MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Anne Ferguson’s days are decidedly normal for a mother of two, balancing the rush of preschool and peanut butter sandwiches. She lives in a two-story corner suburban home. She wears a pink apron in her kitchen.
Any assumed stereotypes will stop when you see what’s cooking on her countertop.
“In here goes half a lemon, jalapeno pepper, and some ginger slices,” Ferguson said, pointing to a stockpot, which just hours ago steamed a mother’s placenta.
Ferguson is a doula, or birth coach, and handles up to 10 placentas a month in her kitchen. She walks over to the dehydrator, where the placenta has been processing overnight.
“And what you get, are these really thin dry strips of placenta,” said Ferguson.
The sliced, dried organ now resembles beef jerky, and is then placed in the Magic Bullet, ground into a fine powder and then capped in a small pill.
The process is known as placenta encapsulation.
“So what a lot of moms are choosing to do now is take their placenta home after they have a new baby, and have it prepared into these little capsules that they can then ingest,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson already knows what you may be thinking.
“Every little bit is going to help this mama,” she said. “The only really negative reaction is really just the ick. People think gross. What?! But I’ve experienced almost everyone comes around very quickly,” she said.
Ferguson began offering placenta encapsulation as part of her doula services more than a year ago, and tried the process herself after the birth of her second son.
The placenta is the connection between mother and baby inside the womb. It’s a temporary organ your body creates, and feeds babies nutrients through the umbilical cord. It also allows the transfer of essential nutrients, oxygen, water and waste between the mother and the baby.
The placenta also releases hormones called oxytocin that help contract the uterus and help with bleeding during birth.
Ferguson said putting those nutrients back into your body helps the post-partum period, when fluctuating hormones can spark depression.
“Many mothers have found it gives them more energy, believed to help with milk supply, increase your iron levels,” said Ferguson, who says it makes sense biologically. “Almost all mammals eat their placenta right after they give birth. They just do. And, many moms after they give birth are really, really hungry, and that’s kind of our animal side, telling us to eat our placenta.”
Ferguson said anecdotally she hears about people cooking placenta into food, and once, she put placenta in a smoothie after a birth. Placenta consumption, known as placentophagy, is common in some cultures.
But, she said the majority of her clients are first-time moms, like 35-year-old Stephanie Johnson of St. Paul, who first heard about placenta encapsulation from another expecting mom on a hospital tour.
“My immediate thought, is what is she talking about? That sounds disgusting!,” said Johnson with a laugh, never imagining she would end up saving her placenta.
Then Johnson and her husband realized her family history could threaten the bond with her new baby girl, 4-month-old Harper.
“My grandmother, my mother and one of my sisters have had postpartum depression, and one of the things taking your placenta can do is help prevent that,” said Johnson.
So she turned to Ferguson and since has taken a placenta pill nearly every day since her daughter’s birth.
“I tend to be a pretty emotional person, and I have felt pretty even keel, which I was not expecting to feel after I had given birth so I do feel it has helped,” she said.
As a long-time nurse and midwife, Sara Pearce knows help is critical. That’s why she opened up the Amma Parenting Center in Edina, which offers support groups and classes for expecting parents and new moms, many of whom are struggling with postpartum depression.
“People die from postpartum depression,” she said. “The research tells us that about 20 percent of women will undergo not just the baby blues, but true postpartum depression. And, only 15 percent of those seek treatment, so it tends to be quite a silent condition.”
Pearce is a survivor herself. But as she meets more moms who consume their placentas, Pearce worries about the lack of science.
“What’s harmful is dependence on something that at this stage is pretty much a wives’ tale. I could find no studies that have been done on it, there’s no research that supports it,” she said.
The Food and Drug Administration said it doesn’t keep tabs on the practice “given that human tissue is not ‘food’ or a ‘dietary ingredient’” and that it may transmit disease.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said it doesn’t have an opinion since it’s a largely unregulated practice without studies.
Pearce said at best, research shows the placebo effect can be powerful. She warns truly depressed mothers should first seek professional help.
“If a woman relies on placental ingestion to treat a serious illness when the jury really isn’t in on it, she could get worse. I would encourage women that are in the neighborhood to seek the nearest exit, and the nearest exit will usually be found by reaching out to professional mental health providers,” said Pearce.
Like the FDA, Pearce is also concerned about the safe handling of an organ that could carry blood-borne disease.
“It’s the whole concept of an organ being taken to a home. They are organs so they hold HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C. If a mistake happens and somebody gets the wrong tissue, I would really be concerned about safety,” she said.
In her kitchen, Ferguson shows us her sanitary precautions, using sanitized utensils and bleach. She said she’s taken a blood borne pathogen training online certification.
When she’s finished, one placenta usually makes around 120 pills for a $150 fee. She said at least a dozen other doulas in the Twin Cities area offer the same service.
Ferguson said she realizes the pills aren’t a magical protection, but she sees placenta encapsulation as just one piece in the puzzle during the postpartum period.
“I’m just a mom who has had two kids, and I know how it goes. I want to help people and support them through that time. What I tell people that are squeamish or have that ick factor, which a lot of people do, I say I understand that, but at the end, it’s just a like a vitamin. Even if you consume your placenta, you are still going to have hard days, it just makes it go more smoothly,” said Ferguson.
Stephanie Johnson said her placenta pills helped her face a dose of reality.
“My mom was actually hospitalized for postpartum depression when she had me,” said Johnson.
Now as a mom herself, she’s learned prevention may be the most precious practice of all.
“I am glad we made the decision to do it. I think if we have additional children, I would do it again,” said Johnson.
Women in Minnesota experiencing postpartum depression should contact Pregnancy and Postpartum Minnesota. They have a Crisis Connection Help Line, at (612) 787-PPSM and return calls within 24 hours. You can also email PPSMhelpline@gmail.com.