Notes From the Salon: All About The Placenta

– Sarah W., BADP Doula and Blogger

The final salon in the BADP’s series celebrating women’s history month was an unmitigated success.  The room was packed and so was the agenda, with scientific information, medicinal wisdom, a film screening, and even a real placenta. 

The evening’s presentations began with Barby Zeldovich, a researcher at UCSF studying women’s health, who talked about what scientists have learned about the human placenta.  She said that pregnancy presents a paradox: “How do we carry and nourish a genetically distinct embryo/fetus?”  The old hypothesis was that pregnant individuals are immune-suppressed, but more recent research says this is not true.  A newer, better answer is that the problem is managed by the placenta.

Barby talked about how a layer of cells that will become the placenta has already formed on a fertilized egg by the time it reaches the uterus and how that placenta then invades the uterine wall, enabling the exchange of both nutrients and waste.

Adapted from Maltepe E, Bakardjiev AI et al. J. Clin. Invest. 2

A lot of pregnancy complications can be traced back to the point of placental implantation, including ectopic pregnancy, preeclampsia, intrauterine growth restriction, miscarriage, and preterm labor.  Barby’s research on how the placenta functions has demonstrated just how marvelous an organ it is, showing that the “placenta is an amazing barrier to infection.”

Barby’s talk was followed by Amber Dawn Hallet of Moon Belly Doula who spoke about placenta as medicine, which she joked is “the most fashionable form of cannibalism.”

Amber described how nearly all mammals eat their placentas after giving birth, even when it’s inconvenient or time-consuming to do so.  Nobody’s certain why mammals are so intent on eating their placentas, but Amber believes that they do it because the placenta’s hormonal make-up makes it so utterly beneficial for the mother’s health.

She described how she has observed that a mother hemorrhaging immediately postpartum can put a small piece of placenta inside her cheek and the hormones go into her body and immediately stop the bleeding. 

Amber offers a placenta encapsulation service, that turns a placenta into medicinal pills for mom.  As she put it, “after you give birth you have this giant bucket of vitality.” Rather than discarding it as hospitals do routinely, a mother can make use of its supply of iron and hormones for replenishing the body after giving birth, increasing milk supply, and decreasing postpartum depression. 

In addition to encapsulation, mothers wanting to consume their placentas sometimes also choose other ways such as stir-frying it, chopping it up and freezing it in an ice cube tray for smoothies, or making a tincture. 

The discussion of placenta as medicine was followed by a viewing of the birth film Birth Day including the supplemental section “La Placenta” in which midwife Naolí Vinaver Lopez delivers her own placenta and the family uses it to make an art print.

A placenta print by Kelly This created a fitting transition into the final activity of the evening.  Kelly produced a real placenta birthed less than two weeks before and a lot of sterile gloves and invited the audience to participate in a live demonstration of making art prints from placentas. 

The conclusion to the salon series could not have been more packed with useful information, good humor, creativity, and loving care.  A huge thank you is due to Liz Donnelly for all her work in coordinating this series.

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