Traditional Chinese medicine has long revered the placenta as a healing organ with an aura of power and mystique—so much so that in China there is a black market for placentas, which are then served as special dishes in restaurants. This practice is illegal, however.
In Chinese medicine, the placenta is called zi he che and is considered a “valuable material” capable of treating lung disease and other ailments. If you refer back to the description of the placental physiology, you will see that the placenta carries blood and nutrients to the baby and carries away the baby’s waste products. This is basically the description of a giant lung, as our lungs supply oxygen to the body while exhalation delivers our waste products into the air around us. It makes sense that Chinese medicine views the placenta as being capable of treating lung disease. In that type of homeopathic approach, an ailing lung would be treated with similar tissue.
“Placentas are dried and powdered and used as an effective medicine to enhance the functions of the kidney and to treat asthma,” says Cai Gan, chief director of the Chinese Medicine Department of Shuguang Hospital.
The perception of placenta as a Chinese medicinal cure-all has led to an illegal trade in the material and a response from the Chinese government. In China’s Heilongjiang Province, for instance, the Ministry of Health has affirmed that placentas remain the property of the women who deliver them.
In the United States there is a small minority of midwives and other advocates who believe in drying placentas and encapsulating them as medicine for postpartum depression, a practice the FDA has yet to recognize as valid. Again, we prefer to err on the side of caution. Placental material may carry HIV and other infectious agents and if not kept at optimal conditions, it may grow and spread germs that could be fatal if ingested. The extra nutrition in placental material that is thought to cure depression and help lactation can be ingested in the form of vitamins or other medically sound supplements.
There is a growing contingency of individuals who are consuming the afterbirth because they feel it helps with the mother’s nutrition and potentially with postpartum depression. However, most people living in the United States do not need to eat the placenta for nutrition because they have a grocery store down the street and in many cases a farmer’s market that sells fresh fruits and vegetables.
Members of societies who do eat placentas are more than likely doing so because of ritual or because there may not be an abundant food supply, and with the loss of blood and breastfeeding, the placenta may be the best thing available for the mother to eat. One of our patients claimed, “If it’s good enough for a lion, then it’s good enough for me.” Lionesses typically have two to three cubs at once, they do not have a reliable food source, they are purely carnivorous, and the mother’s nutrition is a life-or-death matter for her babies. One last thing about lions: they also occasionally eat their young.