Nearly all non-human mammals benefit from eating placenta. A new study by neuroscientists at the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College suggests that ingestion of components of afterbirth or placenta-placentophagia-may offer benefits to human mothers and perhaps to non-mothers and males.
They say this possibility does not warrant the wholesale ingestion of afterbirth, for some very good reasons, but that it deserves further study.
Mark Kristal, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UB, directs the graduate program in behavioural neuroscience, and has studied placentophagia for more than 40 years. He is recognized as a principle expert in the field.
It provokes an increase in mother-infant interaction, for instance, and increases the effects of pregnancy-mediated analgesia in the delivering mother. It also potentiates opioid circuits in the maternal brain that facilitate the onset of caretaking behaviour, and suppresses postpartum pseudopregnancy, thereby increasing the possibilities for fertilization.
"Human childbirth is fraught with additional problems for which there are no practical nonhuman animal models," said Kristal, citing postpartum depression, failure to bond and maternal hostility toward the infant.
He stated ingested afterbirth may contain components that ameliorate these problems, but although there have been many anecdotal claims made for human placentophagia, the issue has not been tested empirically.
"If such studies are undertaken," he said, "the results, if positive, will be medically relevant. If the results are negative, speculations and recommendations will persist, as it is not possible to prove the negative."
Kristal stressed that there is a current fad of ingesting encapsulated placenta, which mirrors unverified reports in the 1960s and 1970s of people in back-to-nature communes cooking and eating human placentas. The upsurge in recent anecdotal reports of the benefits of taking placenta by new mothers, irrespective of dose, method of preparation, or time course, suggests more of a placebo effect than a medicinal effect.
"People will do anything," Kristal noted, "but we shouldn't read too much significance into reports of such exceptions, even if they are accurate, because they are neither reliable nor valid studies. My own studies found no evidence of the routine practice of placentophagia in other cultures, findings supported by a recent extensive study by anthropologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"The more challenging anthropological question is," he said, 'Why don't humans engage in placentophagia as a biological imperative as so many other mammals apparently do?' because we clearly do not do this as a matter of course today and apparently never have. Perhaps for humans, there is a greater adaptive advantage to not eating the placenta."
The researchers discuss some possibilities in this regard.
"Whether or not we learn why humans do not do this, it is important for us to search for the medicinal or behavioural benefits of components of afterbirth for the same reasons that we search for plant-based medicinal substances," Kristal stated.
"The outcome of such a quest need not be an exhortation for women to eat afterbirth, but for scientists to isolate and identify the molecule or molecules that produce the beneficial effect and use it to design pharmacological tools," he added.
Kristal's study will be published in the March 30 issue of the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition, which will be devoted to the subject of placentophagia.