The Mad Men season premiere was big news, but new mom January Jones made headlines of her own by announcing her decision to have her placenta encapsulated and the benefits she’s seen from taking the pills. “Your placenta gets dehydrated and made into vitamins,” she explained. “It’s something I was very hesitant about, but we’re the only mammals who don’t ingest our own placentas.”
The revelation was largely met with an online chorus of “Ew, gross!” from reporters and online commenters, combined with a few attempts to explain the practice, along the lines of “Well, cats do it…” Personally, I did a little fist shake of victory when I read about it: I plan to encapsulate and consume my placenta, too, and every prominent women who talks about doing it makes my own decision seems a bit less extreme. And a bit less, well, disgusting.
Believe me, nobody is more surprised about this decision than I am. When I first heard about placenta consumption, about five years ago, I deemed it about one step above witchcraft. Reading an examination of the practice, called placentophagia, in New York Magazine last year didn’t change my mind much. A placenta has served its very important purpose once the baby is out, I figured, and discarding it along with all the other bio-hazard waste is just the sensible thing to do. I didn’t keep my wisdom teeth once those were removed, I reasoned, and I wouldn’t need to keep my placenta either.
Fast forward a few years, and now I’m expecting – and planning to hire my doula to take my placenta home, dehydrate it, and put it into little capsules that I can pop post birth. I’m surprisingly not really bothered by the though of taking a couple of the hundred or so pills I’ll get with my morning smoothie. I can’t say that I’d be up for tossing a hunk of afterbirth in that smoothie or cooking it up in a stew – though for the interested, there’s no shortage of recipes online – but I’m otherwise pretty relaxed about the whole idea.
What changed? I’ve definitely moved closer to the hippie side of the spectrum overall, but the biggest factor in this choice is the fact that I’ve dealt with several serious episodes of clinical depression over the course of my adult life. My depression is being managed well now, but since becoming pregnant I’ve learned that my history puts me at a higher risk of developing postpartum depression after my baby is born – and frankly, I’m terrified.
Depression is not kind to a new mother. Dealing with sleep exhaustion, a brand-new and crying baby, a seriously distended midsection, and the trials of establishing breastfeeding all sounds overwhelming enough on its own. When you’re clinically depressed everything is overwhelming, starting with getting out of bed in the morning; I can’t even imagine adding all the rest of that on top of the pile.
One of the reasons most often given for consuming the placenta post-birth – whether dehydrated, or raw or cooked in its whole form – is to protect against postpartum depression, either by making it less severe or preventing it altogether. There is scant research on this, but no shortage of anecdotal evidence and testimonials online. Supporters of the practice say that consuming the placenta after birth provides the mother with iron, preventing deficiency and the fatigue that can result. Others point to a possible protective effect from the hormones in the placenta. (Apparently it also makes your hair look great. Bonus!)
And maybe there’s something of a placebo effect at work as well – the science on that is more robust and we know that such a thing does exist. If we can benefit from the placebo effect by believing we are taking pharmaceuticals, why not with afterbirth? Is it really so bad to fool myself a little in the name of the greater good of my mental health?
In the end, I know I’m not going to find a study I can wave in people’s faces to prove that there’s a solid, scientifically established reason to take those red capsules. I’m just going to have to put up with the squinched-up, disgusted faces and hope for the best. My decision came down to the fact that there is no apparent harm but some possible benefit, and when we’re talking about the part of this whole experience that I fear the most, that’s enough. I guess I’m learning a bit early that parenting will make a person do things she never, ever thought she’d do.