An older expat friend, who had travelled and lived all over the world, once told us that, upon visiting some Asian country - which one it was, I can't quite remember - he was invited to a feast in a small village. All the guests were served a broth-style soup, which was by far the most awful thing he had ever eaten. When inquiring after the ingredients, he was pointed to a young woman, sitting by the side, holding a tiny newborn.
Turns out in this village, when an infant was born, tradition perscribed that the entire village would feast upon a soup which main ingredient is the newborn's placenta (yet there were other probably much more disgusting ingredients added).
|Image: lunar caustic on Flickr|
Now I must admit, when I gave birth, safe from glancing at it for a moment, the placenta wasn't something I spent much time considering. Yet lately, I have been reading articles about placenta encapsulation, stir-frying, burrying the placenta...
Placenta in the animal kingdom
With just a few exceptions, most mammals eat the placenta immediately after birth, this behavior is called placentophagy.Even herbivores eat the afterbirth (except for the camel). In Marsupials, the placenta is resorbed.
For long it was believed that animals ate the placenta to hide the smell for possible predators. Yet this theory is being refuted because they do not ingest the amniotic fluid released at the birth. Research has shown there are a multitude of reasons why placentaphagy exists in animals.
One of the main reasons the placenta is eaten in the animal world, is because of his high nutritive value.
A second explanation for this behavior is for the effect of the prostaglandin it contains on the uterus, i.e. the retraction of the uterus to its original size (involution). Third, the placenta also contains oxytocin, which soothes stress from the birth and eases milk ejection.
Recent research has shown that the most important reason why the placenta is ingested, might be it's effect on post-partum pain (by enhancement of the body's natural opiates).
Rites and traditions
Eventhough the placenta is mostly discarded in Western society, other cultures have rites and traditions when handling the placenta. Much like previosly mentioned with chimpansees, some cultures leave the placenta attached to the umbilical cord and the child until the cord dries up, which is called Lotus Birth.
In a lot of those rites, the placenta is either burned or buried with some extent of ceremony (Maori, Navajo, Costa Rica, Cambodia,...). Ibo people in Nigeria consider the placenta to be the deceased twin of their child and bury it with full funeral rites.
"In most cultures childbirth is very important and the child is cherished. The placenta is a very important issue that must be disposed of properly or the child will not have a good life." (*)When the placenta is buried, it is often done close to the child's home. The reason therefor is to prevent children from scattering too far from home and to always have them come back to their maternal home. Often a tree or shrub is planted in the spot the placenta has been buried. If one opts for planting a tree, one must wait up until a year after the placenta burial, because the hormones and nutrients it contains are too strong and most firts be broken down. (If it has been frozen for an amount of time this problem does not occur.)
"After digging an appropriately sized hole, score the sides of the hole so the soil is more amenable to tender roots. Put the placenta in, and cover it with a half to a full inch of soil before placing the plant on top of it. Hold the plant steady while the rest of the hole is filled. Water the plant well after planting. Newly planted trees and shrubs need to be watered on a regular basis the first year until they form a good root system. As the placenta breaks down in the soil, the tree or shrub will reap the benefits of all the nutrients packed in that placenta."(*)
Here in Ivory Coast the placenta is considered as something very potent. Not just anybody can handle it after birth. In small villages, most often the birthing woman's mother (or trusted person) retrieves the placenta after birth and quickly goes off to hide it. It is then buried on a place only the mother and the trusted person know about. This is done so because they believe that the placenta could be used to do harm to the mother or the child.
Even in Western society, some return to some form of ceremony concerning the placenta, which often involves burial. The rites involved are the family's personal choice and can be based on other traditional ceremonies.
Other people use the placenta for art projects (placenta prints or membrane art), in a way to commemorate the birth. These artworks are done either by posing the placenta on a sheet of paper as is, or adding paint or ink. I also came across alternative rituals like naming it or hanging it in a tree.
Placentophagy in humans
While most culture believe the placenta to be of enormous spiritual value, only few cultures eat the placenta. Yet even in the Western there are those that advocate ingestion, here's a list of supposed benefits from placentophagy:
- prevent post-partum depression
- prevent post partum hemmorage
- prevent insomnia and sleep disorders
- increase energy level
- gives the mother a nutritional boost
- recover quickly from childbirth
- optimize lactation
- blood stem cells
- Vitamins and minerals (B6)
- rich in iron and protein
Another scientifically proven use of human placenta is to reduce menopausal symptoms and fatigue.
If even modern day science can prove these uses of human placenta, than I wonder why it isn't propagated more.
Preparing the placenta for ingestion
If one chooses to take the plunge and consume the placenta, there are many ways in which this can be done.
- cooked or steamed
"...the fresh placenta should be eaten within the first few days after the birth (refrigeration is a necessity). Any time beyond this, it should be preserved by freezing it, dehydrating it into "placenta jerky" or by making it into a placenta tincture using 100 proof vodka as a preservative..."(*)Cooking:
A variety of recipes exist for cooking the placenta, from sandwiches to lasagne. You can find some here.
Dehydrating a placenta can simply be done by drying it in the oven and afterwards grinding it up in a mortar. This is also what's been done previos to encapsulation.
Encapsulation can either be done at home with and encapsulating kit, which you can order online at the Placenta Benefits website.
Or you can have it professionally done. On Fruit of the Womb, the process is described as follows:
"This process includes steaming, drying, grinding and encapsulating the placenta. Every placenta varies in size and substance, therefore the average amount of capsules ranges, between 50-200. The capsules are taken 1-3 times per day for the first 1-3 weeks, or until strength has been restored, and as needed thereafter." (**)Find a specialist in your area. If you want to learn more about encapsulation, you can read my article "Everything You Want To Know About Placenta Encapsulation".
Even though it's use post-partum as preventive treatment for baby blues hasn't been fully researched, the ingestion of human placenta has been proven scientifically to increase milk supply, fight fatigue and decrease menopausal symptoms. In animals it helps the uterus to retract to its original size. Yet it is onknown how cooking or dehydration influences the active substances of the placenta. If the placenta is correctly stored before any cooking, encapsulation or dehydration, there is, however, no risk involved in ingestion. So I'm thinking it might very well be worth the shot.
- One should always check with ones midwife or caregiver if the placenta is healthy, before proceeding with preparation. With some birth practices (for example Lotus Birth) placentophagia will not be possible due to the treatment of the placenta.
- Upon researching this and discussing it with others I found that anything concerning the placenta is pretty much taboo among Westerners, yet Africans have no problem whatsoever discussing it.
What do you think? Tried it? Willing to try it? How would you prepare it? Or have you performed a ritual? Please share!
Many Cultures Revere Placenta, Byproduct Of Childbirth
Placenta Pills as Savior For Mothers To Be
Placenta Recipes article on About.com
Placenta Pizza, some new moms try old rituals on msnbc
Placentophagia, benefits of eating the placenta
The Amazing Placenta on About.com
Placenta: Medicine, Rituals & Art
(*) Birth and Placenta Rituals Vary With Cultures is a very beautiful article on childbirth across different cultures, it offers a ritual for burial and different ways to prepare the placenta for consumption.
Websites on placentophagia
(**)Fruit of the Womb