Welcome to Risky Baby Business! This is the Saturday series that examines questions and challenges about babies and pregnancy, particularly the high-risk kind. Today’s post is about the placenta – what it does and why it’s so important.
What does the placenta do?
My high-risk OB spoke about the placenta in nearly reverent terms, convinced that it was the most amazing organ ever created. After having a baby, I tend to agree with him. 🙂
Among organs, the placenta is unique. It is the only organ in the human body that serves a vital function and then becomes obsolete.
The placenta’s primary role is to ensure that oxygen and nutrients is moved into your baby’s blood stream and carbon dioxide is carried away from your baby, along with any other waste your fetus generates.
- An extremely complex piece of biological equipment, the placenta is a little bit like an artificial kidney, it allows your blood and the baby’s to come into very close contact – but without ever mixing. It acts as the lung, kidney and digestive system for the baby.
The placenta also plays an important role in hormone production, making the Human chronic gonadotropin (hCG) which permates your baby’s bloodstream as early as 10 days into the pregnancy. It’s also responsible for the production of estrogen and progesterone.
This is the organ that protects your baby from possible infection – however, it is not always able to distinguish between what is a good substance and what isn’t. This is why pregnant women are asked to limit or avoid substances which may cause harm (i.e. alcohol, herbal substances and drugs).
More about the placenta
In many cultures the placenta is considered the tree of life. Without a placenta your baby cannot survive.
The placenta begins producing hormones at 6-8 weeks gestation to help sustain pregnancy.
These hormonal levels continually increase during pregnancy, and by the third trimester there are 3 times the normal level of hormones in an expectant mother’s system.
By 4-5 days postpartum, a new mother’s hormone levels will usually drop below normal.
This is a huge fluctuation! To go from 3 times the normal level to below normal hormonal level…can anyone say “Baby Blues?”
Some of the hormones (and their functions) produced by the placenta
- Prolactin: promotes lactation
- Oxytocin: for pain and bonding; also known as the “love” hormone
- Interferon: stimulates the immune system to protect against infection
- Thyroid Stimulating Hormone: boosts energy and helps recover from stressful events
- Cortisone: combats stress and unlocks stores of energy
- Hemoglobin: replenishes iron deficiency and anemia
- Gammaglobulin: immune booster that helps protect against postpartum infections
- Urokinase Inhibiting Factor & Factor XIII: stops bleeding and enhances wound healing
Many holistic healers believe in a mother ingesting their placenta as a supplement after childbirth. Before you say “ICK!” keep in mind that these women usually do so in capsule form. This has been in practice in China and many cultures for thousands of years.
All of the above hormones are still viable and intact after delivery for a human birth. Plus, any of you who’ve been around whelping animals know that most mammals ingest their own placenta after the birth, sometimes even ignoring the young until the placenta has been completely ingested.
For all of the reasons above, placentas are often prepared by holistic medicine practitioners for ingestion by new mothers (average cost in the U.S. = $350). In China, placenta capsules have been used for energy and anti-aging, but the benefits touted for new mothers are listed below.
Placenta capsules can:
Increase milk supply
Prevent signs of aging
Recover more quickly from childbirth
Replenish what was lost during childbirth
Bring the body back into balance
Prevent and treat the “baby blues” and/or postpartum depression
Shorten postnatal bleeding time
Increase postnatal iron levels
There are actually vendors who are certified to prepare your placenta for ingestion and it is perfectly safe. (I know, I was a bit surprised too.) Here in Southern California, most hospitals will release your placenta to you if you request it. This is an important detail to include in your birth plan.
Independent placenta service providers can be found here.
More about birth plans can be found in this earlier post.
A “final word” on the placenta
I suffered from crushing migraines in my first trimester. Fifteen weeks of migraines, to be exact. They were beyond brutal.
Many expectant mothers, especially those like me who are migraine sufferers, suffer in those early weeks. Their pregnancy hormones are raging and their placentas are just not build yet.
When the placenta is finally formed, the first trimester challenges like morning sickness and headaches should begin to abate. If these kinds of ailments continue into the rest of your pregnancy, you have my sympathies.
I have a post in the works right now about the non-drug treatments for headaches and I’ll make sure to link it back to this post when it comes out so it can be referenced here in the comments.
What did I leave out about the placenta? Do you have any observations from your own pregnancy or from one you’ve observed? Did you have ailments such as headaches or morning sickness that decreased or disappeared once your placenta was in place? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section!