Bend woman makes placenta pills

Purported benefits of consumption from testimonies, not medical research

By Tara Bannow / The Bulletin / @tarabannow

Published Feb 13, 2014 at 12:11AM

Slip through the door past the refrigerator in Sarah Larson’s kitchen, and you end up in a room big enough for a washing machine, some cupboards and not much else.

It’s in this small corner of her rustic, wood stove-heated northeast Bend home where Larson cooks up her pièce de résistance, a specialty her clients pay $100 a pop for.

Next to a large kitchen sink, all of Larson’s cooking tools sit atop a rolling food cart. First, she steams her concoction in a steel pot and colander for about a half-hour. (This is done outside to keep out the unpleasant smell.) Then it’s sliced, dried in a food dehydrator for 10 hours, ground into a powder and — this is the tedious part — poured into tiny, clear casings.

The end result?

Placenta, in capsule form.

“All mammals eat their placentas,” said Larson, a gray-haired certified doula, or birthing coach. “We had dairy cows out here (that did). Everything except dolphins. Maybe dolphins don’t want the salt water. All those nutrients are getting back in there.”

A law in Oregon that took effect Jan. 1 allows women who have given birth in a hospital or birthing center to take home their placentas, the organ in the uterus that provides nutrients to the fetus through the umbilical cord.

Here in Central Oregon, between 5 and 7 percent of women who give birth at St. Charles Health System choose to keep their placentas, said Chetan Baxter, nurse manager of St. Charles’ Family Birth Center.

Some consume the organ to reap the numerous purported health benefits — like increased milk supply, balanced hormones, increased energy. Others keep it for ceremonial purposes — to bury next to a tree, for example.

With the new law thrusting the practice into the public sphere, Baxter said she expects the number of women taking home their placentas will increase.

For Larson, business has been increasing since she started encapsulating placentas four years ago. Last year, she did 36 placentas — her best year yet.

Unofficially, most hospitals and other facilities in Oregon — including St. Charles — already were surrendering the organs, even though the law’s previous incarnation regarded them as medical waste that cannot be removed from a health care facility.

But not everyone is convinced women should be consuming their placentas. Since no medical studies have been performed on the practice, called placentophagy, all of the associated health claims come from testimonies. And no research has been done to prove there aren’t side effects.

Michelle Berlin, an OB-GYN and co-director of Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Women’s Health, said she doesn’t recommend that anyone eat their placenta. When the hospital gives patients a product from the body, whether it’s a blood transfusion or an organ transplant, they test the tissue and blood to ensure it doesn’t contain communicable diseases, she said.

“We’re not doing that with placentas,” Berlin said, “and so it’s certainly possible that diseases could be transmitted that way.”

‘Medicine made particularly for you’

Before the birth of their first and only child, Colleen Kruse and her husband mulled the possibility of having Kruse eat the placenta that was growing inside her uterus.

They read about how it could ease her postpartum stress and cramping, boost her breast milk supply and provide a hefty dose of iron and vitamins.

“As we got closer to the date of delivery, I asked my husband about the reality of whether he would volunteer to fry it up and serve it up,” said the 41-year-old Bend resident. “His answer was, ‘Maybe not.’ So we went with the encapsulation.”

They’d learned about the option of having the placenta steamed, dehydrated, ground and put into capsules through Larson, from whom they were taking birthing classes.

“To me, it couldn’t hurt,” Kruse said, “and it just seemed like really a natural, beautiful conclusion to the whole circle of conceiving and growing and birthing our baby.”

Most of Larson’s clients choose to have the placenta encapsulated. Only one woman chose to make it into a smoothie, Larson said.

About 10 days after the birth of her daughter, Ivee, in May 2012, Kruse began taking three placenta capsules twice daily for six weeks.

She can’t pinpoint exactly when she started experiencing the benefits, but they came in the form of emotional regulation, increased energy and as much milk as Ivee wanted, Kruse said. After you have a baby, life is divided into “wonderful days” and “really hard, wonderful days,” she said.

“When I started taking them, I really felt like I had fewer really hard wonderful days,” she said. “They were just simply all wonderful days, if that makes sense. … I just felt like things were easier.”

Her experience aligns with the findings of a survey performed at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, of more than 200 women who engaged in placentophagy, almost all of whom reported the same benefits. The survey, which was assisted by a leading placentophagy proponent, also found that womens’ reported benefits aligned with their expectations before the study, as well as the benefits touted on advocates’ websites, meaning they may have been experiencing the placebo effect .

“It could be that these women just expect those benefits when they take the capsules and then experience them,” said Daniel Benyshek, an associate professor of anthropology at UNLV.

The effects on 40-year-old Sandy Johnson were much more pronounced after she began taking the placenta capsules following the birth of her second child in 2011. She started with two pills three days after the birth. By that evening, she said her uterus had shrunk dramatically.

“It really sped up the process,” Johnson said. “My recovery was insanely fast.”

Johnson first took placenta capsules with the birth of her first child 14 years ago. At the time, she was living in North Carolina and her midwife had told her about the practice.

In addition to the shrunken uterus, Johnson said she noticed an increased milk supply, energy and more balanced hormones, all of which she attributes to the capsules.

“It seemed like Mother Nature’s gift back to your system at the time when your body knows what it needs the most,” she said, “and so it was like medicine made particularly for you.”

Little research, many claims

Some point to an uptick within the past five years in the number of women in the U.S. choosing to consume their placentas.

Berlin, of OHSU’s Center for Women’s Health, said her father, who also was an OB/GYN, saw it among his patients as early as the 1960s.

“This is nothing new,” she said.

OHSU has allowed women to take home their placentas for years, although they don’t track the number of patients who do so. In that respect, the law doesn’t change anything as far as the hospital is concerned.

Following uncomplicated vaginal deliveries with no apparent issues afterward, a family member or support professional like a doula or midwife can take the organ home in a cooler.

If there is a problem with the delivery or the baby, however, the placenta is often sent to OHSU’s pathologists, who can culture the organ for bacterial strains and perform other necessary tests.

That testing, however, requires that the placenta be doused in formalin, a preservative. In those cases, the patient must sign a waiver informing them that formalin is dangerous and the hospital is not responsible if they decide to consume the organ, Berlin said.

“It’s not a good substance,” she said.

Obtaining an accurate picture of the health benefits or risks from eating one’s placenta will require randomized controlled trials, which means subjects are divided into groups that receive alternative treatments in the study and at least one group receives a placebo.

But Berlin said that since medical professionals don’t routinely recommend the consumption of placentas, there are not likely to be major trials in this area.

Benyshek disagrees. He himself is involved in such a study at UNLV. The small pilot study will only have about 70 subjects, but will be randomized and placebo-controlled.

“I think we’re on the cusp of a real explosion of research interest on placentophagy,” he said.

The current lack of awareness about the practice makes Larson’s job a bit more difficult. When one of her clients tells the doctors at St. Charles she wants to keep her placenta, Larson usually has to go in, hand them her card and explain what the practice is all about. In the end, they’ve always complied, even if they have questions.

“Little by little, they’ve gotten used to the placenta lady coming in and carrying out the placenta,” she said.

Baxter, of St. Charles, said the hospital’s policy is to keep the placenta in-house until the newborn is discharged in case the organ needs to be tested.

Mothers can choose to sign a waiver that allows them to take their placentas sooner, she said. The new law has prompted St. Charles to expand its waiver to include information on proper storage of the placenta either in a refrigerator or freezer, among other instructions.

Although Larson is certified as a doula, there is no certification program for placental encapsulators. She receives training on preventing exposure to bloodborne pathogens through an online Occupational Safety and Health Administration course. She said she’s also taken food safety coursework through orFoodhandlers.com, a website certified by the Oregon Department of Health to provide food handler training and testing.

Larson, like many advocates, traces placentophagy back to traditional Chinese medicine. Benyshek, who performed a study on the history of the practice in 2010, said while it’s true that Chinese medicine has a longstanding tradition of prescribing dried human placenta for a variety of health problems, including chronic cough, low energy and kidney pain, he couldn’t find a single society throughout history that specifically engaged in maternal placentophagy.

“The lack of one clear example of this as a traditional practice does give me pause because it suggests that there may be a reason for that, too,” he said.

There are several hypotheses to explain why so many non-human mammalian mothers eat their placentas, such as cleaning the site to protect against predators or simple hunger, but, to Benyshek, none offer a complete explanation.

Much of the rationale behind placentophagy stems from the theory that all of the placenta’s nutrients that nourished the baby throughout the pregnancy would be beneficial if ingested right back into the mother.

To OHSU’s Berlin, that’s a dubious claim, considering that once the placenta is out of the mother’s body — while it does contain iron and protein — it’s still a dead organ.

“To be thinking about all the wonderful things a placenta did do in terms of its hormonal regulation or its function in helping to regulate things for the fetus, all that is no longer in force because it’s no longer receiving nutrients,” she said.

Kruse, of Bend, encourages people to do their own research and make decisions that are right for their families.

“I think mothers often feel that they just kind of have to go with the flow, but the reality is, it’s your body and you should be able to control the process as much as possible,” she said. “So doing the research and knowing that these things are options is really empowering.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0304,

tbannow@bendbulletin.com

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