Your Placenta: What Is This Organ and Should You Eat It?
The placenta is a truly fascinating part of pregnancy—it’s a totally new organ that your body grows temporarily! This organ is extraordinarily complex and serves many different functions to support the healthy growth of your baby.
But there can be complications in how this structure grows that can affect your baby’s health. And there is a swirling controversy about whether you should eat your placenta, or if it’s a risky trend with more costs than benefit. This post will cover:
- What is the placenta?
- What are placenta complications?
- Should you eat your placenta?
What is the placenta?
The placenta is an organ that develops around the time of implantation. When sperm fertilizes the egg, a structure called the blastocyst forms. The inside of the blastocyst is the embryo; the outside of the blastocyst goes on to become the placenta.
This organ acts as filter between the mother and fetus, and it has blood vessels that connect to the mother and blood vessels that connect to the fetus. So, there isn’t any direct blood-to-blood contact between the mother and fetus; everything is filtered through this complex structure. Nutrients and oxygen are filtered through the placenta to reach the infant, and waste products are also filtered out and leave the fetus.
Ever wonder why estrogen and progesterone levels rise so much more during pregnancy than during your menstrual cycle? It’s because of the placenta! It not only acts as an important filter, it also is an endocrine organ and can synthesize hormones.
What are placental complications?
The placenta usually grows and attaches to the top or side of your uterus. It can be seen on an ultrasound starting around week 18 of pregnancy, and your doctor will note its position and size during subsequent scans. This is important because the following complications can occur with the placenta:
- Placenta previa is also known as a “low lying” placenta, or when it covers the cervix, blocking a vaginal delivery. In this case, the baby must be delivered via Caesarean-section. Risk factors for this condition include smoking during pregnancy, having more than one baby, and a previous history of Caesarean delivery.
- Placenta accreta is when the blood vessels of the placenta grow so deeply into the uterine wall that it does not detach during child birth, leading to dramatic blood loss. This can be detected by ultrasound by looking for excessive vascularity (aka unusually high blood flow to the uterus). Also, many women with placenta previa also have placenta accreta, so seeing this structure positioned low can be a red flag for both conditions.
- Placental insufficiency is a broad term that refers to the placenta not allowing adequate nutrient and/or blood flow to the baby, which is a serious complication for infant development and can increase likelihood of mothers experiencing preecclampsia signs. Because this is an issue with blood flow, any condition that disrupts vascular health in the mother (like diabetes or hypertension) increases risk for placental insufficiency. Early detection is key for managing this condition. (Also see the latest research on how preeclampsia is detected and treated.)
- Placental abruption is when the placenta detaches too early from the uterus, and can lead to bloody pregnancy discharge, abdominal pain, uterine pain, contractions, and fast fetal heart rate. This can happen any time during pregnancy, but it most commonly happens during the third trimester. The degree of placental detachment can range from mild, which requires rest and monitoring, to severe, which requires emergency delivery. So, if you notice vaginal bleeding at all during this time, see a health care professional immediately.
Should you eat your placenta?
There is no scientific evidence to support the claims that eating your placenta alleviates postpartum depression, improves lactation, or provides nutritional benefit [1.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28859955]. A small, placebo-controlled clinical trial found that while placenta pills had higher levels of iron than placebo, consuming it did not have any statistically significant effect on maternal iron levels [2.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27809380].
More importantly, as in the case of choosing the best prenatal vitamins, it’s difficult to recommend the safest method for placental consumption for women who do want to do it, because the FDA does not regulate this process. Recently, the Center for Disease Control warned women against this practice because of a highly dangerous case where bacteria present in placenta pills caused severe infection in the baby[3. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6625a4.htm]. For this reason, it can be extremely risky to eat your placenta.