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.
"The placenta broth wasn't bad. It was like a beef broth and smelled like dinner cooking. It was the [tea mixture] I didn't like; it tasted like licorice," says the 29-year-old Dundalk resident. "I drank it at 7 at night. By morning, I pumped 4 ounces [of breast milk], and my baby was only 2 days old. I've heard women say they might get a couple of tablespoons at first."
The capsules seemed to continue to help: The milk "came out so fast the first weeks that I pumped before I fed her and sometimes in the middle of a feeding," she said.
Garner says she would do the drink and capsules again in a heartbeat. "My daughter doubled her weight in two months. And she's a happy little thing — well, not so little anymore," she says with a laugh.
Carmen Calvo has had about 160 clients since she launched The Nurturing Root, a placenta-encapsulation service, in Baltimore in November 2011.
"I prepare it in their homes. I don't risk something happening to it in transport," she says. "My clients see me sanitizing and handling it safely. And they know the placenta they are ingesting is their own."
Placenta encapsulation is a two-day process. The final product, which is not covered by insurance, costs about $250. Calvo was certified through Placenta Benefits in Las Vegas, which is the largest organization to offer such a certification program and is also involved in placentophagia research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The program includes five online modules in areas such as postpartum changes like lactation and pain; studies on placentophagia; and hands-on training in encapsulation through a local mentor.
While some mothers start out uneasy, Calvo says, the "ick factor" disappears when they see the final product: a simple pill they swallow.
Education helps ease minds, too.
"I had a client who was still in the hospital. Her sister let me in her house. As I was working, [the sister] came in, and I could tell she was interested but very uncomfortable," she says.
Calvo gave her a demonstration so she had a visual of where and how the baby had lived and grown.
"By the time I finished, she had exam gloves on and had me take her picture holding [the placenta] for her sister. When someone actually shows you, it's not something gross. It's a miracle."
Brittany Davidson, a natural-childbirth instructor in Baltimore, said she had six couples in her birthing class, and each of the women planned to do placenta encapsulation.
Davidson, who ingested her own placenta, tells all her clients about this practice, though many have already heard of it.
"More women are doing it as they learn through word of mouth and social media, mainly breastfeeding and natural childbirth groups on Facebook. When they hear the benefits firsthand from within their own circles, it resonates," says Davidson.
It was Morgan Happick's hematologist who suggested she look into placenta encapsulation because she has a blood-clotting condition.
"He thought among the benefits, the placenta could decrease risk for iron deficiency from blood loss, because it is rich in iron," says the 29-year-old Aberdeen resident.
She says after ingesting the placenta she had "unbelievable energy." Happick is so convinced the benefits are real that she is studying to become an encapsulation specialist herself. She hopes to be certified before her now-pregnant sister-in-law and several friends deliver; each is considering encapsulation or has definite plans to do it.
"I think my postpartum bliss was largely attributed to replenishing nutrients [in the placenta], like iron," she says. "It was like a miracle pill."