What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Two days after my daughter's birth, in the winter of 2012, my husband left us cuddling in bed to take the subway back to hospital where she was born to pick up my placenta. Since I was discharged on a Sunday, the lab was closed, and we had to leave it behind, much to my dismay. We had schlepped all the way down to the labyrinth-like basement of St. Lukes Roosevelt, on Manhattan's West Side, with our newborn daughter in her lucite rolling bassinet, accompanied by a nurse, cooler bag all ready to pack it up and take it home. When we realized the lab was closed, I panicked slightly. You see, I had a grand plan for that placenta--a local acupuncurist was on standby, ready to come pick it up and take it to be sauteed with ginger and herbs, dehydrated, and encapsulated so I could take it in pill form. It might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but in reality it was as benign as taking a daily vitamin, and I swear placenta encapsulation was the smartest post-partum health decision I could have made (and the best $100 bucks I've ever spent).
For months, friends with children had been warning me about the 'crying day'--a day or a week after birth, I'd be overcome with sadness and cry uncontrollably, they said. It would be quick, but very intense, and I should be ready. I didn't have a crying day. Others warned me that nursing would be excrutiatingly difficult, that the first week or so would be frustrating, that my milk might not come in--within five days of her birth she was nursing like a champ, and my milk flowed freely, with no painful engorgement, no fevers, no fuss. I give the placenta pills all the credit for this, and more. I slept well in those first few weeks, and even though I was waking often at night to nurse, I woke up with energy and was happy to greet the day. Esther Hornstein, the woman who encapsulated my placenta, says that she's getting more and more requests for post-partum placenta preparation, which delights her. "While placenta encapsulation cannot guarantee that a new mom won't experience post-partum pain or anxiety, it can greatly reduce the chance and severity of whatever unpleasant recovery she may have", Hornstein says, citing mothers who did not use PE with their first children but did with subsequent births and marvel at the difference in their recovery when aided by placenta pills.
Placentophagy, or post-partum ingestion of the placenta, has been observed in other cultures for centuries. Traditional Chinese medicine has been using placenta medicinally for thousands of years, most often to treat insufficient milk producion in post-partum women. While there aren't a huge amount of statistics available on the subject, studies in the past have shown improvement in milk production after treatment with placenta, whether in raw form or encapsulated in pill form. It might sound zany, but think about it: Your placenta basically functions as an organ in your body during your pregnancy, providing sustenance for your child in the womb. Hormones like oxytocin and the stress-busting hormone CRH are also secreted by the placenta, particularly in the third trimester when secretion of CRH nearly triples--sometimes causing the hypothalamus to go on CRH strike, one of the causes of post-partum depression and hormone imbalance. Once the placenta is delivered, your body's supply is cut off, but all the hormones and nutrients remain in the placenta, which is often discarded.
Kim Kardashian was rumoured to be considering keeping her placenta for post-partum recovery. January Jones mentioned to British Elle that she ate her placenta in pill form and swears it kept the post-baby blues at bay. One more celebrity and we'll have a trend. Articles in New York Magazine and The Atlantic have shed some light on the practice in the past few years, all which have helped bring attention to its existence and positive effects. Las Vegas-based encapsulation provider and placenta enthusiast Jodi Salender, known on Twitter as The Placenta Lady, has made it her duty to spread information about the benefits of placentophagy to the masses--often sharing the news of newly minted placenta encapsulation specialists in all regions of the country via Twitter. Salender is currently consulting on a placenta vs. placebo study run by a University of Nevada, Las Vegas anthropology professor to further the conversation on whether the benefits of post-partum placenta use can actually be quantified.
When my placenta pills were delivered to me, about 125 capsules in a little purple pouch like a party favor, they were accompanied by information on how to take them. To start I took two capsules in morning and evening, and as my recovery progressed, after about two weeks, I took one in the morning and one before bedtime. I truly felt better shortly after taking them--on mornings when I felt sluggish or anxious, I could feel a change in my body after taking the pills. After about six weeks, I stopped taking them, because although the pamphlet said leftover pills could be stored in the freezer and saved for menopause (again, hormone replacement therapy as nature intended!), I thought I'd like to use the remainder for weaning, another hormonal rollercoaster I'd been warned about. At 15 months, my daughter slowly tapered off with her nursing--it was gradual, and I really didn't feel much of an emotional wave as we wrapped it up. I actually forgot about the pills entirely, until one day I found myself crying while sitting and rocking her to sleep for her nap. After laying her down in her crib I went straight to the fridge, and rummaged in the cheese drawer for the little purple pouch. There were only 3 left--I had dipped into my 'stash' over the course of her first year whenever I was having a hormonal day; when my period returned when she was about 6 months old, I was a full-blown placenta pill popper--I downed one, and took one a day for the next two days. Cynics may claim a placebo effect, but I absolutely felt calmer, more relaxed, and at ease then I did before taking them.
When I have my next child, I absolutely intend to take my placenta home and encapsulate it, and whenever I hear of a friend who is expecting, I email her Esther Hornstein's phone number. I only hope that next time around we'll go home on a weekday so my husband won't have to tote the frozen placenta home on the subway in a cooler bag. He says that was strange.
Reprinted with permission from Elizabeth Street. Want more?