BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A paper by neuroscientists at the University at
Buffalo and Buffalo State College suggests that ingestion of
components of afterbirth or placenta -- placentophagia -- may offer
benefits to human mothers and perhaps to non-mothers and males.
They say this possibility does not warrant the wholesale
ingestion of afterbirth, for some very good reasons, but that it
deserves further study.
Mark Kristal, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at
UB, directs the graduate program in behavioral neuroscience, and
has studied placentophagia for more than 40 years. He is recognized
as a principle expert in the field.
Kristal's article "Placentophagia in Human and Nonhuman Mammals:
Causes and Consequences," will be published in the March 30 issue
of the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition, which will be devoted
to the subject of placentophagia. It will be available after March
30 at http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/gefn20/current.
Kristal's co-authors are Jean M. DiPirro, PhD, associate
professor, Department of Psychology, Buffalo State College, and
Alexis C. Thompson, PhD, research associate professor, UB
Department of Psychology and a research scientist in the UB
Research Institute on Addictions.
They point out that the benefits of placenta ingestion (as well
as the ingestion of amniotic fluid) by non-human mammalian mothers
are significant. It provokes an increase in mother-infant
interaction, for instance, and increases the effects of
pregnancy-mediated analgesia in the delivering mother. It also
potentiates opioid circuits in the maternal brain that facilitate
the onset of caretaking behavior, and suppresses postpartum
pseudopregnancy, thereby increasing the possibilities for
"Human childbirth is fraught with additional problems for which
there are no practical nonhuman animal models," says Kristal,
citing postpartum depression, failure to bond and maternal
hostility toward the infant.
He says ingested afterbirth may contain components that
ameliorate these problems, but although there have been many
anecdotal claims made for human placentophagia, the issue has not
been tested empirically.
"If such studies are undertaken," he says, "the results, if
positive, will be medically relevant. If the results are negative,
speculations and recommendations will persist, as it is not
possible to prove the negative."
Kristal says there is a current fad of ingesting encapsulated
placenta, which mirrors unverified reports in the 1960s and 1970s
of people in back-to-nature communes cooking and eating human
placentas. The upsurge in recent anecdotal reports of the benefits
of taking placenta by new mothers, irrespective of dose, method of
preparation, or time course, suggests more of a placebo effect than
a medicinal effect.
"People will do anything," Kristal says, "but we shouldn't read
too much significance into reports of such exceptions, even if they
are accurate, because they are neither reliable nor valid studies.
My own studies found no evidence of the routine practice of
placentophagia in other cultures, findings supported by a recent
extensive study by anthropologists at the University of Nevada, Las
"The more challenging anthropological question is," he says,
"'Why don't humans engage in placentophagia as a biological
imperative as so many other mammals apparently do?' because we
clearly do not do this as a matter of course today and apparently
never have. Perhaps for humans, there is a greater adaptive
advantage to not eating the placenta." The paper discusses some
possibilities in this regard.
"Whether or not we learn why humans do not do this, it is
important for us to search for the medicinal or behavioral benefits
of components of afterbirth for the same reasons that we search for
plant-based medicinal substances," Kristal says.
"The outcome of such a quest need not be an exhortation for
women to eat afterbirth, but for scientists to isolate and identify
the molecule or molecules that produce the beneficial effect and
use it to design pharmacological tools," he says.
He adds, "In the case of Placental Opioid-Enhancing Factor or
POEF and enhanced opioid-mediated analgesia, for instance, we have
determined through earlier studies that not only is the effect
nonspecific in regard to species, but it is also nonspecific in
regard to sex.
"That means that although males, who in all probability do not
make the molecule, have the ability to respond to it," Kristal
Kristal conducts research and publishes on opioid and hormonal
mechanisms underlying periparturitional phenomena and the
psychobiology of motivated behaviors. DiPirro's areas of research
include psychostimulant-induced neural adaptations in neuropeptide
neurotransmission in the forebrain and experience-induced
adaptations in defensive and affiliative behaviors. Thompson's
research includes studies of aspects of maternal behavior and
behavioral regulation of pain and analgesia.