Placenta popularity on the rise
After our daughter was born, my husband cried for three days. It wasn’t because he had just watched his wife spend 41 tortured hours trying to dislodge something the size of a Christmas turkey from her abdomen. It was, as he repeated endlessly, because he loved his new baby so much.
He dabbed at his eyes each time he peered into the bassinet. He sobbed when I hung her small socks on the clothes line. He finally snapped out of it when I asked him to help me recover the pieces of my memory obliterated by anaesthetic gas and sleep deprivation, and he was nudged into remembering the appearance of the placenta. The tender looks of the past three days vanished, his face contorted with disgust and he said, through gritted teeth: “It was repulsive. It looked like a really old man’s balls.”
Until recently, in Western cultures, his reaction would have been considered quite normal. Other than revulsion, what was there to feel for a lump of meat whose job was now done?
At best you might follow Maori tradition and bury the placenta, reinforcing your child’s connection to the land, but more likely you would order the thing hurled into a bin labelled “clinical waste” and never think of it again.
But now, with its range of nutrients, proteins and minerals, placenta is fast becoming the organ du jour. Animal or human, placentas are avoiding the incinerator and finding life after birth as health and beauty treatments.
Spice Girl-turned-fashion arbiter Victoria Beckham is reportedly a fan of sheep placenta facials.
Mad Men star January Jones saved her son’s afterbirth and swallowed it in capsule form to boost her post-natal health. In Switzerland you can pay for placenta injections, while in Japan you can drink pig placenta smoothies.
In New Zealand we are catching up fast.
Megan Exelby’s partner is an obliging man.
After the Hamilton woman gave birth to their second child, he carried out her wishes by chopping up the placenta and freezing it in bite-size pieces.
“He wasn’t keen on doing it,” Exelby says. “But he did it.”
The 26-year-old ate a few of the placenta portions each day, hiding them in spoonfuls of yoghurt to make it more palatable.
Exelby, a politics student, decided to eat her afterbirth after reading about the growing practice – placentophagy – online.
Proponents of placentophagy point out that almost all other mammals eat their placentas, that afterbirth has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, and that anecdotal evidence – and some sketchy science – suggests that consuming placenta can prevent post-natal depression, reduce post-partum haemorrhage, help maintain energy levels, boost milk production and replace lost iron.
Conclusive research, however, is non-existent and medical experts say the practice is pointless.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ vice-president of women’s health, Stephen Robson, says positive responses are most likely attributable to the placebo effect.
“Animals may have nutritional deficiencies at the time of birth, and eating the placenta is similar to their normal diet and helps maintain nutrition. And there is absolutely no evidence that it has any benefit in humans.”
After weighing up the arguments Exelby felt that the relentlessly positive feedback from mothers who had taken the leap was enough to give it a try herself.
“The main claims for me were that it helped with production of breast milk and it helped prevent post-natal depression,” she says.
“I had some issues breastfeeding my first child and because I already had one young child at home I was worried about getting post-natal depression.”
Exelby suffered neither problem and if she ever has another child, placenta will be back on the menu.
Few fans of placentophagy are as brave. They might want the touted benefits of the practice but the thought of swallowing afterbirth makes them queasy. Professional placenta encapsulators are popping up to solve the problem.
At North Shore Midwives, Wendy Lee opens a black suitcase full of equipment. Latex gloves, bleach and baking paper lie on the top.
The willowy British expat midwife trained as an afterbirth encapsulator last year and has since transformed about 30 into inoffensive capsules for Auckland women.
She charges between $180 and $240 for the process, depending on whether the client wants the encapsulation carried out at her own home or at Lee’s clinic. Each placenta makes between 100 and 200 capsules.
“I clean it – empty and drain it of blood,” she says. “I wash it lots and lots. It can take 30 to 40 minutes.”
“Then I steam it, usually with ginger, depending on what the woman wants, for seven or eight hours.”
She pulls out a portable dehydrator. “I just pop a baking sheet on here,” she says sliding out one of the drawers, “and put the placenta, which I’ve sliced really thinly, in.”
A coffee and spice grinder is plonked on to a table. “After seven or eight hours I grind it.”
She hands me a bag of empty capsules, still divided into halves, waiting to be filled by the next ground afterbirth. “They’re vegetarian,” she says.
How big is placentophagy? There is no way of quantifying but there is also no doubt that the taboo surrounding it is receding and the practice growing.
In 1998, the British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall featured placenta on an instalment of his show TV Dinners. The episode saw the cook collaborate with new mother Rosie Clear. They threw a party to celebrate the birth of her daughter and served Clear’s placenta.
Fearnley-Whittingstall fried the afterbirth with shallots and garlic, flambeed it, pureed it and then served it to 20 relatives and friends as pate on focaccia bread.
Clear’s husband had 17 helpings. The other guests’ appetites were more subdued.
Shocked viewers complained and Britain’s Channel 4 was severely reprimanded by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which found that the programme had “broken a taboo”. The commission upheld the complaints “on the grounds of taste”.
Fast-forward 15 years and the mainstream media is peppered with stories about, and references to, placentophagy. Reality star Kim Kardashian, who recently gave birth to her first child, was filmed for her high rating TV show telling an obstetrician that she wanted to eat her placenta.
“There are whole cookbooks for placentas,” the specialist told her.
“I really want to do it,” she said.
star January Jones has spoken about having her placenta encapsulated after the arrival of her son in 2011 and advised other women to do the same.
“It’s a very civilised thing that can help women with depression or fatigue. It’s not gross or witchcrafty. I was never depressed or sad or down after the baby was born, so I’d highly suggest it to any pregnant woman,” she said.
An American Playboy model and one-time girlfriend of Hugh Hefner, Holly Madison, followed suit this year, blogging and tweeting about her encapsulation plans.
Placentophagy is now so widely discussed that Birthcare, a major provider of maternity services in Auckland and Huntly, can no longer run an antenatal class without addressing the practice.
“It’s not that I’m up there recommending it,” says Barbara Taunton-Clark, Birthcare’s manager of childbirth education services. “It’s that every time we talk about the placenta it’s brought up by someone.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a mainstream thing but it’s definitely being talked about.”
When Dunedin mother Emily Sterk, 34, gave birth to her son at the beginning of 2011 she had never heard of the practice. She froze her placenta so she could bury it later but within a year she heard talk of placentophagy and removed the afterbirth from the freezer and had it encapsulated.
The change in her milk supply, she says, was instant. Naturopathy student Sian Hannagan, who processed Sterk’s placenta, learned how to encapsulate 18 months ago after realising demand for the service was growing but that Dunedin women were struggling to find local providers and were having to courier their placentas to encapsulators in other parts of the country.
“I don’t view it as a business and I don’t promote it,” says the mother of two, who offers the service on a koha basis. “I do it for women who want it because I feel they deserve it.
“It’s about people having the right to choose what they want to do with their own placenta.”
Why are Kiwi women so willing to experiment with an unproven practice? Jo Jackson of Timaru business Baby Tree Placenta Services, which offers everything from afterbirth prints to placenta chocolates, drops and capsules, says the growth in demand is largely down to word of mouth.
“I’ve noticed a big increase in people lately,” she says. “I can do up to three a week now and there’s a lot of good feedback. Someone will have it done and then tell someone else.”
Back in Auckland, Wendy Lee suspects there is more to the spike in interest. She wonders if New Zealand’s large Chinese population, accustomed to the use of placenta as medicine, has influenced demand but she also speculates that the growing trend towards natural health remedies is a factor.
“I think it’s the natural aspect. People are saying ‘I don’t want to take medication for mood swings or antidepressants for post-natal depression’. For them this is an option. They want natural solutions.”
Television’s Simon Cowell is not one to miss a trend. He might not be able to grow a placenta or discover one on a TV talent show but the music mogul has joined the ranks of afterbirth enthusiasts by indulging in sheep placenta facials.
A therapist from Cowell’s dermatologist’s clinic let the secret slip when she appeared on the British TV show, Lorraine. “He loves it,” she blurted.
Cowell is in good company. Victoria Beckham is widely reported to visit the same clinic – Lancer Dermatology in Beverly Hills – for the treatment, while former Bond Girl Denise Richards endorsed the facial on the TV network E!
The animal placenta facials, and a host of other animal afterbirth beauty products, have risen in popularity as rapidly as placentophagy.
Angela Payne, director of the Hawkes Bay company Agri-lab, thinks and talks animal afterbirth every day but she still seems slightly in awe of its rise in status. Her company, which supplies a range of unusual animal parts (who knew you could buy brain glands and nasal septum?) to the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and cosmetics industry, began selling sheep placenta 11 years ago before adding horse and pig varieties to the range.
“In 2002 we exported 11 tonnes of placenta [mostly in powdered form],” says Payne. “We’re now doing the equivalent of 200 tonnes.”
Afterbirth now accounts for 80 per cent of the company’s business with most ending up as dietary supplements and a small amount being turned into a serum for use in face creams.
Most of the company’s ovine placentas go to Japan, a country where pig placenta smoothies have hit the market and intravenous human placenta is available at the Tokyo IV spa Tenteki 10.
New Zealanders are not as daring but the animal placenta market is growing. Kiwi-produced sheep and deer placenta supplements, which promise youthful skin, are widely available and ovine placenta face and body creams are on the shelves and on Trade Me.
But if you want pampering with your placenta, head to Peak Appearance in Napier, where you can lie back, relax and have sheep afterbirth rubbed into your face.
If anyone is going to convince you that this is a good idea, it is the clinic’s owner, Lara Molloy. She is impossibly glamorous and and has been offering placenta facials, at $150 a pop, since August 2012.
“Placentas are rich in growth factors,” she says. “It definitely makes a difference. People are a little bit more radiant and the benefits last for a month.”
But being this on-trend can have its downsides.
“It’s a little bit whiffy, so I combine it with some other products. But you can still smell it a bit,” she says. “My ladies are quite rural though, so they’re not too bothered by it.”