Would you like that placenta fried or in pill form?

A growing number of women believe that ingesting their placentas may help stave off postpartum depression.

Published July 23, 2007 6:09PM (EDT)

A few months ago I was walking through my local Walgreens and noticed something weird in the hair care aisle: a product called Henna 'n' Placenta. Yes, that's right. Placenta. According to the label this combination is "nature's most complete conditioning treatment" -- which seems a bit questionable, since I thought placenta had to do with feeding unborn babies, not conditioning adult women's hair.

Little did I know, though, that the uses of placenta extend far beyond the scalp. According to USA Today, there's a growing group of women who believe that ingesting their placentas may help stave off postpartum depression.

You heard that right. It's a practice called placentophagy, and it involves saving a placenta, drying and emulsifying it, and then putting it into gelatin capsules that can be swallowed like a multivitamin. (In more extreme cases, placentophagists cook and eat their placentas.)

Placentophagists argue that since most other mammals eat their placentas, humans should too. (For a full list of reasons to chow down, click here.) But critics point out that not all mammals are placenta munchers -- and that there are plenty of other reasons, besides mood elevation, that an animal might consume it, including as a source of nutrition or as a pain-prevention method (which would make ingesting it post-birth pointless). What's more, according to a State University of New York at Buffalo professor who wrote his 1971 doctoral dissertation on the subject, keeping the placenta away from animal mothers didn't make them depressed or cause them to withdraw from their children.

But studies like that do not sway the placenta eaters, who are so enthusiastic about the practice that they are willing to fight hospital bureaucracy to take their placentas home. Case in point: Anne Swanson, who just won the right to her placenta in court (the hospital wouldn't give it to her because it was considered to be biohazardous). Unfortunately, Swanson's placenta has been in the hospital's freezer since she gave birth in April, so it's unlikely to do much for her mood. But if nothing else, maybe she can use it on her hair.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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