Capsules made from freeze-dried placenta are said to help beat postnatal depression and lift fatigue. Susannah Taylor was sceptical until friends raved about them. So with baby number 3 she signed up - and this is what happened
Having had my third baby, Willow, in February, I decided to share my experiences of the postnatal period in this column to help others going through this incredibly tough time. I have always felt that it’s in the months following birth that women need the most help. Last time, I wrote about how hard breastfeeding can be for so many women. This week, I'm continuing to get back in shape with the Louise Parker Health Plan, but before I tell you more about that, I want to talk about something that has totally transformed my postnatal experience…
Yes, I had my placenta made into pills
The first thing I would say is, "hear me out". If you’d asked me with my first and second babies (now 11 and 9) whether I'd consider eating my placenta - albeit in pill form - I'd have scrunched up my face and pretended to retch. I am definitely not a clog-wearing, incense-wafting hippy. If you’ve ever seen a placenta (blood red, jellyfish-like, big) you may wonder how anyone could entertain the idea placenta eating – or 'placentophagy' as it's officially called. I have never ever considered eating something my body has created before and I doubt I will again.
However, it feels like placenta pills have become quite a big ‘thing’ of late, some are even heralding it as a superfood. I had no idea before I Googled it, but apparently, Kim Kardashian, January Jones and Coleen Rooney are among the celebrities who have had theirs 'encapsulated' i.e. dehydrated and made into pills. My cousin and many friends have done it and have sworn by the miraculous energising, milk boosting, sanity-saving effects of placenta capsules. For some reason, third time around I was more open-minded and appreciative about life, babies and the wonder of the human body. Plus, let’s face it, if there’s something on offer that might help you through the quagmire of the first few months of babydom, then believe me it’s always worth a shot. My attitude was – why not?'.
They're said to give you feel-good hormones and boost your milk
Mammals eat their placentas - dogs do, horses do, cats do, lions do and apparently the only mammals that don’t are camels (not sure why) and humans. Experts think mammals eat it to hide the evidence from nearby predators. It is also thought to be incredibly nutritious for the mother and their offspring, which receive it through the mother’s milk.
Unfortunately, very little research has been done on placentas but we do know that it has grown a tiny human being which is an incredible feat of engineering. Apart from the iron content (said to help strengthen women post birth), it also is said to contain fibre, protein, potassium and to be rich in vitamin B6. Placental and umbilical cord blood are also said to be very rich in regenerative stem cells too.
Potential benefits are an influx of feel-good hormones which some say can help keep postnatal depression at bay, as well as increased milk production. In an article in the British Journal of Midwives in July 2012 shown on the Placenta Remedies Network website, it states that during pregnancy, women secrete a stress-reducing hormone called CRH (corticotrophin releasing hormone), which the placenta stores at high levels in the third trimester. Despite there being very few trials on placentophagy, it is hypothesised that ingestion of the hormone-rich placenta bridges the gap of hormones post-birth. The same article also relays findings on a blind study of 27 women, half of whom were given placental supplements and half beef. The researchers saw positive results in the placenta-fed group, 86 per cent of whom experienced increased breast size and milk flow, compared to 36 per cent of the beef-fed group.
Some people believe that placentas are actually quite magic and for years I’ve heard tales of women chopping up bits of their placenta and putting them in their smoothies - gulp! I know one person who does it when she’s going through a difficult time emotionally.
Friends had very mixed reactions. Most women seemed OK with it but one male friend nearly spat his G&T all over the room when I told him. Some think it's a form of cannibalism, which I also understand (but don't consider myself a cannibal). As for my husband, he just raised his eyebrows.
Raw or steamed - the choice is yours
After reading up and talking to friends who'd done it, I contacted the placentaremediesnetwork.org . Here I was put in touch with Sarah Boyd who is my local specialist.
There was a lot of paperwork and ticking of boxes - you can’t have it done if you have HIV for example and you can’t if you smoke because the toxins will remain in the placenta which would be harmful to you and your baby.
You then get a choice of whether you want to have your placenta dried by the Simple Method, where it is dehydrated from raw and reaches 70 degrees to kill off any bacteria, or the Traditional Chinese Method (TCM) where it is steamed with lemon, ginger and chilli until it reaches 70 degrees before being dehydrated. The Chinese apparently believe that women need to be kept warm after birth and these warming properties are a way of putting the heat back. It is also said that you shouldn’t take TCM placenta pills if you fall ill or develop mastitis, as there would be too much heat in your body.
People say that the pills you get from the Simple Method can give an energising effect and because there is less processing involved, some say the placenta is able to retain more nutrients. The TCM pills, on the other hand, are said to be calming - so I chose those. I also opted to have a tincture made which I can keep for use when I go through the menopause - a few drops in water are said to help with symptoms. While I was at it, I also had an essence made which Sarah says works on more of an energetic level, like Bach flower remedies and can be taken when you're feeling emotionally unstable. Both are made by distilling some placenta in alcohol. All in all, it cost about £255.
Keeping your placenta fresh
When you sign up, you are sent instructions about what to do with your placenta post-birth and a list of the kit you need to buy. I needed a cool box, frozen cool blocks, a large tub to keep it in and Ziploc bags - that's quite a lot to remember alongside your hospital bag, especially when you’re in the throes of monumental contractions.
Now, however, Sarah says she sends all the above as a kit, which is definitely a weight off your pregnant mind. It is very important that your placenta is on ice within 30 minutes of being born to avoid certain bacteria starting to breed. Your specialist (in my case Sarah) then comes to pick up the placenta - if it’s left out any longer, she won’t take it.
Your placenta is delivered when the umbilical cord stops beating and is cut, normally in the first hour after giving birth. When I asked my midwife if I could keep it to put it in their fridge, she didn’t bat an eyelid – when it comes to midwifery there’s probably nothing you haven’t seen. I just hoped no one would get it mixed up with their lunch box.
Sarah duly came to collect it and three days later I got my stash of placenta pills, about 200 little capsules filled with dried brown powder. Sarah said they were hand-filled.
What placenta pills did for me
Being a health writer, I was very ready to believe that the pills were a just hype. However, I felt they worked like magic. This was by far the best I have felt post-pregnancy by a long mile. In the mornings, I would wake foggy-headed (I think you can’t underestimate how much having a baby takes out of you) and I would take a placenta pill with water. Half an hour later I would feel remarkably clearer, calm and with a crisp new sense of energy. It happened every time. Do I think it’s a placebo effect? Absolutely not. As someone who has suffered from anxiety in the past I definitely know when something changes the way I feel.
The benefits didn’t stop there; they say placenta pills are meant to help with your milk production - and mine went through the roof. I had so much that my baby could barely latch on and choked on the rapid let-down. People also often commented post-birth on the way I looked, telling me I didn’t look tired and my skin looked glowing. Whether that was the placenta pills or just my Charlotte Tilbury tinted moisturiser, I can’t say.
Ok, there was an initial ‘eeuw’ feeling - "Try not to think about the placenta", I would say to myself - but I soon got used to it. I’m not the only one who thinks they are wonderful - one friend on her fifth pregnancy texted me saying that hers were about to run out and how panicked she was about it. She has been on a concoction (as have I) of omegas and multivitamins ever since, but nothing compares to the magnificent placenta pills.
I ask Sarah (who is also a doula) if the feedback is generally positive and she said it was but that they aren’t allowed to make any claims since there have been no proper clinical trials on placenta encapsulation and all feedback is anecdotal. "The feedback is very positive. It doesn’t work for everyone," she says, "but most people report back often with more clarity, energy and more milk.” I ask her if vegetarians do it at all, “Yes some do,” she said, “because it is part of them and no animal has died in the process.”
How safe is the process?
As safe as it possibly can be. The specialists are all highly trained and for every placenta they process they use equipment that has been sanitised using hospital grade disinfectant. It is key, however, to make sure that the placenta is chilled quickly post-birth. Sarah says, “We are also handling other people’s blood, it’s important it’s a very safe and sterile environment for our own health too.”
There haven't been many official studies on placenta pills and some say there is no evidence that they work and that the heat would kill off any potential goodness anyway. All I can say is that they worked for me - and I was sceptical.
They're the reason I feel strong
Would I recommend doing it? Wholeheartedly. I only wish I'd known about it in my other pregnancies. I feel they benefitted me hugely both physically and emotionally and are the reason I feel strong now six months on.
Week 6 of the Louise Parker Plan
So, from placentas to health plans…
I’ve been doing the Louise Parker plan for six weeks now and as I said in my last piece , the heatwave and housefuls of visitors slightly sabotaged my plans. At the weekend it was my mother’s 70th birthday and we had another load of visitors staying – there was no way on earth that I could have said no to a chilled glass of rosé, or a piece of my mum’s birthday cake, or the amazing chocolates with nuts in that my friends brought from Australia or champagne for that matter. Yes, I fell off that health bandwagon good and proper and I cancelled a meeting and phone call with Alejandra, the dietician who is supervising me. She didn’t seem very impressed but I couldn’t even breathe let alone talk about my food intake.
However, despite the abnormal sugar intake and excessive alcohol, I did say no to bread on meals out, I chose a Mexican salad at a festival over a burger, I had fish at my mum’s birthday meal, kept on ‘lemonising’ in the mornings, and stuck with protein at every meal. Last week, I also dusted myself off and got back on the exercise bandwagon. I did a brutal HIIT class outside that nearly killed me, I went to power yoga twice and then for a run. I ate fish, chicken and vegetables and I also went back to the healthy snacks and ate eggs for breakfast quite a lot.
I haven’t been able to weigh myself - I don’t own any scales. I don’t like the idea of being obsessed over a few pounds or my children thinking weight is really important so I tend to go on how well my jeans fit, or in my case right now ‘Can I fit into any of my favourite clothes again?!’ While I have a lot of jelly belly to go, my clothes are definitely looser despite my blip. There is a red and white striped shirtdress from Zara I didn’t fit into a month ago which now fits and I definitely don’t feel as big around the middle. Plus I am actually considering a bikini on holiday when a month ago I definitely wasn’t. Physically I am also feeling stronger; Alejandra tells that is because "The body is like an oven and it won’t bake a cake unless you fuel it well.” What she means is that the body needs good fuel in order to function well and get stronger which is hopefully what I’ve done on the Louise Parker plan.
One other positive effect so far seems to be my skin; at the moment it looks rather good if you don’t mind my saying so – no spots, no blotches, smooth as my baby’s bottom (with a few lines obviously.)
I will measure myself for next time, but I have just arrived on holiday in Italy. How I will navigate the burrata and rosé this time is yet to be revealed.
Next time… postnatal exercise, support pants and the next instalment of the Louise Parker Plan.
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