BOONE LIFE: Postnatal placenta remedies gaining popularity in Columbia

Thursday, June 28, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:14 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 29, 2012

COLUMBIA — Melanie Morgret was in labor for just 45 minutes before giving birth to Sedona Morgret at home on Feb. 29. The leap day birth was the third delivery for Morgret and, as expected, it went quickly.

Since labor tends to be faster as a woman has more children, Morgret knew she would probably have to forgo pain medication during the birth of Sedona and opted for a home birth instead of going to a hospital.

Before the birth, Morgret had heard about a traditional Asian remedy for mothers that's been getting renewed attention in the U.S.: having her placenta processed into postnatal remedies.

She turned to Baby Home Brewed, a Web-based placenta remedy business in Columbia operated by Jennifer Graham-Henderson.

Graham-Henderson, a former special education teacher in Columbia, had postpartum depression after giving birth to her first daughter and learned about placenta remedies while she was pregnant with her second daughter. 

“The placenta, when it’s gone, you’re left without hormone production or regulation for a couple days up to a couple weeks,” Graham-Henderson said.

She gave this explanation for the benefits of placentas for mothers:

Normally, the hypothalamus in the brain controls hormonal production. After about the 12th week of pregnancy, however, the placenta takes over this job. After giving birth it can take more than two weeks before a woman’s hypothalamus begins to regulate hormones again.

The placenta is full of hormones and nutrients — especially vitamin B, protein and iron — and Graham-Henderson said these natural vitamins are absorbed into the body faster and easier from placenta remedies than vitamin supplements. Ingesting the placenta during the weeks after birth, she said, is thought to help new moms regain energy faster and avoid postpartum depression.

Mark Kristal, a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo in charge of behavioral neuroscience, said he’s been studying placentophagia for about 40 years. Although Kristal hasn’t done any research with humans, neither has anyone else, he said.

Kristal said the results seen with new mothers consuming the encapsulated placenta might be a placebo effect; people think it will help, so it does. He said that humans aren’t lacking anything that the placenta offers, so it isn’t necessary.

Other mammals have changes in their physiology during pregnancy, causing them to crave and consume their placentas after birth for the nutrients and hormones.

Human mothers don’t crave the placenta, Kristal said, and don’t need it. It might work in humans, he said, but evidence is lacking and more research needs to be done.

“It’s a difficult topic to study in humans in a scientific fashion,” Kristal said.

Graham-Henderson noticed a significant difference in postnatal recovery times between her first and second child, and credited the placenta remedy. Because she had to hire a home-birth midwife from Kansas City to process her placenta, she decided to open her own business in Columbia.

“It seemed really silly to me that in a community like Columbia where there’s such an open-minded vibe going on that surely somebody would’ve heard of this or done this before,” Graham-Henderson said.

Graham-Henderson said she took training courses from the woman who processed her placenta. She was required to process two placentas outside of the class, and Morgret was her first client.

During the processing, the placenta is steamed, dehydrated and ground into a powder. It can be put into capsules, ointment, tincture or added to food such as the chocolates and vegetable soup Graham-Henderson made for Morgret.

Graham-Henderson's basic fee for the placenta capsules is $200, and then $20 for additional products. 

Morgret said she initially couldn't taste the placenta powder she used as a food supplement but after awhile detected a "strong iron taste."

Graham-Henderson speculated that because women are so nutrient deprived after birth, they don’t initially notice the strong iron-like taste of the placenta in the food.     

“I just had more energy right after, and I don’t know if that’s just because I stayed home,” Morgret said. “Plus with taking the placenta capsules, I feel like it was a combination of both.”

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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paula donkling June 28, 2012 | 11:10 a.m.

This is a blatant example of biased reporting.

The behavioral neuroscientist who has studied placentaphagia for 40 years and casts doubt on its medical usefulness while allowing for perhaps some use yet to be scientifically analyzed or even STUDIED is given four paragraphs.

The "former special education teacher in Colombia" who operates a "placenta remedy business," however, is given 12 paragraphs to promote her practice, which is based on very highly questionable claims.

Her comments also open and close the story, emphasizing her authority on the subject.

Why an unqualified person with an obvious vested financial interest in promoting this hooey is presented as an "expert" on the efficacy of this practice is beyond me.

Being able to cook up afterbirth stew is a far cry from understanding the science behind the wisdom of eating it.

It's bad enough that the reporters found this kind of advertising an acceptable presentation of "facts," but where on earth were their editors?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 28, 2012 | 12:47 p.m.

The placenta primarily secretes hormones for the fetus and to maintain the corpus luteum. Once the baby is delivered, the mother doesn't need these hormones anymore.

"The placenta is full of hormones and nutrients — especially vitamin B, protein and iron — and Graham-Henderson said these natural vitamins are absorbed into the body faster and easier from placenta remedies than vitamin supplements."

A fat steak also contains vitamin B, protein and iron. It's questionable if there's much difference in absorption. Plus, peptide hormones like CRH are digested like any other protein, and are inactive orally.

"During the processing, the placenta is steamed, dehydrated and ground into a powder."

What does this do to the hormone and nutrient content?

Animals eat their placentas raw. Placenta tartare, anyone? Placenta burger extra rare?

"Graham-Henderson speculated that because women are so nutrient deprived after birth"

Very few Americans are actually nutrient deprived. If they are, they're doing something seriously wrong.

From the "Baby Home Brewed" website:

"Now, I am able to offer my clients a tincture that will give you the benefits of placenta indefinitely. As you use the tincture, you simply add more alcohol to the main bottle."

Hm. So the tincture can retain its potency while being continuously diluted? Unless one adds placenta powder to the tincture, it will be diluted over time. Sounds like homeopathy to me, which is the pretty much the very definition of "placebo".

In clinical trials, usually about 30% of patients improve whether they are receiving the actual treatment or a placebo. That makes a placebo a fairly powerful medication. Fortunately this one is likely to be quite harmless.


(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble June 28, 2012 | 12:59 p.m.

It's always interesting to me to see the lengths to which some people will go to immediately dispute any kind of positive story related to traditional birth practices. The tone and extent of responses is usually tinged with a characteristic whiff of defensiveness that bespeaks a ruffled institution displeased with anything that could undermine it.

Some people believe that we (via our scientific houses of orthodoxy) already know everything there is to know and there's no point in considering otherwise. I'm not one of these people.

You can keep your dehumanizing hospital birth practices, circumcisions, and 60% c-section rate at a certain local hospital. I'll continue to support the alternative approaches which have had so many benefits for my own family and those of many others I know.

(Report Comment)
chuck carter June 28, 2012 | 4:47 p.m.

Geez...where to start?
No medical evidence to support effectiveness.
Dirty dishes on the counter behind the "Placentist"
BIG handle of Vodka on the table (Bloody Mary anyone?)
Kitchen knife (vrs anything remotely medical-equipment like)F'n CAT in the room!!! what do you think will happen when the phone rings and she steps away???

gotta stop now, I'm laughing too hard...gonna puke

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle June 28, 2012 | 5:53 p.m.

DK sez: "Very few Americans are actually nutrient deprived."

That's an understatement. Also, as Mark pointed out, animals eat their placentas raw. I always thought that was more because it was the only nutrition the new mother was going to get for a while, than because there's anything particularly special in there.

My wife and I actually saved the placenta from our firstborn, or, maybe the midwife just saved it for us. When we found it in the freezer nearly a year later, we immediately threw it out, wondering what the heck we had been thinking at the time.

I'm 100% with Kevin on promoting midwife-assisted home birth, extended breastfeeding, leaving males intact, etc. And, I certainly don't see any harm in consuming a placenta. I think it's done more as a spiritual fulfillment act surrounding the overall mystique of childbirth than anything; if someone wants to do it, more power to them. I'm happy there are people who facilitate that.

However, I will politely decline the placenta, and opt for other nutrition and support for mama. In fact, that steak is sounding pretty good right now...

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 28, 2012 | 6:24 p.m.

Since I've not tried either, are placentas tastier than boiled peanuts? Perhaps the appearance of placentas is more visually appealing. They probably don't sell placentas at South Carolina's (SEC) football games.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 29, 2012 | 5:34 a.m.

Kevin Gamble wrote:

"I'll continue to support the alternative approaches which have had so many benefits for my own family and those of many others I know."

Unless you can show these benefits in a controlled experiment, your observations are simply observations and your conclusions are simply opinions. Very many alternative medical practices do not work as believed when subjected to double-blind testing.

Alternative birth practices have a very fuzzy, feel-good, baby-asleep-on-his-mother's-ample-bosom appeal, but few have been really rigorously investigated and shown to give distinct improvements in outcomes. The likelihood is that in terms of the desired outcome (healthy mother and healthy baby) there isn't a whole lot of difference between medical childbirth and natural childbirth. Except in the case of complications - we forget how dangerous childbirth has been in the past.

I should point out that medical birth is really the alternative - most childbirth in the world is still practiced more or less naturally, and few would deny we're running out of people.

I have no problem with alternative birth practices or any other alternative practices. They're individual choices, and as long as they don't harm others (and really, how can they?), I fully support them. But when advocates of these methods start touting unproven methods based on ideology rather than science, I get a little bothered. Sorry.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 29, 2012 | 6:21 a.m.

I don't think some Americans realize how relatively recent modern obstetric practices are. It took more or less two and a half decades into the Twentieth Century before it became practice to have births conducted in hospitals. Doing so provided better outcomes if the birth proved difficult.

Obstetrics as a specialty only took of after 1945. The stimulus was a baby boom. Before that for many births, if there was physician attending, the physician might easily have been a general practitioner (aka family doctor). "She's overdue by our joint calculations? Well tell her to drink "X" amount of Castor oil and then come to the hospital." That works, but may not be best for all perspective mothers.

Ultrasound, to determine position of the baby in the womb, is relatively recent. Breach births, hard on mothers and babies, are now less common. Believe it or not there is such a thing as "traumatized left-handedness" caused by some breached births*. I have it, and so did former girlfriend.

I've always considered that this illustrates something both scientific and economic: when there appears a demand (in this case a baby boom) for some service then improvements in science or service will follow. How disgustingly Capitalistic!

*-Breach birth, with no history of family left-handedness. It's accepted in the medical community, but today there should be less occurrences.

(Report Comment)

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