January Jones has been singing the praises of her placenta pills. She’s the first big star to get this burgeoning birth trend out into the mainstream and the questions are pouring in. What are placenta pills? And do they really fend off postpartum depression and give you the emotional boost January Jones (and others) claim they do?
Here’s the quick rundown:
The placenta, at birth, is full of nutrient-rich blood and hormones such as the beneficial bonding/birth hormone, oxytocin. The theory is that if you consume the placenta these nutrients and hormones will help stabilize your mood postpartum and possibly, theoretically, reduce the chances of postpartum mood disorder such as depression.
One way to consume the placenta is to eat it. Another way is to have your placenta made into pills. A trained placenta encapsulator will reduce the placenta (via drying and/or cooking) into a concentrated powder which is then put in capsules and ingested daily during the postpartum period.
Though I’ve never seen solid research supporting the usefulness of the pills, anecdotes from happy mothers abound. Here’s one comment from popular blogger The Feminist Breeder‘s Facebook page today: “I had mine encapsulated after baby 3 last summer. They help combat my depression so much. I ended up using all my pills. I will say that after the reaction I got from some friends when I told them about it, I stopped telling people. If they haven’t had kids or experienced depression after they won’t understand.”
Women who’ve been through postpartum depression are particularly keen to try whatever they can to avoid a repeat occurrence with a subsequent pregnancy.
I have mixed feelings about this procedure. I’m not squeamish in the slightest. I’m very interested in the natural process of birth. I have even been labelled “crunchy” in the New York Times. But I have quibbles:
- Oxytocin– the “bonding” or “love hormone”– has many fine features, to be sure. It’s instrumental in birth and breastfeeding and bonding with the baby. But I don’t see how oxytocin survives the drying/cooking process. I’ve read that even in your bloodstream this hormone is elusive. Also, from the dabbling in pop neuropsychology I’ve done, it seems it’s never just about levels of hormones, but also about the availability of hormone receptors.
- A woman’s body makes lots of oxytocin during birth (this is the primary hormone of labor) and during breastfeeding. Do we really need to intervene to provide more? Does promoting the routine use of these pills imply that the biological process of birth doesn’t fully work? Hey, I’m open to the flaws or kinks in biology and I do think that all of us need help (in the form of more maternity leave, more sunshine, medication, therapy, better sex, affordable daycare, whatever….) But it’s interesting to note that those who promote placental encapsulation are typically a very anti-interventionist crowd. I know this is “natural” (it’s not oxycontin!) but it’s also arguably not a part of “natural” human physiological birth:
- One big reason other mammals eat their placentas is to quickly eliminate of the smell of fresh, alluring blood and thus prevent unwanted predators. Humans may have sometimes eaten the placenta way back in the day when food was very scarce (it is a nutritious organ to be sure) but generally it’s not a part of the human birth process.
- Postpartum depression and other mood disorders can be very serious and often have multiple causes. We all experience a huge hormonal shift in the first weeks postpartum and this can be more or less difficult, depending on many variables. But there are other important risk factors than just “hormones” to postpartum depression. I worry that if we become too obsessed with these miracle pills, we might start to pay less attention to risk factors such as, “marital problems, low self-esteem, and a lack of having social support before and after the birth of the child.”
Having said all of that, let’s get back to the fact that so many women love these pills!
Maybe I’m wrong? Or being too harsh?
Maybe the hormones do survive the drying process. Maybe taking placenta pills can seamlessly coexist with nuanced conversations about support for moms– this is certainly true of some of the brilliant and enlightened women in know in the birth world. Maybe a fairly benign intervention such as this will help moms feel like they’re actively seeking out ways to take care of themselves.
Maybe the placenta pills work on placebo effect alone???
And maybe that’s just fine.
I am not sure I buy the “science” behind placenta pills. But I do buy the testimony of moms, like January Jones, who feel better for taking them.
What do you think?