Placentophagy, or the eating-of-placenta, has enjoyed a pop culture surge in recent years. Thanks goes largely to celebrities who are famous for being famous for popularizing it. Other holistically-minded individuals hopped on board with the best of intentions. However, it's an ancient practice which never gained a ton of popularity among intelligent mammals (i.e. - humans) even in antiquity because it didn't demonstrate any reliable benefit. Modern researchers took the celebrities' claimed health-benefits seriously. They worked tirelessly to show what benefit there is, if any. To date, no dice. We're left with two shockers: 1.) famous entertainers aren't the fount of scientific and health expertise; 2.) respectable researchers are having to waste their time and our dollars countering what amounts to fad bro science.
Recent studies have failed to show any evidence of benefit for placentophagy:
And so far, the only thing we know for sure, is consuming it is dangerous. The placenta is not inherently sterile, nor (even if it were) would it remain sterile via the birthing/after-birthing process. There are documented cases of infection from placentophagy; and so the CDC, late to the party as always, has finally begun to issue warnings against it. A slightly more sophisticated reader may parry, "well, that's why you cook it and/or freeze dry it in capsules." Unfortunately, that does nothing to toxins and the cell waste leftovers from dead bacteria (which is why you can still get severe food poisoning from thoroughly-cooked food).
There is no overabundance of nutrients in the postpartum placenta. Lab testing, however, does find lots of heavy metals in it. This is no surprise, since it serves as a filtration system for the fetus. Thus, like all filters, it will carry within it the very items we were preventing from entering the body. Imagine someone taking the oil filter out of her car and jamming it into the gas tank. Really, it's practically the same thing. Just because the oil filter is an important part of getting oil safely into moving parts does not make it an appropriate fuel source. Just because the placenta is an important part of getting fetus-specific nourishment safely into the fetus does not make it appropriate for anything else.
Now, in theory, it stands to reason that there would be some hormones within the placenta which may exert some benefit for the person consuming it. This is the last bastion of hope for placentophagy advocates. And, I admit, it sounds modestly reasonable. However, even if the infection and heavy metal exposure risks were somehow overcome, would the tiny remnant of hormones provide benefit?
The answer is a hard no. This may come as a surprise to people who thought placentophagy was a new idea; but researchers in 1980 found in rat studies that the effect was THE OPPOSITE: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7431335. Changes were nonexistent or detrimental, because, like the consumption of any exogenous hormone (like synthetic testosterone, birth control and other steroids), whatever trace amounts of hormone in the placenta are just enough to interrupt ones own natural endogenous production of the appropriate hormone balance.
Human studies are no more promising: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28859955.
There are a few people who, even when confronted with the reality that there is no benefit to placentophagy, still swear that they really experienced something positive. Maybe they did. The common placebo effect is the first explanation. The unscientific nature of anecdote compared against no control group is another. It's easy to believe you benefitted from an act you predetermined was good for you. Also, now that we know they likely suffered heavy metal poisoning and endocrine disruption, we can add temporary acute (or ongoing) lapse in mental and emotional faculty as a third possible explanation. This isn't an insult. Even small amounts of toxicity and exogenous hormones alter a person's brain and perception, sometimes permanently.
Of course, we can't discount the basic desire of people simply wanting a natural remedy for various postpartum ailments. I do. We all do. It would be great if there were a wonder drug, and that it happened to arrive divinely-delivered from the birthing experience itself. For some pre-scientific people, the placenta made sense as this magical cure. For modern people who can actually test, monitor, and manage nutrient, hormone and neurotransmitter levels, however, placentophagy is nonsense even if it did work. But it doesn't.
For people concerned about optimal health for mother and baby, there exist inexpensive tests to determine how high or low you are on just about any nutrient, hormone or neurotransmitter; and there exist inexpensive foods and supplements which can address those highs and low. There exist convenient and tasty foods which can genuinely accomplish even the most wildly-claimed (but unsubstantiated) alleged effects of placenta. Additionally, these actually-proven and effective foods and supplements won't give you heavy metal poisoning or your newborn baby a life-threatening infection. Test your blood for iron and eat some lentils or spinach. Test your neurotransmitter balance and eat some eggs and drink spring water. Test your steroidal hormones; wait; retest to see if they regularize and eat some healthy fats.
It’s true that many other mammals practice placentophagy. They also eat feces, their babies, vomit, rotted corpses, and each other; and they lack critical thinking, writing and reading skills. Interestingly, camels and sea-dwelling mammals do not eat their placenta. It may be hard to believe, but the vast majority of humanity got it right, and hyenas got it wrong. Less surprisingly, dolphins know better than Kim Kardashian. We don’t need to rethink our proper intuition that placentophagy was wrong in the first place.