Bouncing back from birth with placenta pills
While the medical jury is still out on the supposed benefits, our reporter hears from the women who enjoyed a big energy boost post-partum
Dr David Walsh still recalls the unmistakable odour which wafted through the house where he was attending a home birth in Glasgow nearly 40 years ago.
The co-founder of Sims, Ireland's largest private fertility treatment clinics, remembers the strong smell of a mother's placenta being cooked with onions by a relative in the kitchen shortly after the birth.
That was back in the 1980s, but placentophagy, or eating the placenta is increasingly trendy these days, particularly after the news that Kim and Kourtney Kardashian decided to consume their placentas after giving birth.
Eating her own placenta wasn't something mother-of-five, Barbara Kelly had ever really considered - in fact, the 44-year-old mum, whose offspring range in age from 23 years to just two months, didn't even know you could do it until she was pregnant with her fifth baby, Heidi, who was born at the end of December.
After reading an article about it in the Irish Independent, Barbara decided to give it a go and is now a huge fan of the practice, claiming that in the weeks after the birth, it boosted her energy levels and accelerated her recovery following a Caesarean birth.
Although the pregnancy, she explains, was "a happy accident," Barbara had concerns about post-birth exhaustion. No surprise there - as well as her newborn infant, she would also be caring for a two-year-old and five-year-old.
So after researching the potential benefits of consuming her placenta, she started to investigate how to go about getting it processed and put into capsules - Barbara, from Collinstown, Co Westmeath, had no plans to cook it herself. She had read about how the placenta can be processed by a specialist and put in capsules for consumption much like a vitamin capsule.
Eventually she came across Stephanie Battle, who lived in Mullingar, only about 20 miles away.
Between them, they arranged that Stephanie would collect the placenta after Barbara had given birth - the baby was born by C-section on December 29 and Stephanie collected the placenta 25 minutes after the baby was born. Shortly after the birth, Barbara had a smoothie made with the placenta.
"It was gorgeous! I was sorry I didn't ask her to make more of it," she recalls, adding that in the days after drinking the smoothie she began to feel stronger.
"Within four days my post-birth bleeding had stopped."
Six days after the birth, she began taking the placenta capsules. Stephanie had processed and dehydrated Barbara's placenta before putting the fine powder into 190 capsules. Barbara took three a day and noticed a significant difference in her body compared to the other four births.
"My energy levels were higher than with the other births, I slept better and my breast feeding milk supply was better than with any of the other babies," she recalls.
She also felt, she reports, that her recovery from the C-section was faster and she experienced less pain than with the other four Caesareans she had undergone.
"With the others I had pain for up to 12 weeks after birth but with this baby the pain was much less and it was nearly gone after two weeks." Does placenta-eating have benefits for new mothers?
If a mother is well nourished, eating the placenta is not actually necessary, says Dr Walsh, who adds that this is the stance of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
"However," he says, "in a hunter-gatherer society where nutrition is not so accessible there may be a justification for it. The truth is nobody knows!"
He emphasises to date there is no scientific evidence to prove that placenta eating is necessary or has health benefits for mothers. He points to a 2006 study by Dr Maggie Blott, an obstetrician in the UK Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology who researched the practice of placentophagy and concluded there was insufficient evidence to justify it on the grounds of nutrition.
In the USA, researchers at the Northwestern University School of Medicine reviewed 10 published research studies on the practice. They found no data to support claims that eating the placenta offers protection against post-natal depression or reduces post-delivery pain, boosts the mother's energy levels, helps with breast feeding or replenishes iron in the body.
Barbara, however, believes it does have benefits for the mother. "It's the best thing I ever did. People who know me have said I'm in much better form after this birth than with any of the others. They also tell me I'm looking better. I feel fantastic after it."
She is now so convinced of the benefits, she says, that if she was ever to become pregnant again, and was unable to find someone to process the placenta for her, she would be happy "to take it home, prepare it myself and eat it".
"If someone is iron deficient they could eat it, and if there is a theory that because there is Vitamin B in the placenta, that it could help with post-natal depression, but this has not been proven," says Dr Walsh.
"It also has opioids that perhaps it could help the mother in the post-natal period but that is all theoretical." However, he says, eating the placenta has not been proven to be harmful either.
Kim Kardashian did it, he points out, adding that when a celebrity does something, it does highlight it: "I don't think there is any harm to it, though there does not seem to be any evidence for it."
Before establishing her placenta encapsulating consultancy last August, Stephanie Battle (37) had tried it herself - twice.
The mother of two girls, Kenzie (3) and Áine (1), she ate her first placenta while still living in her native USA. At the time, she said, she could see there was "no hard evidence for the benefits," but a "lot of anecdotal stories about it on different websites" convinced her to give it a try.
"Before Kenzie was born I contacted a doula or birth coach, who gave me the name of a person who would look after the placenta.
"It was collected by the specialist who took it away and returned it to us in capsule form." She felt it helped: "I personally felt like there was more energy in me than I would have had otherwise - I had quite a lot of energy about a week after I began to take the capsules."
After becoming pregnant for the second time when she and her husband moved to Mullingar, she decided to do it again: "I gave birth to Áine a year ago," she recalls, adding however, that she initially couldn't find a person to provide the service in the area.
"I eventually made contact with a specialist through my midwife."
Second time round, she didn't experience quite the same high, she recalls, but points out that Áine was her second child.
"However, my energy levels were still very good."
She decided to set up a placenta encapsulation service last August and offers the service throughout the midlands and Dublin regions.
"I knew a couple of mothers locally who had wanted to try it but were unable to find somebody local who would do it. I thought this would be a good service to offer."
Stephanie trained as an encapsulation specialist with the Irish Placenta Association and turned her spare room into a specialised 'placenta kitchen'.
"I collect the placenta and bring it back to the kitchen. It's either steamed or cut up into very thin raw strips and then dehydrated in the dehydrator. Then it is ground into a fine powder and put into capsules," she explains.
"I've had a lot of inquiries about the process. A lot of women are anxious and initially put off by the idea... When I show them the capsules, they realise it's like taking a vitamin capsule - then women become more open to the idea.
"It may never actually become mainstream, but I feel there will always be a demand for it!"