When her sister, who was studying midwifery, mentioned placenta encapsulation, Teresa Joachimczyk, who was pregnant with her first child, was admittedly squeamish.
“I thought it was completely gross,” she says. But the idea of consuming a dried placenta in capsule form also intrigued Joachimczyk, who started researching the practice and decided that the potential benefits outweighed any aversion.
“I would recommend it to other moms. It helps you survive those first few weeks,” says Joachimczyk, of Oconomowoc, who did encapsulation following the birth of her son and then her twin daughters.
Anecdotal evidence shows that consuming the placenta lessens the likelihood of postpartum depression, increases and supports a healthy milk supply, replenishes depleted iron levels, increases energy and balances hormones. However, no scientific studies have been done on these benefits, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists offers no guidelines for placenta ingestion.
The anecdotal evidence is enough for Sabrina Foulks-Thomas, however, who started offering placenta encapsulation services to her clients in central and eastern Wisconsin after working for years as a certified doula and lactation consultant. She received certification from Placenta Benefits, a Nevada company, in 2011.
“It’s not a fix-it-all pill. You still need a healthy support network, but it’s one more thing moms can do,” she says.
Foulks-Thomas, who encapsulated Joachimczyk’s placentas, usually travels to the client in the hospital, taking the placenta back to the client’s house and using the client’s supplies. After draining all the blood from the placenta and removing the umbilical cord, she then steams it, slices it and dehydrates it for up to 8 hours, usually in the client’s oven. The placenta is then ground and put into capsules. Foulks-Thomas does that by hand.
The number of capsules a mom receives varies from 70 to 130, depending on the size of the placenta, which is typically one-sixth the size of the baby. Foulks-Thomas charges around $225 for the service but offers a sliding scale. She also offers various packages for women who use her doula and lactation services.
Foulks-Thomas recommends taking several pills a day at first, then taking them as needed. “It’s normal. It’s natural. It is a way you can help yourself,” she says.
Jillian Beglan, of Glendale, is an acupuncturist who does encapsulation. She also received certification through Placenta Benefits.
Like Foulks-Thomas, Beglan also performs the encapsulation in the client’s home, but she uses her own supplies, including a dehydrator. She usually has the father bring the placenta to her, steams the placenta with herbs and uses a machine that puts the placenta grounds into capsules. She charges $225.
Beglan also has first-hand experience. She had another person encapsulate her placenta after the birth of her third child.
“I would take (a capsule), and it would chill me out. It helps even out our hormonal changes after birth,” she says.
There is no government oversight of those who encapsulate placentas. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t consider the placenta a product. However, those certified through Placenta Benefits follow OSHA guidelines and are trained in food safety handling, according to the company’s website.
Both Beglan and Foulks-Thomas sterilize all the equipment before use. “I also like to leave the home cleaner than when I arrived,” Beglan says.
Neither one has encountered clients who receive resistance from hospitals when taking the placenta. They advise moms to discuss it in advance with their doctors. Most hospitals have policies in place that address the release of the placenta to the mother or a family member.
An ancient practice
Placenta encapsulation is based on traditional Chinese medicine techniques. In many eastern cultures, the placenta is viewed as a life-giving force, and some consume it and many bury it. Traditionally, the human placenta has been regarded as simply waste in western cultures.
Most mammals eat the placenta after the birth of their young. It’s unclear how it benefits the animals, and some researchers believe mammals eat it to hide any trace of childbirth from predators.
Although it’s unclear how many women choose to encapsulate their placentas, Beglan and Foulks-Thomas agree the practice is growing in popularity.
“You see it become more popular especially since celebrities have talked about it,” Beglan says. “As more people try it, more people will learn about it and try it for themselves.”
Though commonly used in Canada, Great Britain and other countries, nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, hasn’t been widely used in the United States for laboring women for decades. But this dentist office staple is making a comeback, offering another option for pain management.
Only a few hospitals in the United States are known to currently provide nitrous oxide for labor pain relief, including the University of Washington Hospital in Seattle, MedStar Washington Hospital Center in D.C. and the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.
At least three medical facilities in the Milwaukee area are aware of the growing use, but only the anesthesiologists and birthing services team at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital are investigating its use as an option for laboring women.
Elizabeth Hill-Karbowski, the lead midwife at Wheaton Franciscan-St. Joseph and the manager of OB-GYN Advanced Nurse Services, says although its adoption into practice is starting to increase, she has not experienced anyone requesting to use nitrous oxide.
And although Libby Ellinas, chief of obstetric anesthesiology at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin Birth Center, has seen the number of inquiries increase, “We don’t anticipate providing it any time in the near future,” she says.
Nitrous oxide is inexpensive, noninvasive and can be self-administered as needed at any point during labor, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which continues to research the use of the gas in labor. Nitrous oxide, which is a 50/50 mix of nitrous oxide gas and oxygen (N2O) and is tasteless and odorless, doesn’t eliminate pain; it makes laboring women care less about the pain. Side effects include nausea, drowsiness and dizziness. Ellinas says the most concerning side effect is sedation, which could deprive the mom of adequate oxygen.
“Most of the evidence is anecdotal. The research on it isn’t robust,” she adds.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not have set guidelines or recommendations on the use of nitrous oxide but is reviewing the practice. And according to a review by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, studies of nitrous oxide use during labor show no significant effects on the baby, but it does cross the placenta.
BREAST MILK BANKS
Although sharing breast milk is far from new (think wet nurse), milk banking is on the rise as more moms and health professionals recognize the incomparable benefits of breast milk.
In the absence of the baby’s own mother’s milk, donor milk can provide the baby immunologic protection and optimal nutrition, especially if the baby is premature or is facing other special needs.
The U.S. Drug and Food Administration recommends against feeding a baby breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet. Instead, the FDA strongly urges moms seeking an alternate source of breast milk to find a bank where the milk is tested for infectious diseases, HIV, drug exposure and chemical contaminants and is pasteurized.
It is now easier than ever to donate or receive breast milk through banks in southeast Wisconsin. In July 2012, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin opened a milk bank, providing human milk to its most needy patients. And Columbia St. Mary’s opened its milk bank a few months ago.
Both hospitals work with the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes, which is one of 14 banks in the United States operated by The Human Milk Banking Association of North America.
Currently, Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes operates an extensive collection network throughout Wisconsin and Illinois, shipping the milk to the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank where it is pasteurized. The Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes is raising funds to build its own processing facility in Illinois.
Lisa Brock, a registered nurse and a certified lactation consultant at Children’s, is an active board member for Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes and has been instrumental in establishing the milk bank at Children’s.
Brock says using another mother’s milk is better than using formula, which simply provides basic nutrition and is not packed with disease-fighting substances.
“As more women become educated in the benefits of breastfeeding, many hospitals are starting to go exclusive to human milk,” Brock says.
Children’s is considered an informal depot, where the majority of milk donations come from moms whose babies are patients or whose babies have died. The general public, however, can donate breast milk at Columbia St. Mary’s.
Women wishing to donate milk can call (877) 829-7470 or visit www.milkbankwgl.org.
Elizabeth Paulsen is the online producer of metroparentmagazine.com and a mom of three boys, ages 4, 3 and 1.
Listen to Metroparent's Assistant Editor Mary Raebel discuss this story with Newsradio 620 WTMJ's John Mecure on April 28.
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