When Sarah Curtis became pregnant with her second child, she decided on a natural childbirth and worked with a midwife and two doulas. She hoped the experience would be better than the first.
“Everything was very clinical and we felt very out of control of the situation,” she said of her first pregnancy. Postpartum, she had trouble breast feeding and suffered from what she described as prolonged baby blues.
While doing her research for baby No. 2, the 34-year-old Olathe resident came across the potential benefits of eating placenta after childbirth. The placenta is an organ that connects the developing fetus to the uterine wall to allow the exchange of nutrition and oxygen.
“First, we were grossed out by the whole thing like, ‘Eeww, you eat your placenta. That’s so disgusting,’” she said. “But, the more we learned about it, it seemed to make a lot of sense.”
While she knew moms who took the placenta home and put it in smoothies, she couldn’t stomach that. She decided to have her placenta encapsulated, and paid Lawrence resident Lilly Mason, of Joyful Choice Birth Services, about $200 to do it for her.
Then, Curtis delivered her second child at Shawnee Mission Medical Center four months ago. Hospital staff put the placenta into a container and her husband took it home in a cooler.
Soon thereafter, Mason arrived at their home with all of the necessary equipment to transform the placenta into pills. The process included rinsing, steaming and dehydrating the placenta. The dehydration occurs overnight, so she went back the next day to grind it and put it into capsules. She then took the jar of about 120 pills to Curtis and gave her guidelines on how many to take and when.
“They were no weirder or funnier than any other capsules,” she said, of the smell and taste.
Curtis believes they were beneficial.
“We had really big supply issues with breast feeding our first child,” she said. “With this child, I am like a dairy cow. There’s an abundance of milk and I really truly believe it’s because I kick-started off the first two or three weeks with the placenta.”
She also felt better.
“There were no baby blues,” Curtis said. “I didn’t experience any sort of postpartum depression in any way and I really attribute it to that.”
Jodi Selander, founder of Las Vegas-based Placenta Benefits, believes that placenta ingestion can help mothers have a better postpartum recovery because it contains protein, vitamins, iron and hormones.
While some mothers eat placenta raw or use small pieces in a tincture, or alcohol extract, Selander promotes consuming it in pill form. The process she uses for encapsulation is similar to traditional Chinese medicine that has been done for centuries. However, she said very little, if any, research has been done on human placenta consumption in any form. That’s until this year.
Selander has been involved in research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas involving placenta consumption and she said two studies will be published later this year in the Journal of Ecology of Food and Nutrition. One study looks at the benefits of taking pills, and the other compares raw tissue with dehydrated tissue to see if nutrients are lost during the preparation process.
While she can’t divulge the details, Selander said both have been promising. She said a majority of the mothers surveyed reported a positive experience after consuming placenta.
Additionally, researchers learned that while some nutrients were lessened during the encapsulation process, she said none were destroyed, and in some cases the nutrients were actually higher.
“There isn’t a lot of research into the human placentophagy, so these studies will be among the first coming out and hopefully, the first of many,” she said.
Selandar began offering an online training course for placenta encapsulation in late 2007 and more than 200 people have completed it with 100 currently taking the course.
“It’s increasing every single year,” she said of the number of trainees. She said people who live in Canada, South Korea and Australia have taken the course. In the United States, it’s most popular on the West Coast, and slowly growing in the Midwest. It’s least popular in the South.
Among those who have taken her course is Mason, 33, of Lawrence, who has been a doula for 10 years.
Mason worked with many women who suffered postpartum. For some, it was depression but for others it was exhaustion, anxiety and/or irritability.
“It’s just a hard time for a lot of people when you have a newborn baby,” she said, and added there aren’t a lot of options for treatment. Typically, mothers are prescribed antidepressants and then they have to stop nursing or they just have to suffer through the symptoms, Mason said.
“I was just like, ‘Gosh, there’s got to be something better out there,’” she said.
So, Mason began researching alternative treatments and learned about placenta encapsulation. She took the online course in 2010 and then began offering the placenta encapsulation service. In addition to the pills, she also makes tincture and a salve.
Mason said the general benefits of consuming placenta are increased milk production, hormone balance and increased energy. She said the salve can help with any kind of skin condition, including C-section scars, hemorrhoids, nipple soreness and diaper rash.
So far, she’s provided the services for about 90 women in the region and has traveled to Manhattan, Emporia and Columbia, Mo. She does all of the work in the client’s home and charges between $150 and $350, depending on the distance she travels. Mason said she follows Food and Drug Administration guidelines and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
“I had no idea what to expect and I really have been amazed at the response,” she said.
Mason has developed a hands-on training course and began offering it this year. So, far she has trained eight women. She also has written a 51-page guide to making placenta remedies called Mothercake.
“I’m not at all squeamish about anything. I mean I’ve been at lots of births and have worked in doctor’s offices and hospitals. So, I don’t know what a normal person would say. I’m probably not a normal person,” she said, laughing.
She said placenta is about the size of a small dinner plate and looks like bloody meat. Some people say it smells like liver when she’s steaming it.
“What I’ve noticed is that moms typically like the smell and dads typically don’t,” she said. “I had one teenage son who had to leave the kitchen one time while I was doing it, but other than that I really haven’t had people be too grossed out about it. I think it’s one of those things that people expect to be more grossed out than they actually turn out to be.”
Count Cole Cottin, 29, of Lawrence, among them.
She gave birth to her first child, Irie Phelps, seventh months ago at home and Mason was her doula. About three hours after the birth, her daughter started showing signs of infection and she was rushed to Lawrence Memorial Hospital and then transferred to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
Cottin said it was a very traumatic experience and she was exhausted when Mason showed up at the hospital with four small pieces of her raw placenta on top of hummus.
“Though I had many doubts in my mind that I would even take the capsules, when I saw the placenta and I had the shakes and was in that situation, my body wanted it and right now. I don’t know how to explain it, but I ate it,” she said. “There was never a moment when I thought, ‘This is disgusting.’”
Cottin said the energy she received from the placenta lasted about 24 hours, and then she called her midwife wanting more. So, they brought her the capsules and she took them every day.
“I believe it’s a huge part of what sustained me,” she said of the 15 days she sat by her daughter’s bedside as she fought group B strep pneumonia.
Today, mom and baby are fine.
“I took that placenta to keep me strong. That was my benefit and I am so grateful for it,” she said. “But, I definitely think it’s a personal choice.”
Emporia resident Abigail Smith, 30, said she suffered from severe postpartum depression with her first child four years ago, so she decided to try placenta consumption with the second one.
“I didn’t have the money to encapsulate, so I did it myself at home. I was willing to try anything,” she said.
Smith delivered her second child at home last year. She said she processed the placenta within a few days after the delivery by steaming it, drying it and then cutting it up into tiny pieces. Then, she wrapped bread around the pieces, froze them and swallowed them like pills. She was impressed with the results.
“I did not get postpartum depression. The days that I forgot to take it, I could feel my mood actually starting to swing down,” she said.
While she has no regrets about eating the placenta, she wouldn’t prepare it herself again. “I was very grossed out by it,” Smith said. She also didn’t have the proper equipment, which resulted in big and little pieces instead of one standard size.
“I strongly recommend getting someone else to do it,” she said.
At Lawrence Memorial Hospital, there are about 1,000 births each year. An estimated 2 percent of the mothers request to have their placenta saved.
“We get them occasionally,” said Bonnie Jackson, a nurse who has worked in labor and delivery there for five years. “We don’t ask them what they are doing with it. We just send it with them.”
Jackson said there is no cost to the patient. The staff puts it in a container instead of disposing of it, and they request someone take it home as soon as possible.
Jackson also has worked in Hawaii, where she said it was more common for women to save their placentas.
“The vast majority just want to take it home and plant a tree or something like that,” she said. “Over my career that’s been the main thing.”
In Junction City, Dr. Anwar Khoury said he has been practicing obstetrics for 16 years and just recently heard about placenta encapsulation. He said he’s never had a patient ask to save her placenta, and he works with a midwife.
“For centuries, people have had stories about people eating their placentas and preparing them, and mostly people claim that it helps with postpartum depression now. But I am not aware of any studies that prove that. It’s all just anecdotal,” he said.
DOULA TO ANSWER QUESTIONS DURING CHAT
Lawrence resident Lilly Mason will be available at 10 a.m. Wednesday, May 9, to discuss natural childbirth and placenta consumption.
Mason, 33, has been a doula for 10 years and is becoming a certified midwife. She has been teaching childbirth classes since 2005, and she owns a business called Joyful Choice Birth Services, which offers placenta encapsulation, natural birth preparation classes, fertility cycling awareness classes and midwives assistant services.
She also has written “Mothercake: A Guide to Making Placenta Remedies.” It provides detailed instructions for making placenta capsules, tincture and salve, and it is available on blurb.com.
Mason will be participating in an online chat on WellCommons.com. You can submit questions at anytime at WellCommons.com/chats. Make sure to log back on to WellCommons.com during or after the chat to see if your question was answered.