August 5, 2011 -- Mother-of-three Tamara Guida believes that women should eat their own placenta because the nutrient-packed organ that feeds the fetus is rich in nutritional and hormonal properties. Guida says consuming the placenta helps women recover from pregnancy and even prevents postpartum depression.
"This is perfectly made for you, by you, with your own hormones," Guida told ABC News' Denver affiliate, KMGH. "I tried it with my second [child] and really just had a great recovery, better than my first, and I really started believing in the practice."
Her belief turned into a thriving business, known as Fruit of the Womb. For $225, Guida creates the placenta pill for other women in the Denver area. According to her website, Guida's service begins when she travels to the hospital to pick up the new mom's placenta. She will then steam it, dry it, encapsulate it and return the afterbirth pill to the new mom within a couple days. Guida estimates 100 customers have paid for her service in the past two years.
"'I'm healing faster,' 'I'm bleeding less, 'I'm feeling good,' 'I'm not feeling as sad,'" Guida said, explaining typical feedback she receives from women who take the pills.
On her websiteplacentapills.org, a disclaimer reveals there is no data to support placenta pills as a way to prevent or treat postpartum blues or depression. It is not FDA approved. "The services offered by Fruit of the Womb are not clinical, pharmaceutical, or intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Families who choose to utilize the services in this email take full responsibility of their own health and for researching and using the remedies," the disclaimer reads.
Research has shown that the afterbirth is indeed a nutrient-packed pouch, but there is no hard evidence that humans benefit from consuming it. While some animals eat their placentas to get nutrition, experts say there is no strong need for people to eat it because humans are already well nourished. But even without the science to back it up, the afterbirth is still coveted in certain cultures. In traditional Chinese medicine, human placenta, or zihéche, is dried and used to treat several conditions, including infertility and impotence.
"There is certainly a potential medicinal use," said Dr. David Katz, founder of the Yale Prevention Center. "This is a time-honored cultural practice of eating the placenta. It is nutrient-rich and a source of hormones. Those hormones essentially maintain the emotional state during pregnancy."
Some research suggests that consuming certain vitamins, like mood stabilizing Omega-3s and B-Complex, after giving birth also staves off baby blues. Katz said some people may believe the placenta acts in the same way.
Most hospitals allow a woman to take home her placenta, as long as she tells doctors what she wants to do with it in order to preserve it properly. But many experts said it's misleading to market the placenta as a treatment and prevention of postpartum depression, a condition that can become severe enough that psychiatric and clinical intervention is necessary.
"This is a scam, and a potentially dangerous one," said Dr. Lauren F. Streicher, clinical instructor in obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern Medical School, who has never heard of placenta used as treatment for postpartum depression. "At its worst, postpartum depression can result in something horrible, like suicide."
"There's potential that women who need to get legitimate psychiatric help may look to this pill and not get the appropriate help they need," said Streicher.
While the blues are normal and almost to be expected, it's important to understand the difference between blues and depression. The baby blues are common in new mothers; the combination of hormonal transition and sleep deprivation contributes to mood swings and feelings of sadness. Forty to 80 percent of women will suffer from the blues right after giving birth, but the feelings generally subside two weeks post-baby.
Postpartum depression may appear as the blues at first, but the sadness and anxiety will continue beyond the typical few weeks and will often become more intense with time. Symptoms include loss of appetite, insomnia, severe mood swings and even thoughts of suicide or harming the baby. If a new mom suffers from the blues for several weeks after giving birth, Streicher said these women should get mental health treatment as soon as possible.
But as for the baby blues, Streicher said, "The blues are transient in nature. If someone has postpartum blues, [new moms] don't need this stuff. It's going to go away on its own."
To figure out the validity of a placenta's medicinal benefits, "you'd want a trial with one group of women going about their usual business, another following general-advice diet and vitamin supplements, and a third group that takes the placenta," said Katz. "Right now, we don't have the evidence to see if this is better than alternatives."