The science is slim, but local moms attest to benefits of placenta pills

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Elizabeth Wagner knows what it’s like taking care of a newborn baby. Last month, she gave birth to her third.

But the 31-year-old nurse is trying something a little unconventional this time around.

Every morning and every night, Wagner swallows a small brown pill, hoping it will stave off the risk of postpartum depression. Inside the capsule? Bits of her dehydrated, pulverized placenta.

“When I take it, I feel like I have a lot of energy,” she said. “I do think it’s helping.”

The placenta is an organ inside the womb that feeds an infant throughout pregnancy. The uterus expels it after birth and hospital staff typically discard it.

But a growing cohort of new moms believe nutrients and hormones found in the placenta may prevent “baby blues,” increase milk production and improve overall energy. That’s why Wagner packed her placenta in a cooler and sent it home from the hospital with her husband to James Island. A doula charged the Wagners $200 to prepare the pills on site.

Women with stronger stomachs opt for instant gratification. Small pieces of the raw organ can be blended into a placenta smoothie and consumed just after birth.

“Placentophagy,” as it’s called, has become increasingly popular. Celebrities such as January Jones, Alicia Silverstone and Kourtney Kardashian all announced they tried it following the births of their children, even as mainstream medical professionals cast doubt on the purported benefits.

“We just don’t have good science to support placenta encapsulation,” said Dr. Amy Crockett, a maternal-fetal specialist for the Greenville Health System and a member of the South Carolina Birth Outcomes Initiative. “I also have concerns about the safety of the placenta storage and the preparation process. It’s completely unregulated, so there is always a risk that bacteria or other contaminants could be introduced during processing.”

Last year, a review article written by five Northwestern University professors took a closer look at 10 placentophagy studies and determined that the presumed perks of placenta ingestion post-birth were purely anecdotal. The review focused on existing literature about the practice, including four human and six animal studies conducted between 1950 and 2015. The studies showed no beneficial signs of placentophagy protecting against postpartum depression, reducing pain or helping with lactation, which are the very advantages that advocates of the process often site.

“There are a lot of subjective reports from women who perceived benefits, but there hasn’t been any systematic research investigating the benefits or the risk of placenta ingestion,” said Dr. Crystal Clark, one of the review’s coauthors, in a press release.

Cynthia Coyle, lead author of the Northwestern report, voiced similar concerns about all the unknowns.

“There are no regulations as to how the placenta is stored and prepared, and the dosing is inconsistent,” Coyle said in a prepared statement. “Women really don’t know what they are ingesting.”

Crockett tells her patients that the risks associated with placenta encapsulation are small, but that their money may be better spent on their child in other ways.

“I usually encourage them to take the money they would spend on encapsulation and invest it in a 529 plan for their baby instead,” she said. “We know for sure that will be helpful to the baby someday!”

But Samantha Mahon, a Charleston doula, swears by the process.

After Mahon birthed her first child, she fell into a “pit” of depression. She became so inconsolable that she left her home, her husband and her newborn child. Mahon eventually returned to her family, but when it came time to have another child, she was certain she didn’t want to fall back into that black hole.

So she decided to ingest her placenta.

It worked. Mahon, who now owns a placenta encapsulation business, said she felt better than ever after taking the pills.

“It was like night and day,” she said. “I thought every woman should have this.”

Similarly, Wagner started researching placenta encapsulation during her third pregnancy because she, too, had struggled with depression during a previous pregnancy.

“It was a rough time for me,” Wagner said. “I really did not want to go through that postpartum with a newborn.”

Time will tell if the placenta pills work their magic on Wagner. So far, she hasn’t shown any signs of postpartum depression.

“I really don’t want to risk going through that,” Wagner said. “If this helps, I might as well try it.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.