More new moms turning to placenta for help

Some say placentophagia can battle postpartum depression

  • Christalene Karaiskakis holds her 10-month-old daughter, Anastasia, at their home. Karaiskakis had her placenta encapsulated and then she ingested it in pill form.
Christalene Karaiskakis holds her 10-month-old daughter,… (Barbara Haddock Taylor…)
July 17, 2014|By Arlene Karidis, For The Baltimore Sun

Animals have done it since the beginning of time. Women in Asia and Africa have done it for centuries. But lately, more women in Western cultures are turning to an ancient practice. 

Following childbirth, they are ingesting their placenta – after it’s been steamed, dehydrated and put into capsules. 

These new mothers and some health practitioners say this tissue, which nourishes the baby in utero, can also nourish the mother. Limited published research suggests ingesting the placenta, or placentophagia, also helps with lactation and postpartum depression because of the hormones it contains. 

The idea has gained popularity as celebrities share their experiences with placenta. “Mad Men” star January Jones, Alicia Silverstone of “Clueless,” and “Sister, Sister” star Tamera Mowry are a few of the famous placentophagia fans. Though national figures are hard to come by, reports from Baltimore-area institutions and women indicate that an increasing number of regular people are ingesting placenta, too.

“For me, the decision to do it was a no-brainer,” says Christalene Karaiskakis, a 39-year-old Annapolis resident who hoped to bypass the “baby blues” she experienced after the birth of her first child. “I researched the benefits. I figured it was natural. And it was safe if it was handled properly.”

She says she fared much better with her mood with her second child, despite events that set her up for a potential emotional crash.

“I was running a business with a 3-year-old at home. There were complications, and I had to have a C-section six weeks early and leave my baby in the hospital. My parents and in-laws, who live overseas and planned to be here for the birth, couldn’t make it in time,” says Karaiskakis. “I don’t know if I could have ordinarily handled the stress. But I was in a great frame of mind for myself and my family and had energy to take on our new life.” She attributes much of the improvement to the placenta capsules.

Along with having it made into pills, she ordered up a placenta-and-tea smoothie. But it disappeared from the hospital refrigerator and was never found.

“I’m thinking, ‘Karma — whoever took it will be in for a surprise,’ ” she says with a laugh.

The journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition last year cited a survey in which almost all 189 respondents said placenta encapsulation was a positive experience and they would do it again. An article in the same journal correlated placenta ingestion with opioid effects in animals’ brains that relieve pain and facilitate mother-child bonding. And researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas are working to determine whether claims of elevations in mood and energy and robust lactation are more than a placebo effect.

Patients of Special Beginnings Birth and Women’s Center in Arnold routinely ask midwife Susannah Hahn about placenta ingestion. Hahn suggests patients consider this practice — especially those with a history of postpartum depression and those who got no relief from antidepressants or will breastfeed and don’t want to expose their babies to medications.

“I have never heard a patient say she didn’t feel better after ingesting placenta,” Hahn said. “Whether this is because it works or [is] a placebo effect, if she can take care of herself and the baby, we are reaching the goal I am looking for.”

Lately, Mercy Medical Center has seen a small influx of women requesting their placentas so they can have them encapsulated.

“Certainly, if a patient wants to do this, we would honor their request,” says Dr. Robert Atlas, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy.

But while he has heard it may replenish iron, he is reluctant to recommend the practice. “My feeling is there is not sufficient data showing true benefit, and we don’t know the risks,” he says.

The Food and Drug Administration’s position is that any product containing human placenta carries a risk of bacterial infection, and thus advises against the use of it. 

Lauren Agro, a placenta-encapsulation specialist in Baltimore, says she’s seen a steady increase in the demand for her service since she began it in 2008, when she did a total of three encapsulations. She says she’s done about two dozen so far this year and estimates she’ll do 50 to 60 throughout 2014. 

“My clients are educated women who have done the research,” she says. “They are lawyers, business owners, musicians and college professors looking for an alternative to conventional medicine and to take charge of their recovery postpartum.”

In November, Courtney Garner had her placenta both encapsulated and turned into a beverage (broth from the placenta mixed with herbal tea) in order to jump-start lactation.

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