Vickie Hingston-Jones

During our Graduate Mentorship Program class on pregnancy and postpartum care, one of my students volunteered her expertise in preparing placentas. She agreed to do a guest blog. Here it is!

By Suzanne Connole, L.Ac.

I remember, when as a first year student in acupuncture school, my friend had a baby. As we cooed over the baby, her Chinese mother was busy in the kitchen, soaking her placenta in wine and getting the oven ready. At that time, I barely understood what a placenta was, and certainly had no concept of the difficulties faced by the post-partum mother. As my practice began to focus increasingly on women’s health issues, I came to realize the need for special attention and treatment to restore the mother’s body and spirit following delivery, as well as to prevent future complications.

For most women, the initial postpartum period is a rollercoaster of euphoria and joy, fear, pain, bleeding, exhaustion, plus the demands of caring for the newborn baby. And unfortunately, most new mothers are presented with few options to weather this storm. But there is a medicine, to which all women have access, that can restore energy and blood, hasten healing, alleviate pain, and smooth out the emotional ups and downs as hormones rebalance. The placenta, an organ designed to provide nourishment to the baby in utero, also serves to provide post-partum nourishment to the mother.

Placenta consumption has been gaining in popularity as women search for a natural and effective medicine to assist with post-partum healing, milk production and emotional balance. In the natural world, females from nearly all mammal species consume the placenta after birth. But while one finds historical accounts of human rituals involving the placenta, the practice of actually ingesting the placenta for medicinal benefit seems to remain unique to the Chinese Medicine tradition. In fact, the Materia Medica for Chinese Herbal Medicine recommends placenta to treat other conditions as well.

Within the modern natural birthing community, the practice is becoming quite common, with the placenta often prepared raw, to be consumed in juices or smoothies. The Chinese method, however, is quite different: following the practice of protecting the spleen/stomach using warming medicinals and foods, the placenta is thoroughly cooked and prepared as a medicine (rather than a food) to be taken in moderate doses over an extended period of time.

Functions of Prepared Placenta

According to the Materia Medica (Bensky, Clavey, Stoger) the functions of dried placenta are:

  • Tonifies the liver and kidneys, augments essence.
  • Tonifies qi and blood, promotes lactation: Tonifies lung qi and kidney essence (While this function addresses the breath/lung qi, it seems to also secure the lower burner and hold things in, preventing the further loss of substances and weakening of the body).

In the commentary which accompanies the placenta entry, includes the following text, translated from classical sources:

“It is a medicinal that tonifies dual deficiency of yin and yang, with the ability to restore the root and return the primal.  It receives the natural endowment of the residual fluids of the essence and blood of the pregnancy; it incorporates a great amount of the mother’s qi and blood.”

“It is warming without being drying, supplementing without being sticky, harmoniously restoring the body to balance.”

There is a small but promising body of research, as well as considerable anecdotal evidence, that seems to support the Chinese medicine functions:

  • Increases milk production.
  • Hastens the restoration of the uterus to pre-pregnancy size and shape.  Reduce bleeding and post-partum pain.
  • Balances hormones.
  • Restores iron and energy levels to avoid post partum mood swings.

The Process

If you, or your patient, wish to pursue encapsulation, there are a few things to plan for in advance:

  • First, be sure that the hospital or birthing center will release the placenta immediately to the mother/family. This must be arranged in advance. If the hospital insists on keeping the placenta for a day or so, ensure that it will be properly stored with no chemicals.
  • Designate a family member (or doula) with the responsibility for taking the placenta from the hospital soon after the birth, and storing properly it at home.
  • The placenta will be fine in a refrigerator for three days, after which time it should transferred to the freezer.  It can be put in 2 heavy-duty Ziploc bags or Tupperware-type container.

Once I receive the placenta, I begin by preparing my kitchen space. All surfaces are cleaned and covered with fresh paper. Equipment is laid out and gloves are ready.

I start by removing the umbilical cord. I clean it and dry it to give to the family as a keepsake. Holding the placenta under cool running water, I pierce all the vessels as well as the surrounding tissue and then massage the blood out. This needs to be done until the water runs pretty clear. The clean placenta is a pinkish color and the veins are clear and white.

The placenta is steamed for 25 minutes with herbs. I use Ru Xiang, Gan Jiang, and Dang Gui in the steaming water: Ru Xiang to emphasize the healing properties of the placenta, Gan Jiang to warm and prevent cold invasion, and Dang Gui for revitalizing the blood. I have seen other methods using fresh ginger, lemon, chili peppers and various other herbs, depending on the tradition.  Soaking it in rice wine first is also a common Chinese practice.  I slice it into very thin slices, then dehydrate for about 8 hours in a food dehydrator at 115 degrees. A very low oven may also be used.  The placenta must be completely dry: the slices should snap apart when bent. I grind the dried pieces to a powder and then use a small encapsulator to fill the capsules. A dark glass jar with a good seal is the best container to protect the capsules from moisture and light.

Dosage is high to start with, 6 capsules a day for the first 5 days, then tapering down to 4 a day and then 2 a day each following week. For some women, if they feel good, saving it for the stressful period when they return to work is helpful. But in general, I recommend consuming the placenta during the immediate post-partum period, rather than saving it for menopause or illness, as some sources advise. It has the most benefit for mother and baby at this time.

My personal experience has been nearly 100% positive, with mothers reporting feeling strong, bleeding times shortened, milk supply coming in full, and an overall sense of well-being.  The clearest evidence, though, has come to me from second-time mothers who report feeling so much stronger and in control, even with a toddler to run around after in addition to the newborn. The placenta can easily be combined with a customized herbal treatment to provide the mother with full post-partum recovery.

Links and resources:

  • West, Jennifer. The Natural Healing Powers of the Placenta. 2009.
  • Information and training courses.
  • Placenta Benefits: certification training program, provider directory, research links.
  • independent provider directory.
  • Independent Placenta Encapsulation Network (IPEN),  training courses, provider directory, DIY kits.