Back in the days when I worked in commercial radio, I would never have imagined bringing someone else’s placenta into my home and cooking it up in the family kitchen. But last night, that’s exactly what I did.
Once I had my first child, radio lost its allure, and I trained to be a doula, supporting women and their partners during pregnancy, at the birth, and in the weeks after their baby is born. In this new role, among other perks, I get to be intimate with blood, poo and general birthing secretions.
Until just a few years ago, the placenta rarely had a starring role at a birth: once it had made its appearance, it would be put to one side in a stainless steel dish, checked over by a midwife to make sure it was intact, before swiftly making its way to the biohazard waste bin.
And so, despite having been present at many births, until a couple of years ago, I’d never really given a placenta a second glance.
But then things started to change. Word got around that placentas could be beneficial. If eaten. Let’s be clear: there wasn’t – and still isn’t – any real evidence that consuming your placenta helps in any way, but maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea.
As those of us whose pet cat has had kittens might know, once her young ones have been licked clean and are busy drinking their first milky meal, mum will get down to some post-natal placentophagy – in other words, it will eat its placenta. Now, there may well be some very good reasons that this happens that don’t involve nutrition, like making sure potential predators aren’t alerted that some defenceless kittens have just been born. But evolution has a habit of finding hidden benefits in the most unexpected places. And it isn’t just moggies that engage in placentophagy: mammals that don’t are actually in the minority. So if all our cousins were doing it, maybe us humans could benefit too.
I decided to train in placenta encapsulation. What’s that, you ask? It’s the process of dehydrating a fresh placenta and turning it into capsules for the mother’s consumption after giving birth. It seemed like a good service to provide my birthing clients.
When I first saw a placenta out of its normal post-birth environment at my first training session, it was confronting to say the least. I shouldn’t have found it so bad considering I grew up in an Italian family where eating tripe for Sunday lunch was the norm. Once I was over the shock of seeing a placenta oozing blood on a chopping board, I was able to truly understand what an amazing organ it really is.
We know the placenta contains a number of hormones that may well provide some relief to new mums:
- Oxytocin: the “hormone of love” – whose job includes giving us a feeling of happiness and pain relief – seems ideal to help reduce those hormone dips after birth.
- Prostaglandin: an anti-inflammatory – sounds perfect to reduce swelling in those sore places after birth.
- Prolactin: stimulator of milk production – always handy at times like this.
- Then there’s an added bonus – plenty of iron to help replace nutrients from blood loss during labour.
Even if this all turns out to be wishful thinking, there’s always the power of the placebo effect to fall back on. And, who knows, as more and more women opt for placenta encapsulation, the opportunity for some proper research into its impact may present itself.
My latest client gave birth yesterday morning. She had a planned Caesarean and wanted to consume her placenta as she’d heard about the benefits from friends. I picked the placenta up not long after the birth; the container was clearly labelled with the owner’s name, date of birth and hospital number, so there was no way it could get mixed up. I quickly drove it home to pop it into the refrigerator. My husband came home from work, grabbed a beer out of the fridge and asked why we needed such a large tub of yoghurt. Hello! Can’t he read labels?
His mum happened to be visiting from the UK and asked, “Would you have married her if you knew that one day she’d be chopping someone else’s placenta in your kitchen?”
I’m still waiting for his answer.
Preparing the placenta for consumption takes a fair amount of time. Apart from bleaching the work area (training includes gaining certificates in food safety and handling and working with blood-borne pathogens), the placenta requires some modifications. Once the sac is cut away and the umbilical cord is cut off, any remaining blood needs to be removed. I find the process of pushing the blood through the veins almost therapeutic, a little like squeezing a good pimple or three. It takes about half an hour to drain the blood, but by doing so it reduces the amount of time it takes to dehydrate.
As well as the usual dried placenta capsules, this client also has requested some fresh placenta smoothies, which are a great way to get quick benefits before the capsules are ready. For these, I cut a couple of thumb-sized pieces from the placenta’s maternal side, and set aside the rest for dehydration. In addition to capsules and smoothies, I offer clients a tincture of their placenta, photos and prints, and even umbilical cord art (pictured right).
Dehydration takes place overnight, and in the morning I put together a delicious fruit smoothie before driving it to hospital ready for mum’s morning tea.
I know, it might not sound that appetising, but you’d never know placenta was the secret ingredient… well not in my smoothies anyway. In fact, an hour after I dropped it off, this text came in:
“Smoothie was delicious. Can only taste honey. Suspect smell is still with you. ☺ Thank you.”
Even her husband had some and agreed it was tasty. Two more satisfied customers.
Tonight I can get down to grinding, and filling those capsules. This “capping” process takes ages, especially if you’re like me and do it all by hand, one by one. Depending on the size of the placenta you can yield over 150 capsules.
As I prepare for this somewhat strange task, the thought of going in to work at that radio station feels as alien to me now, as this did to me back then.
WARNING: Don’t click if you’re queasy!
Nadine Fragosa is a birth and postnatal doula, a volunteer for HAS (Homebirth Access Sydney) and most recently (in the last 2 years) has taken up an interest in placenta encapsulation. She is married to Jonathan Buck, is a mum to two wonderful children and lives in Sydney.