bringing a cooler with you to the hospital for care and ease of transport from hospital to home.
The most widely accepted means of ritualistic or symbolic disposal for the placenta is the burial. You can freeze your placenta for as long as you need, some people even wait for the babies first birthday as a commemoration of the event. Other reasons for the ceremony can be the planting of a child’s tree or child’s bush, closure/celebration of the birth, celebration of the end of the lying in period, or a birth healing ritual. To bury your placenta, dig the right size hole to hold your placenta and bury it alone or with tokens indicative of the commemoration (herbs, dried flowers, ashes from a paper with a blessing or prayer written on it, etc.). To use it for a tree/flower/bush planting ceremony, again, dig the right sized hold for your placenta. Score the sides of the hole so that the roots of the plant can take hold easier. Place the placenta at the bottom of the hole, cover with about an inch of soil, then place the plant in the hole and fill it on up. As your baby’s placenta breaks down, the plant will be nourished by it. If you choose to grow a fruit tree, the tree will bear fruit that has grown from your baby’s placenta. This fruit can then go on to nourish your family. Some people add ritual to the ceremony by offering prayers, blessings, or thanks. Some women choose to have other women at the ceremony to offer a blessingway to the new family. Others ‘give up’ their negative feelings toward the child’s birth or a hurt that was done to them during the pregnancy, birth, or postpartum period. Others still will bury it as a symbolic ‘coming home’ of the baby, allowing the babies feet to ‘tramp down’ the dirt that is placed over the placenta.
Placenta prints are a newer, beautiful way to commemorate your child’s birth. Each placenta has a unique print and you can display it as a work of art in your home, knowing that the average person will not know what the print is, as it usually turns out to look like an abstract flower, tree, or heart. You can make a placenta print with either a fresh or thawed placenta.
- Heavy weight art paper or canvas
- Paint (optional)
If you have chosen to use paint, rinse and pat the placenta dry. Then paint the placenta in the colors you have chosen. If you have chosen to use the placentas blood, do nothing to the placenta before printing. Now, simply place the placenta vein side down onto your surface of choice. Press down, and then lift up. Voila! You have made a placenta print. If you chose to use the placenta’s own blood, then you can still use your placenta for placentophagy.
Placentophagy (or, um, ingesting the placenta)
The benefits of placental consumption include:
- Decrease in baby blues and postpartum depression
- Increase and enrich breast milk
- Increase in energy
- Decrease in lochia, postpartum bleeding
- Decrease iron deficiency
- Decrease insomnia or sleep disorders
The placenta's hormonal make-up is completely unique to the mother. No prescription, vitamin or herbal supplement can do what one placenta pill can. The theory is you are replacing the hormones you lost during the birthing process. Each woman's placenta is unique to her hormonal make-up. Interestingly, the first born male placenta is the most enriched. There are many ways to consume your placenta, including a placenta smoothie (done within the first 2-4 hours after birth), placenta meals, and encapsulation.
Below are how-to instructions for the two most common ways to consume the plancenta.
The Placenta Smoothie (immediately postpartum)
Certainly not for the faint of heart! But for those committed to getting the most complete benefits of placenta ingestion, a placenta smoothie is for you.
- Sharp knife
- Yogurt (your favorite flavor) or Orange Juice
- Frozen fruit (your favorites – try to include Vit C rich fruits and some red/purple fruits)
Cut off one or two 2-inch cubes of placenta. Place them, raw, into the blender. Add your base of choice (either yogurt or orange juice) and your frozen fruits of choice. Blend until smooth. Serve in a tall glass. The dark fruits will disguise the color of the placenta and the taste is just like any other fresh smoothie. It is a great way to start your postpartum recovery and it reduces immediate postpartum blood loss.
Placenta Encapsulation (within 4 days postpartum)
Encapsulating your placenta is the process of drying your placenta, grinding it down into a fine powder, and encapsulating it to be taken in pill form.
- Gloves (optional)
- Steamer (stovetop)
- Fresh ginger (about ¼ cup sliced or minced)
- Fresh lemon (1 small, sliced)
- Cayenne pepper (2-4 Tbsp)
- Cutting Board
- Sharp knife
- Capsules, 150-200 (can be found at most health food stores)
- Dehydrator (optional)
- Wax paper (optional)
- Food Processor or Coffee Grinder
- Sanitizer and bleach
- Optional herbs include St. John’s Wort, Red Rasberry Lead, Blessed Thistle, or Alfalfa
First take placenta, place in colander in sink. Rinse under cold water and removing blood clots. Next, wrap the placenta membranes around placenta, making it into a ball. Place lemon, cayenne, & ginger in the water of the steamer. Place the placenta in the steam basket and cover. Steam on medium for about 15 minutes on each side. Be sure to try to bleed it while steaming. Remove from heat and place on cutting board. Allow to cool while ‘doing dishes and cleaning up’. You can reserve the lemon and ginger to dehydrate with the placenta if you would like. Once cool enough to handle, slice the placenta into really thin strips (picture beef jerky strips). If you are using a low oven to dehydrate your placenta, set your oven to the lowest temp. It takes 6-8hrs to dehydrate depending on the method used. Line a cookie sheet (for the oven) or the dehydrator sheets with wax paper. Lay the placental strips (and lemon/ginger (optional)) on the wax paper so that none overlap. Dry for 6-8 hours, checking often for doneness.
Once done, prepare to process your placenta strips. Using a strong grinder/food processor, coffee grinder or Magic Bullet, begin the grinding process. Break the strips into halves, and add whatever other herbs you would like to add to the grinder. You will have to grind in batches. Grind them down to a fine powder.
When done, fill the capsules. You can use an encapsulator such as Cap-M-Quick, or you can roll a piece of paper into a funnel and encapsulate that way. Cap the capsule halves together and clean up all ?of the mess. Use bleach and sanitizer to clean up your work area. Place capsules into an airtight, preferably glass, container and store in the fridge. They will remain good for 4 weeks postpartum. The capsules can also be frozen, which extends their shelf life from weeks to years.Take 3 capsules 2 times daily for the first week postpartum, then 2 capsules twice daily for the second week on, until supply is gone. Increase dose as mom needs for emotional pick-me-ups or for milk supply demands.
I hope that you have found interest in this article, that it spurred some creative thought and introspective consideration. The placenta truly is an amazing organ, and continues to offer our children and ourselves, as mothers, benefit and harmony. It has the potential to give us pause, reflection, and emotional and physical health. It does not have to go in the trash or the pathology lab – it can give us so much more if we simply give it thought.