The Placenta and Milk Production
A few years back while in lactation educator training, I learned that it was the birth of the placenta that signals the body to begin the milk increasing process; and I was like “Woah” - Keanu Reeves style. Once again and continually, the placenta inspires me as a doula, mother, woman, and mammal. The cross-cultural traditions celebrating, honoring and processing the placenta after birth are varied - from creating art prints, to giving it back to the earth, to maintaining connection to the baby until the umbilical cord releases to ingesting it, known as placentophagy. It is well known that other placental mammals ingest their placentas after its birth, though the motivation for this is unknown. In this article I explore the connection between the human placenta and human lactation, especially in regards to our milk making process (lactogenesis) and the eating of one's placenta post-birth.
Placenta as a Galactagogue?
Placenta comes from the Latin word for cake, and one has to wonder if it seemed delectable and appetizing to those who gave it its name. Fast forward to today where there has been an increase in mamas using placental medicine as part of their postpartum recovery plan and to aid with the hormonal transitions of menopause. The placenta is a mighty endocrine hormone producing organ, releasing estrogen, progesterone and Human placental lactogen (hPL). It grows and ages along with the embryo, fetus, and baby until itself is born and released from the body.
The milk making process begins in pregnancy and is a hormonally driven process (endocrine control system) until 30-40 hours postpartum, then it shifts to supply and demand or autocrine or local control system, meaning breast milk is made once the breast has been “emptied” of milk.
Until birth, the high level of progesterone in the mother’s body is maintained by the placenta, in part, act to help “inhibit” milk secretion and keep the volume of milk low until the birth of the baby and the placenta is born. Baby’s first milk, colostrum, begins being made of week 10-14 during pregnancy, hence the increase of size in the breasts for many women during the first trimester. After birth, the shift of hormones, namely the decreasing progesterone and the increasing prolactin, boosts milk supply.
Many of us have been told and are telling modern mamas: The placenta can help with lactation. But what does that mean? Is the human placenta a galactagogue – a substance that promotes lactation? In a 1954 study by Soykova-Pachnerova E, et. al the effects of eating dried placenta on a mother’s milk supply were investigated. The results were mostly positive and showed that it “helped lactation”, yet was unclear on the specifics of how eating dried placenta helped lactation. For a new mom, the nutritional boost from eating her placenta can help her make all the milk she needs for her baby. It’s dense in iron which to a newly birthed mama can help replenish her iron levels and boost energy levels. Anecdotally speaking, it’s been reported to me by my clients that ingesting their placenta is mostly helpful. They mostly had it encapsulated where it was steamed with lemon and ginger, and made into capsules. One mama of mine added fresh placenta to a pho type soup and reported profound effects of euphoria and ecstatic joy. As an herbalist, I’ve been approached by other mamas looking for a placenta type herb because they had such a positive experience ingesting their placenta and are looking for a replacement when they run out of their placenta capsules. Interesting stuff!
What does ingesting your placenta, with high levels of estrogen and progesterone, do to the postpartum and milk making mama? Honestly, no one knows. It has never been studied fully and there’s not direct information on the matter.
What we do know is that some women experience decreasing milk supply when they use hormone-based birth control, especially those that are estrogen based.
The benefits and effects of placentophagy will depend on the mama. As with all maternity care and support, the use of placental medicine needs to reflect the needs expressed by the individual mama. Care providers should ask a mom if she’s taking her placenta during her postpartum time, just for the fact of collecting information and especially if a woman is working with low or high milk supply.
There are many things that can influence one’s milk supply, including:
Rate that breast milk is emptied from the breast
Adequate postpartum support to the new mom
Rest and sleep
Fertility challenges in the past
Hormonal changes and imbalances
Raw vs steamed Placenta: is there a difference?
In western medical culture, there is no understanding or merit given to the energies of food and herbs, and this goes for the placenta too. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), however, provides a paradigm to understand the effects certain foods, drinks and herbs have on an individual based on the specific constitutional needs of that person. Birth within the context of TCM creates an openness and constitutional vulnerability to cold (yin) and the body needs to supported by warmth (yang) to reestablish balance in the body. The energy of raw placenta is considered cooling in nature by TCM. Master acupuncturist and midwife, Raven Lang, developed a way to warm the placenta by steaming it, and include warming herbs like ginger to better serve the needs of post-birth women. Because of this, my recommendation to my own clients if they choose to ingest their placentas is to take it TCM style. According to acupuncturists and placenta encapsulists, it’s contraindicated for mamas showing signs of heat – fever, infection, and extreme sweating to the point of dehydration.
We need to remember that the placenta is an organ filled with hormones. It is powerful and capable and should be regarded as such. If a mama is working with low milk supply or over supply, check in an IBCLC lactation consultant and make sure to mention if you’re ingesting your placenta. While we have a good amount of anecdotal information on the use of the placenta for postpartum recovery, we still don’t know all the effects of eating one’s placenta on one’s milk supply. Whatever a mama decides to do with her placenta, it’s her choice and we who support mothers are called help empower her with accurate evidence-based information, and be clear when we don’t have the information on the subject of placentophagy.