The precious but not so perfect placenta


Not long ago it was believed that the placenta shielded an unborn baby from most toxins a mother consumed.

However, the placenta is not the perfect barrier and while the placenta does form a barrier for some infectious agents, toxins and certain foreign chemical substances, it is not always equipped to handle all of the toxins in today’s diets and environment.

Such toxins may be actively transported to the foetus alongside the transport of substances required for the foetus’s development.

It's purpose 


The placenta facilitates the transfer of nutrients and oxygen from the mother to the foetus and the transfer of waste products and carbon dioxide back from the foetus to the mother, to expel.


The mother’s antibodies are transferred through the placenta to the foetus from as early as the 20th week of pregnancy. These antibodies provide protection against infectious diseases to the foetus in utero and continue to protect the newborn for the first several months of life.

Endocrine function

The placenta secretes the following hormones that are important during pregnancy:

Human Placental Gonadotropin (HCG): for the secretion of progesterone and oestrogen and prevents the rejection of the foetus by the mother.

Human Placental Lactogen (HPL): which promotes mammary gland growth in preparation for lactation in the mother. It also regulates maternal glucose, protein and fat levels so that they are always available to the foetus.

Oestrogen: contributes to mammary gland development in preparation for lactation and stimulates uterine growth.

Progesterone: prevents preterm labour.

You ate what?

The placenta often plays an important role in various cultures, with many societies conducting rituals regarding its disposal. In the western world, the placenta is simply incinerated. Yet a new trend, placentophagy (consumption of the placenta by the mother following birth), is becoming more commonly practised – yes you read correctly.

The placenta may be consumed by eating it raw, cooking it, dehydrating it and putting it into smoothies or encapsulating it in pill form.

The theory is that it increases the production of breast milk, eases birth stress and decreases the likelihood of postnatal depression owing to the presence of oxytocin in the placenta. It is also thought to stimulate the shrinking of the uterus to its former size.

But before you go and fry up a piece of placenta, it’s important to note that these benefits have not been scientifically proven and are questioned by scientists and medical practitioners who maintain that further research needs to be undertaken.

Although some women report an increase in energy, an improvement of mood and an increase in breastmilk after eating their placentas, evidence on the practice of placentophagy is lacking.

Many medical practitioners think eating a piece of meat will have the same benefits as your placenta. We will be publishing a more in-depth look at this subject in our next issue, but for now we advise talking to your doctor if you would like to know more.

What affects the health of the placenta?

There are various factors that can affect the health of the placenta during pregnancy such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Going past your due date
  • High blood pressure during pregnancy (called pre-eclampsia)
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Abdominal trauma
  • Advanced maternal age
  • Pregnancy with multiples
  • Previous placental problems
  • Previous uterine surgeries, such as a caesarean section
  • Maternal diabetes
  • Maternal obesity

What are the most common placental problems?

Placental abruption occurs when the placenta peels away from the inner wall of the uterus before delivery. It can cause varying degrees of vaginal bleeding and deprive the baby of oxygen and nutrients. In some cases, early delivery is required. Placenta praevia occurs when the placenta partially or totally covers the cervix and can cause severe vaginal bleeding before or during delivery.

A c-section delivery might be required. Placenta accrete occurs when the blood vessels of the placenta grow too deeply into the uterine wall. It can cause vaginal bleeding during the third trimester of pregnancy and severe blood loss after delivery.

A c-section delivery followed by an abdominal hysterectomy may be required. Retained placenta happens if the placenta isn’t delivered within 30 to 60 minutes after childbirth. Left untreated, a retained placenta can cause severe infection or life-threatening blood loss in the mother.

The signs and symptoms of placental problems

Signs or symptoms of placental problems include vaginal bleeding, abdominal pain, severe back pain and rapid uterine contractions, if any of these symptoms are experienced a healthcare provider should be contacted immediately.

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