The Placenta and Social Change

Laurie says:

Not a topic I expected to be writing about.  I was reading a Time magazine at the doctors, and saw an article titled Afterbirth: It’s What’s For Dinner by Joel Stein. I found his  generally mocking and sexist attitude as distasteful as he clearly finds the placenta.  His profound distaste is clearly supposed to be humorous.  What interested me was the tech.

I should note that the belief is that the placenta contains materials that are good for the mother.

Here’s  a description of how his wife’s placenta was processed for her consumption.The she is a specialist in processing placentas.

…. As she steamed the placenta with some herbs, the kitchen got that ironlike smell of cooked organ meat, with vague undertones of a consciousness-raising group and a Betty Friedan rally. Sara said Cassandra had a particularly robust placenta, and she hoped to get 120 pills out of it. As she sliced the cooked organ and put it on parchment paper in a dehydrator, she told me that some people drink the placenta raw as a smoothie. “I do this for a living, and I couldn’t do that,” she said. The pills, she explained, were superior, since Cassandra could stretch their hormone-rich benefits much further, perhaps even freezing some for menopause.

When I lived on the houseboats in Sausalito in the late 60’s, friends of mine had a home birth and also ate the placenta.  They had placenta and avocado sandwiches and considered it a spiritual as well as a health experience. (I presume that the placenta was cooked.)

So, 1969, a small number of hippies simply eat the placenta.  In 2009 highly successful professionals employ another professional to process it into “clean” medicine,  in spite of the father’s deep repulsion. It seems to me to be a remarkable metaphor for social change over time.

Then this weekend I saw this article in the paper

Bay Area researchers have found that human placentas – typically tossed as medical waste after birth – are full of the kind of stem cells that can treat leukemia and dozens of other diseases of the blood.

Placental stem cells, much like the cells retrieved from umbilical cord blood, do not have the broad potential of embryonic stem cells that can turn into nearly any kind of tissue or organ in the body. But they can replace some cells and help rebuild entire systems damaged by disease.

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and UCSF are among the first in the world to prove that the placenta is a rich source of these stem cells. Now they’re seeking funding to continue their studies in a search to find ways to cheaply retrieve those cells for transplants.

First this is really good news. But we’ve known about the uses of cord blood for 10-15 years and this is the first work on the placenta.  Obviously Joel Stein isn’t the only one that thinks it’s icky.

8 thoughts on “The Placenta and Social Change

  1. I have a good friend who ate her placenta (hippie-style with scrambled eggs) in the late 1980s. I hadn’t heard of the idea before, and was interested. What fascinated me, though, was how completely she could upset men just by talking about the experience.

    She wrote it up for a fanzine and the kind of guys who pride themselves on not being shockable were shivering and stammering about how much the article upset them.

    And I completely agree with the point about the difference between that and the high-priced pill approach.

  2. “Sara did not understand that when Cassandra’s looks fade in her 50s, there’s no way I’m putting up with this crap.”

    I’m a bit squeamish myself, but that statement icked me out so much more than the placenta-eating.

  3. The idea of eating placenta really squicks me, but that’s just me.

    I think you’re slightly misinterpreting the article — it doesn’t say that they just started doing this research, but that they’re just starting to get some useful results. Stem cells are actually pretty hard to find in complex organs — there are still a lot of adult stem cells that we know must be in there somewhere, but that haven’t been isolated. And on a quick Google search I found a story, dated 2001, about researchers finding placental stem cells, so clearly it isn’t all that new. Researchers often exaggerate the newness or “breakthrough” qualities of their research when talking to the media, and even if they don’t, the reporter often exaggerates it to make it more newsy.

    I’ve always thought the marsupial lifestyle had some pretty significant advantages. But I guess there’s no going back.

    I wonder what a “Betty Friedan rally” is. I’ve never been to one of those….

  4. And looking at the Children’s Hospital website, it appears that what’s really new is that they’ve found a way to isolate the placental stem cells and demonstrated that the transplanted stem cells are functional.

  5. The natural birth community has known about the value of the placenta for a long time, although the evidence is more anecdotal than really proven by gold-standard research yet. It’s supposed to be particularly helpful for helping slow postpartum hemorrhages (PPH) and helping women with post-partum depression (PPD).

    The problem is the squick factor. Now, I’m pretty earthy-birthy but honestly, even I was relieved never to have a reason to try it. OTOH, if I were subject to PPH or PPD, I might consider it. Those are not to be trifled with.

    However, placentas are pretty darn amazing things. I really would not be surprised if they found a lot of uses for them eventually. The mind simply has to be open to the possibility first and get past that whole squick thing. If capsules help with the squick factor, then I’m pragmatic enough to be okay with that. I’d just wonder if they were as effective.

    Another important point, as noted, is that doctors currently routinely clamp and cut the umbilical cord RIGHT after birth, thereby depriving the baby of its full cord blood and placental blood. This blood may have stem cells in them, and it certainly pumps up the child’s iron levels (some babies struggle with anemia in their first months).

    Also, to breathe for the first time, the baby’s lungs need a large perfusion of blood to help them start them working. When the doctor cuts the umbilical cord right away, the baby is denied the best source of blood for that and must draw some blood away from other parts of the body. Most healthy term infants can handle that but it’s a stress on them. It’s so much better to give them the tools to do it without that stress. And in a premature baby, it’s particularly dangerous.

    Recent research has shown that letting the cord pulse longer and letting the baby have that bolus of placental and cord blood makes the transition to air breathing much easier and improves outcomes. This is *particularly* true for premature babies.

    Some doctors are beginning to practice what most midwives have always done….delayed cord clamping. Unfortunately, many doctors have not caught on to this yet, and some are stubbornly resisting delayed clamping, despite growing evidence of its benefit.

    It’s only a theory at this point, but I would guess that in years to come, they will find that cord blood and even the placenta itself have more value in prevention and treatment of problems and certain diseases than anyone realizes now.

    We need to stop treating them as disposable waste products and really start studying them more thoroughly.

  6. For what it’s worth, I find the idea of eating placenta way more appealing than most obsessive parenting behaviors.

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