Friday, 5 June 2015

Should You Eat Your Placenta?

In 1998 Chanel 4 was was reprimanded by the broadcasting standards commission for a program in which a TV chef helped a new mother cook up placenta pate to serve to party guests. At the time it was judged to be a taboo and considered "disagreeable to many".

Things have changed a lot since 1998.

In 2012, when I was pregnant with MissM there were discussions on placenta consumption on many of the parenting chat forums, there were even fliers for a placenta encapsulation service in the waiting room of my hospital midwife clinic. It's certainly not common practice still. But it does seem to be growing in popularity and acceptance, egged on by the general trend to assume anything "natural" must be healthy and by a whole host of claims about the benefits.

But do those claims stack up?

Most advocates of the practice seem to base their assertions on the stories of those who believe it has helped them. They are usually something like this: "I felt awful after my first baby and developed post natal depression, after my second I took placenta pills/ smoothies etc. and everything was much better so the placenta must have worked." Well it might have, but every pregnancy, birth and postnatal period is unique. Second time around things may have been better wherever the placenta ended up.

Proper scientific evidence for the benefits of placentaphagy are harder to find. In fact a recent review of ten studies couldn't find any suggestion that the practice improved any health outcomes at all. The study has had a fair bit of media coverage so I'm not going to go into it in depth, I've also not yet read the full paper. But I do want to share a few other thoughts on the subject.

Having seen the fliers in that waiting room in 2012 I'd been interested enough to do a bit of research. I'd assumed that eating your afterbirth was a bit of a fad and rather pointless if you have plenty of other good food. But I'd also had a pretty difficult postnatal period last time and was desperate to avoid the same thing happening again. So, as this was being promoted in a prestigious NHS hospital perhaps there was more to it than I'd realised?

It turns out there was a lot I didn't know, but it only made me less inclined to sign up and chow down.

Incredible claims

There are apparently a range of benefits to eating your placenta including better recovery from childbirth, less fatigue, less postnatal depression and easier breast feeding according to at least one website it will also "tonify Qi, life energy" (er ok). But how all this is achieved is a little vague.

Certainly it seems likely that there is a lot of iron in a human placenta and anemia is common in new mums but there is also a lot of iron in a jolly good rare steak with a side of creamed spinach and the latter is likely to be considerably more pleasant to consume. Especially after months of pregnancy food restrictions. It'll also be considerably cheaper than placenta pills but i'll come back to that.

Iron, however, doesn't answer everything and another explanation promoted by many websites offering placenta services is stem cells. Now this I do know a bit about. The microbiome seems to be the new next best thing in medical research at the moment, but about a decade ago it was stem cells. These rare, primitive cells hold amazing regenerative potential and were once touted at the cure for almost everything. They are also, certainly, found in cord blood from the placenta. I've personally isolated stem cells from cord blood many many times and at certain hospitals you can donate these precious cells to be banked and used like a bone marrow transplant (you can also pay to bank them privately but that's a whole other blog post!). However, there is absolutely no evidence that eating stem cells would do you any good whatsoever. I'm probably more aware than most of the power and fragility of these cells. There is no way you could cook them, dry them and leave them wrapped in a plastic capsules for days or weeks and expect them to still be alive and capable of doing anything at all. 

What's the harm though?

Ok, so rationally, it's unlikely that eating your placenta will do anything at all, but if people want to do it that's their choice right? What's the harm? 

Well, actually we don't know. Various food standards bodies have raised concerns about the safety of placenta products. Often they are prepared at home by those selling their services and so there is little assurance that what is essentially a large piece of meat, has been handled and stored safely. The placenta, even if it were as magical as some claim, is not immune to bacterial contamination. In fact it probably comes with a good dose of bacteria and viruses from the start. 

Then there is the thing that really disturbed me. In researching this post I came across a few people selling not just placenta smoothies and capsules but also homeopathic placenta remedies. If the actual placenta does nothing then an extreme homeopathic dilution of some water that once contained some placenta is hardly likely to work either and I've seen absolutely no evidence for it being beneficial. Yet even more bold claims are made for this preparation. Not only will it apparently ease depression and anxiety in the mother it will also help babies with colic, teething and "illness".  

No, it absolutely will not help an ill child. This actually makes me angry because not only will it not help at all it could also delay the parent from seeking actual medical help it could be responsible needless pain, suffering and harm as the parent relies on the remedy they were told would work. If you're going to sell something and say it helps ill children, you should bloody well have some evidence that it does. If not. Back the hell off.

In fact if you're going to sell anything on the basis of health claims you really should have some decent evidence (and an awareness of basic biology that seems very lacking in many who sells placenta products). If a big pharmaceutical company started selling drugs based on a few anecdotes and stuff they read on the internet, without even doing any safety testing then there would be outcries and lawsuits and rightfully so. So why is it ok for those selling placenta services?

I don't think that there are any big corporations involved (yet) and I'm inclined to believe that all of the individuals selling their wares are doing so because they genuinely believe it will help. But that's not a good enough excuse. Pregnancy is an expensive and often vulnerable and anxious time. Placenta encapsulation costs around £150. Money that many could ill afford but might be persuaded to part with by the many grand claims made.

There seems to be no end to the products and services offered to pregnant and new mums these days. We all want to do the very best for our children and are prepared to make physical and financal sacrifices to achieve that. Placenta services play to and in some cases prey on this, offering no real benefits and as yet unknown risks. 

If you are concerned about depression, fatigue, breastfeeding etc. don't waste your money on placenta pills and smoothies. There is sadly no easy, natural quick fix to any of those issues. Talk to your doctor or midwife instead. Fight your corner if you have to, but make sure you get something that will really help. Not plastic coated wishful thinking.


Family Festivals 2015 - Feast In The Woods

or, Mum Unplugged.

Most of the time I revel in modern life. I’m just one of seven billion citizens yet each morning I pop on a watch with more computer power than an Apollo moon lander and go to work in a lab filled with high tech instruments and powerful lasers. All human knowledge is just a few taps away on a little device in my pocket and there is always something interesting to read, watch or learn. I don’t believe technology is somehow destroying human relationships, it can enhance them. My kids can dance in front of their grandparents even though they are hundreds of miles apart and I can chat with old friends on the other side of the world, in real time and without counting the cost of each second.  I also love London. Lots of people flee the city when they have kids but it can be a great place for families. You could do something new here every day for a lifetime and still not have seen or experienced everything on offer. MissE shares her classroom with kids of every colour and religion and while the rest of the country wrings it's hands over immigration policy, she sees only friends.

One of the labs at work (a form of high tech microscope) has a sign on the door which says: "life is fast and colourful" and it is. But sometimes I like to switch off, to take the kids out to a field or a woodland, disable the mobile data connection and spend a few days blissfully dirty and uncontactable. So both weekends this half term we stuffed our little car with tent, blankets and camping stove and headed off to festivals. You'll be able to read my review of Wychwood over at the wonderful Festival Kidz site (I'll add a direct link once the review is up) but the previous weekend was spent wild camping in Kent at Feast In The Woods.

MissE and I had been to Feast on our own last year after MissM came down with chicken pox and had to stay at home with MrSB. It had been a glorious weekend and I’d immediately booked for this year. But like meeting your heros there is always the risk that if you return to something wonderful, it might turn out not so good and ruin that first perfect memory. With the whole family along this year, including my mother-in-law (who joined us at the last minute as a birthday present) I was anxious that the weekend might not live up to my sales pitch. Those anxieties disappeared as soon as we had our tent up in the clearing though.

I think she was a tiger at some point

Feast is very small and tucked away in a private woodland with no roads. Most people there had children and it felt quite safe to let 5 year old MissE run off into the woods with the other kids. There were always parents about keeping an eye on things, but no need to hover over your own child all the time, which of course our little miss independance loved. The only problem was stopping two year old MissM (who can sniff out danger a mile away) from disappearing off with them.

This year there was a fabulous canopy over the firepit and in the evening we all sat around toasting marshmallows, making endless cups of tea from the communal kettle or popping to the cider barn for something stronger. I recognised a lot of people from last year and like us, many had brought along extra friends and family this time.

On Saturday, after the obligatory camping bacon butty, there was forest school. The kids set out to make a den with a bit of help from the parents (ok the parents had a great time and were very very proud of our the kid’s den). The rest of the day passed with an obstacle race, making bows and arrows and of course a lot of running, climbing and swinging in the woods. In the evening we all made bread on the fire. It was intended to go with dinner but we all of scoffed it immediately before our communal feast of local and foraged food. I had no idea barbecued spring onions could be so delicious!

On Sunday morning the sun shone and a group of us found a little patch of grass for a yoga session then we all headed to the lake for a barbeque. I’d been adamant I wasn’t going in the water this year but as the weather got warmer I grabbed my swimming costume and plunged into the freezing but very refreshing pool.

By mid morning on Saturday MissM crawled into the tent and crashed out for a few hours

We had planned to head home on Sunday evening but as a few rain showers got the tent wet and the covered fire was so very appealing we stayed for another night to finish off the marshmallows (and the contents of the cider barn). Poor MissE was in floods of tears when we finaly left on Monday morning, hugging her new friends, begging us to let her stay for the whole of half term and asking if we could go back next year.

Bamboo Trumpet

Coming back to London felt very strange. I walked across Peckham Rye common to some local shops in daze. In that wide open space the few people dotted about felt like a crowd, the traffic at the edges seemed alien and bizarre. For just a few hours I couldn’t connect back into the world and I didn’t want to either.

Later on I eased myself into it by making facebook friends with a few other Feasters and sharing pictures. By the next day I was back to getting the crowded commuter train, back to my busy job, twitter, blog, smartphone beeping and chiming with each virtual interaction. Then, with all this amazing, wondrous modern technology, we booked our tickets for next year.

This is how to deflate an airbed