Celeb moms like Kim Kardashian and Gaby Hoffman have talked about the health boosts they got from eating their babies’ placentas (yep, that's a thing!). But research has found no actual benefits to downing afterbirth—and now, a new study debunks one of the main claims of placenta-eating advocates: Turns out the organ isn't such a great source of iron after all.
Women need especially high amounts of iron during and immediately after pregnancy, and not getting enough of the important mineral is a common problem. Doctors often advise soon-to-be and new moms to take iron supplements to avoid a deficiency, and proponents of placentophagy—that is, the act of eating placenta, either in raw, cooked, or pill form—point to the organ’s high iron content, as well.
To find out if eating placenta really helped boost levels in new moms, medical anthropologists at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) recruited 23 pregnant women. After giving birth, the women took either placenta capsules or placebo pills containing dehydrated beef (considerably lower in iron than the placenta) every day for three weeks. They also had blood tests just before and soon after delivery, and at weeks 1 and 3 post-partum.
Those test results, published this month in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, showed no statistically meaningful differences in the iron status of women in the two groups. In fact, the pills provided only 24% of the recommended daily allowance for iron among breastfeeding women.
Lead author Laura Gryder, a former UNLV graduate student, says these findings are important because some iron-deficient women may rely on placenta pills as their only non-food source of the mineral. By skipping traditional iron supplements, they are likely not getting the nutrient boost they need.
Senior co-author Daniel Benyshek, PhD, an associate professor of anthropology at UNLV, agreed. “While there may indeed be other benefits for women who eat their placenta after birth,” he said in a press release, “the common practice of consuming the placenta in capsule form in the first few weeks after delivery does not appear to significantly improve iron levels for new mothers.”
Boosted by celebrity endorsements, placentophagy is increasingly common in the United States and other industrialized countries. Exact numbers aren’t available, but the study authors estimate that tens of thousands of U.S. women take part in the practice every year.
Initially popular in home-birth settings, the trend has spread to hospital births, as well. In many cases, new mothers send their baby’s placentas to processing companies that dehydrate them and encapsulate them into pills.
Supporters of placentophagy claim that it can increase energy, improve mood, boost breast-milk production, and help speed postpartum recovery. They also point to the fact that nearly all mammals eat their babies’ placentas in nature.
Still, scientific research on the topic is scarce, and those studies that have been conducted have found no documentable health benefits. A 2015 review of previous studies found no data to support that eating placenta protected against postpartum depression, pain after childbirth, or iron deficiency, or helped with energy levels, breastfeeding, mother-child bonding, or skin elasticity.
Health’s medical editor, Dr. Raj, has also pointed out that eating your placenta—which not only delivers nutrients to the fetus, but also filters waste away from it—could theoretically lead to an infection, especially if it’s not processed properly after delivery.
The UNLV researchers are now analyzing how the placenta pills affected mood, fatigue, and hormone levels in the new moms who participated in their study. Those results may shed more light on whether downing afterbirth is actually something to consider.