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Proponents say placenta-eating no placebo

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After giving birth to her daughter Fallyn, now one, Charissa Destiny Calverley consumed her placenta  in pill form for its supposed health benefits.

GAVIN YOUNG / POSTMEDIA NETWORK INC. Enlarge Image

After giving birth to her daughter Fallyn, now one, Charissa Destiny Calverley consumed her placenta in pill form for its supposed health benefits.

Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Charissa Destiny Calverley had her midwife pack up the placenta into a bio-hazard bag provided by the hospital, and put the package on ice. Calverley then called Susan Stewart of Pure Birth Services in Calgary where she lives and asked her to come and get the afterbirth.

Stewart took the organ to her house where she steamed it, dehydrated it, ground it up and then encapsulated it so her client would be able to swallow placenta pills daily over the first several months of new motherhood.

Placental encapsulation, also called placentophagy ("placenta eating"), is growing in popularity as some moms look to their placentas -- the organ that transfers oxygen and nutrients from mom to her growing fetus during pregnancy -- to help them survive and even thrive during the exhausting weeks and months that follow childbirth.

Proponents of the practice say eating the afterbirth helps with everything from enhancing mom's milk supply to balancing her hormone levels and staving off postpartum depression, while critics argue there's no scientific research to back up the claims of what could be an unsanitary -- and therefore potentially unsafe -- fad.

Even though it sounded gross, as soon as Calverley heard about placental encapsulation she was intrigued and wanted to try it.

"Everyone I knew had done it and I wanted to get the benefits from it," says the 23-year-old.

"There's been a history of postpartum depression in my family so the biggest thing for me was trying to avoid that."

Calverley says taking three or more placenta pills a day during the first weeks after giving birth improved her energy levels, increased her milk production and kept her from feeling overwhelmed by the demands of a newborn. She never felt sad or weepy and took to calling the little capsules her "happy pills." Her husband, who was skeptical of the practice at first, eventually came around.

"He thought it was a crazy hippie thing to do, and he thought it was really disgusting. But once he noticed the difference when I took the pills, he was on board," says Calverley.

Calverley is far from the only mom pulling up a chair to this unconventional table. Earlier this year, the journal Ecology, Food and Nutrition published results from a survey conducted by anthropologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, that asked 189 women who had eaten their placentas after giving birth why they did it and whether they would do it again.

The majority (76 per cent) reported very positive experiences and said they would engage in placentophagy again after future births. Researchers noted, however, that further studies are required to determine whether the reported benefits extend beyond placebo effects.

Susan Stewart would love to see more research conducted to back up her company's claims, but the lack of science hasn't affected business. Moms, like those surveyed, talk among themselves, and Stewart credits word of mouth with helping grow Pure Birth Services, which she founded in 2009 after experiencing postpartum depression when her eldest child, born in 2008, was six months old.

She now fields calls for the service daily. She has even opened branches of her business in other cities in North America including Lethbridge, Alta., Moncton, N.B., and Fort St. John, B.C. in Canada, and Kennewick, Wash., Charleston, S.C. and Orlando, Fla. in the United States.

"When I first started doing it, people were grossed out," she says. "Now, I do it for lawyers and doctors -- highly educated people."

Jaime Sanderson is one such mom. Trained as an accountant, the 36-year-old mother of three was leery of placentophagy at first.

"You look at a list of all the things that (the pills) are supposed to help with and it sounds like baloney," says Sanderson, who owns Babes in Arms, a Calgary baby store with a focus on natural products. But after experiencing severe postpartum depression with her second-born, Sanderson decided to try placental encapsulation after the birth of her third child, figuring it couldn't hurt.

And, what if it helped?

"I asked a lot of questions," she says. "Was it going to be safe?"

The biggest concern for her was whether the individual cooking up her placenta had taken any blood-safety training to learn how to handle blood products properly and thus prevent bacterial contamination.

After doing her due diligence, Sanderson was comfortable with her decision, and thrilled with the results. She says she had more energy and focus after taking the placenta pills; they even helped her sleep better. More importantly, Sanderson says the capsules kept her from going in a "downward spiral" toward depression.

"If doctors understood how beneficial placental encapsulation was, they would send women home from the hospital with their baby and some pills," she says.

Brian Hauck, a Calgary obstetrician/gynaecologist, will not be discharging new moms with placenta pills any time soon, if ever.

"There is no science to support that there are any benefits to placental encapsulation," says Hauck.

"It's a huge placebo effect. Placebo research has proven the placebo effect can be very powerful -- if a woman really wants to believe in this, it will have an effect."

He says the claim that a woman's afterbirth is a reservoir for hormones that help rebalance her in the weeks after giving birth -- thus keeping the baby blues or postpartum depression at bay -- is bogus. Hormones pass through the placenta but are not stored there, he says.

"At best it's a source of protein," says Hauck.

He lumps placentophagy in with other "faddish" trends like water births (giving birth in a bathtub) or lotus births (where the mom keeps the umbilical cord and placenta attached to the baby until they fall off naturally) -- practices that do not take place in nature. Though many mammals eat their placentas after giving birth, as well as lick their young clean, he says this is a survival mechanism to eliminate the strong scent of afterbirth that could attract predators.

Hauck also worries that placental encapsulation, which is not government regulated, could make someone sick if the placenta isn't handled or prepared properly. The organ is delivered through the vagina, which is known to harbour harmful bacteria.

"There are issues in regards to bacterial contamination and cleanliness," he says. But, provided the placenta is safely prepared and delivered, there's probably no harm in eating it.

That's just what Charissa Destiny Calverley plans to do when baby No. 2 arrives in February. To say she's looking forward to another round of placenta pills is an understatement. When she found out she was pregnant again the young mom phoned her own mother to share the news -- but only after she'd placed a call to her "happy pills" provider first.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 4, 2013 D5

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