So You Want to Eat Your Placenta

Ever since January Jones announced that she consumed her own placenta after giving birth to her son, the world has suddenly been abuzz with discussion about why the hell a person would want to eat their own afterbirth. It's a legitimate question, and there is considerable debate about whether or not eating placenta really does anything. But let's leave all that aside for now and assume you maybe do want to chow down on your placenta. How exactly would you go about doing it? Well, it turns out it's really not that hard — animals in the wild do it, so shouldn't we be able to? The only real hurdle, and it's a big one, is getting over the idea of handling and ingesting "meat" that came from inside your own body.

If you need a little motivation before diving into the purplish-pink fleshy world of placentophagy, the technical term for eating one's own placenta, let's revisit the reasons that people choose to consume them in the first place. To get the experts take on all of this, I spoke with Jada Shapiro, co-founder of Birth Day Presence, which provides childbirth education and birth and postpartum doulas in New York. She said that placenta consumption is indeed a growing trend among her students, especially in Brooklyn—so we can add placenta to the ridiculously long list of Brooklyn's artisanal food specialties. Shapiro said that most of her students who've tried placenta have used it to reduce fatigue and postpartum depression and also to help boost milk production, and they've reported having positive experiences.

I also spoke with Suzanne Connole, an acupuncturist, doula, and professional placenta preparer in Brooklyn. She says she looks at the placenta a little more broadly, since it has a number of uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It's used to treat fatigue and/or insufficient lactation, but more generally it's used by herbalists as a strong tonic to treat weakness and restore energy and blood. So it's not just for postpartum use; it might also be used for someone who's been ill for a long time and has gotten very weak.

As lovely as consuming placenta sounds, it's definitely not for everyone. Obviously, because you may not be the kind of person who can stomach eating your own organs, but more than that, it's not the right treatment for all postpartum women, medicially-speaking. For instance, Connole says, if you're not suffering from extreme fatigue after birth, the placenta might be too strong and cause you to have a negative reaction. Nancy Redd, writing in the New York Times, described feeling "jittery and weird" after consuming her own placenta. So, before you decide to eat it, be aware that it might not be the glorious Mother Nature-provided cure you're expecting. And if you're concerned about whether it's right for you, you might want to consult a Chinese medicine herbalist. The good news is it's relatively safe and a lot of women report having a great experience. And, if you don't like the way you feel, you can always stop taking it.

Okay, so if you've decided you're going to do this, you've got a number of options—ranging from horribly disgusting to pretty palatable. But no matter which one you're choosing, you've got to start by procuring your placenta. If you're giving birth at home or in some kind of spiritual labor hut you've constructed in the nearest park, this shouldn't be a problem, since it's attached to your baby and should be pretty easy to keep track of. You can just stick it in your fridge for a day or two until you're ready to attend to it.

If you're in the hospital, however, it gets more complicated. Most hospitals just chuck placentas away. So you need to have a conversation with your doctor before your labor and find out what your options are. Some hospitals will release the placenta to you, but others won't. Also depending on what unfolds during your labor, they may need to run tests on your placenta, which could mean you won't be able to eat it. Jada Shapiro says it's also crucial to make sure that the placenta hasn't been put into formaldehyde at any point, because that obviously renders it totally inedible. If you're going to take it home from the hospital with you, be sure you bring a cooler or some way to keep it cold during transport

Once you've got your hands on the placenta, you can keep it in your fridge if you plan on using it right away or you can freeze it and deal with it later. Be sure to wrap it carefully in Ziploc bags so you don't end up with afterbirth leaking into your fridge. And be sure not to leave it out where, say, a family pet could get to it, because discovering your pet having a go at your precious placenta would be a scene too horrible for words.

Okay, so now you have this giant placenta blob in your home. What are you going to do with it? Well, in choosing how to consume it, it's important to think about a) how easily grossed out you are and b) what you hope to get out of taking the placenta. Let's go through the various ways to eat it, and talk about the differences with each one.

Raw: Nice n' Bloody

If you immediately squinched your eyes closed after reading that phrase, this might not be the best option for you because it involves, as you might have guessed, eating the placenta raw. To be clear, you don't just swallow the whole organ in a few fibrous bites, but it is still pretty hardcore. The purpose of chomping down on fresh placenta is a more immediate healing from labor. Shapiro says that she's heard of some women who've eaten a few bites right off the placenta immediately following labor if they're experiencing excess bleeding. You're obviously not going to be able to do this in the hospital, but if you're doing a home birth, for instance, your practitioner might suggest it. In a hospital, if you're bleeding too much they'll give you hormones to clamp up your uterus, and this is sort of the natural version of that.

You can also eat raw placenta, usually in smoothie form, in the first days after birth to give your body a bit of a boost. Though Connole usually prescribes cooked placenta, because that's what's used in TCM, she said a friend of hers ate a raw placenta smoothie and described it as giving her a "rush of energy," sort of like coffee would do, but a bit more controlled. A placenta buzz. Very interesting.

Should you be interested in consuming the placenta raw, there's not much to it. If you want to eat it plain, because you are a total badass, you can just cut a small piece off the maternal side (which is the meaty party; the fetal side has membranes and veins). It's recommended that you cut it up into tiny pieces to swallow, since it's kind of chewy if you try to gnaw on it. You'll want to rinse it off very thoroughly, cut it into pieces, and then rinse those again (and put them in clean bowl). Now go ahead and consume them like you would a pill.

If you want to make a smoothie, you can pretty much use any smoothie recipe you already like and then just toss the small piece of rinsed placenta into the blender with all the ingredients. You might want to go for ingredients with a strong flavor to mask the fact that you've got a bit of organ meat going down the ol' gullet.

This isn't an either/or proposition. You can choose to eat a few pieces of raw placenta and save the rest for cooking or encapsulation. One other thing to note: you're not supposed to eat raw placenta if meconium (poop!) was in the amniotic fluid, for obvious reason.

Cooked: Slightly Less Disgusting

If placenta tartare isn't on your dream postpartum menu, then perhaps you'd prefer to go with some placenta stew or placenta lasagna or a nice placenta pizza. (See here for some basic recipes.) Suzanne Connole explained that in TCM, it's actually preferable to have the placenta cooked because they believe it makes it easier for your body to absorb the beneficial properties. While there's nothing technically wrong with turning your placenta into a meal, it does have some limitations. First, good luck convincing anyone else to partake in the delicious entrée you've prepared. Second, and far more importantly, because you can only really eat the food over the course of a few days, you're limiting the benefits the placenta can bestow upon you. However, whether you want to cook it or dehydrate it—more about which in a moment—you've got to start by cleaning the hell out of it.

Depending on your tolerance for blood, this might either be a satisfying or ghastly experience because "cleaning" basically means draining all of the blood out of it and then rinsing it. Suzanne Connole says to do this she takes a little skewer to it and pierces all the blood vessels and empties them. It should go from being purple to very pink after the blood is all gone. The umbilical cord also needs to be cut off. (You can dry it and keep it as a memento if you like!) If you want to cook the placenta and eat it, you'll want to remove the membranes on the fetal side with a sharp knife. If you're going to do encapsulation, you can leave the membranes on.

To cook the placenta, you can basically just treat it as you would any organ meat. So, sauté it, roast it, steam it, whatever you like! You're limited only by your imagination and your culinary skills. You might, for palatability's sake, go for a recipe with bold flavors and spices, since you probably won't want to savor the organ-y, rich essence of the placenta as you choke it down enjoy each bite.

Encapsulation: As Easy As Swallowing a Meat Pill

If your ultimate goal is encapsulation, you'll want to steam the placenta on the stovetop with whatever herbs you like—various places suggest ginger, lemons, and chili peppers. Note: You can also encapsulate the placenta raw by just dehydrating the placenta without cooking it, but Suzanne Connole says this isn't recommended by TCM practitioners because cooking it imparts its own benefits, and you want the more low-key restorative characteristics of a cooked placenta for taking over the long-term (as opposed to the immediate rush of the raw you'd want in the short term).

You then slice up the steamed placenta and put it in a food dehydrator until it's nice and crispy, normally overnight. (You can also dry it out in an oven on the lowest temperature.) You can eat it like this as jerky if you want to. But if you're going for pills, you pulverize the hell out of the dried placenta in a blender, and then you pour it into little gel caps from an encapsulation kit.

It sounds simple, but it's a two-day process (because of the drying), and it makes a mess (blood, blood everywhere!). So, in all honesty, this might not be the time to get all DIY. For one thing, if you're lacking any of the necessary kitchen equipment, you'll have to fork over money for that. But more importantly, you have just given birth and probably you and your partner are exhausted and have better things to worry about than learning to clean and prepare a placenta and then neatly pour placenta dust into small gel capsules. Most professional placenta preparers will charge somewhere around $200 to do the whole thing for you. They typically come to your house (because of state health laws) and do it there. So you can watch if you like. Plus, if you've hired one who is trained in TCM, they can tailor the herbs they use to your specific situation.

Whether you've made them yourself or hired someone else to do it, the pills will keep pretty much forever, as long as you keep them dry. Connole says the typical placenta will produce about a one month supply of pills. She recommends taking multiple capsules in the first five days and then decreasing and spacing them out after that. She says taking them for at least for the first five weeks will "get most people past the immediate drama of postpartum." Of course, some people like to save capsules for menopause, which who even knows...

So there you have it: the many and varied options you have for indulging in a little placentophagy. If, after thinking about it, you don't want to eat the placenta and you don't want to take placenta pills, but you still want to do something special, there's always the very charming placenta teddy bear that you can cuddle up with.

Image by Jim Cooke.