“The placenta is literally a wonder organ,” co-host Alok Patel says, “kind of like how Mary Poppins is a wonderful creature.” In this episode of Parentalogic, he and co-host Bethany Van Delft explore how the placenta takes care of everything a developing baby needs during their 9-month stay in the uterus, acting as lungs, kidney, heart, and endocrine system. The placenta ferries nutrients—food from mom—to the growing baby. It assists with gas exchange, much like a lung does, despite being submerged in fluid. Since babies in utero can’t pee or poop (at least in the traditional sense), the placenta also helps with the removal of waste products, like uric acid. And, in true “wonder organ” fashion, it also gives babies antibodies for immunity to viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, helping with hormone development and regulation along the way.
If you, your partner, or another loved one took medications while pregnant, the placenta may have also helped safeguard your little one from their effects. Opiates, benzos, and beta-blockers can cross a placental barrier, but many prescribed drugs cannot and are fine to take while pregnant, Alok explains. Some infections, including toxoplasmosis and rubella, can cross the placental barrier as well. (In a public health victory, however, you can now be vaccinated against rubella.)
Typically, a mom’s placenta develops from the top of the uterus, where it will attach to the uterine wall and then detach after delivery. But its position can vary. Some positions, like placenta previa, in which it covers the cervix where the baby needs to exit at birth, can cause complications.
When a mother’s placenta (and baby) are delivered, should mom consider eating it? Alok and Bethany explore the short and long answers and conclude that it may just depend on whether mom is a human—or not.
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Placenta: The Incredible Organ You Make During Pregnancy
Published: December 7, 2020
Bethany Van Delft: Is it a boy?
Alok Patel: Is it a girl?
Bethany Van Delft: Is it intersex?
Both: It's a placenta!
Bethany Van Delft: I know that it's amazing. Like, I know that it's there to take care of the baby like some kind of invasive, gory, Mary Poppins or something. But what is it?
Alok Patel: Well, ok so the placenta literally is like a wonder organ, kind of like how Mary Poppins is a wonderful creature. You know, she comes out with her umbrella and takes care of everything – we're done with Mary Poppins! The placenta literally does everything a developing fetus needs while they are coming to fruition over nine months. So think about nutrients, so all the food baby gets. Gas exchange. The placenta is acting like a lung, even though it's completely submerged in fluid.
There's also the removal of waste products, things like uric acid, because babies are obviously not able to pee or, you know, take hard poops. Also the placenta will give babies antibodies for immunity, and can even take care of the hormones. So it's almost like the lungs, liver, kidney, the heart, the endocrine system, all of it.
Were you on any medications when you were pregnant?
Bethany Van Delft: I did not take any medications while I was pregnant because I was worried about it getting in the baby. Can medications go through the placenta?
Alok Patel: Some can and some can't. Some like opiates or benzos or beta blockers can cross that placental barrier, that might not be a great thing, but there's some other medications which are totally fine to take.
There are some beta blockers, which are used very commonly during pregnancy and have a long standing and well known safety profile.
So ask your OB plenty of questions and discuss medication safety.
So infections can. Have you heard of toxoplasmosis?
Bethany Van Delft: That sounds like a villain.
Alok Patel: There's rubella. You've heard of that one?
Bethany Van Delft: But you get vaccinated against rubella.
Alok Patel: Hashtag public health victory
You know, when you mentioned Mary Poppins, we're back to her, I pictured her coming down from the top of the screen, right? Which is kind of a cool analogy because did you know the placenta commonly develops from the top of the uterus?
Bethany Van Delft: Like a gory, Mary Poppins!
Alok Patel: Do you by any chance know where your placenta was in delivery? Like was it on the front? Back? Top?
Bethany Van Delft: I believe it was in the front.
Alok Patel: Anterior placenta! The position can vary. You can have an anterior, you can have posterior. And sometimes you can have complications like placenta previa, which is a placenta which could actually cover the cervix where babies exit.
But in some cases, the placenta can actually grow too deep into the uterine wall, which can cause hemorrhage or really heavy bleeding because it'll pull off part of the uterus. That's called placenta accreta.
Bethany Van Delft: That is bad.
Alok Patel: That is not a good thing.
Bethany Van Delft: Accreta sounds like an anime villain.
Bethany Van Delft: Placentas are gross! Tell me why it’s not gross.
Alok Patel: Okay. If you look at a placenta, just kind of straight on fine. Maybe it's a little weird looking, maybe it's a little gross, but don't disrespect the incredible organ. Because placenta has to embed itself into the uterus and basically tap into mom's arteries. In farm animals the placenta just kind of peels off during labor. In dogs and cats it’s a little more invasive.
Alok Patel: Implantation, the process when the placenta basically invades the uterus is pretty deep in guinea pigs and monkeys—fun guinea pig fact.
Bethany Van Delft: Fun guinea pig fact, which I've been waiting for all day.
Alok Patel: Well, here you have one. Thank you, placentology.
Bethany Van Delft: Thank you
But In humans, placenta, uterus. That is super deep. Super deep.
Bethany Van Delft: Like ride or die deep, like that? Like so deep.
Alok Patel: Hopefully just the ride part.
Bethany Van Delft: Like ride...
Alok Patel: Ride
Bethany Van Delft: So Dr. Alok, on the real now, fo real—are we supposed to be eating our placenta?
I know there's all this information on how to eat it, how to freeze it, but are we actually supposed to be eating it?
Alok Patel: Short answer is no, that there is no good evidence or scientific studies that show any benefit to placentophagy.
Bethany Van Delft: Give me some long answer, man.
Alok Patel: Long answer?
Bethany Van Delft: I'm here. I have time. Give me some long.
Alok Patel: All right. Here's the thing. A lot of placentas may have bacteria in them. Some are infected.
This is not a good thing or something that you should be eating. There's even a CDC reported case of a neonate getting a severe infection from group B streptococcus, a serious bacteria because of a mom eating some of her placenta.
Not a good thing.
Also, think about it. The placenta is literally designed to protect the fetus from harmful substances. The fetus also sends metabolic waste out towards the placenta. So there's other things in there that you shouldn't be consuming.
Well, then you hear the argument, well, we're mammals and a lot of mammals practice placentophagy. So it must be a good thing.
Bethany Van Delft: Like what mammals?
Alok Patel: Like rats, rabbits, djungarian hamsters
Bethany Van Delft: Djungarian hamsters?
Alok Patel: They're the most important hamsters. Anyway, here's the thing. We're not like rodents. We don't roll the same way they do.
Bethany Van Delft: Wheel! Hamster! Got it.
Alok Patel: But just because other forest dwelling creatures that I'm sure other mammals and other hoofed mammals may practice placentophagy it doesn't mean that humans need to or even should. Some of these rodents live in different conditions than we do. They have different uteruses and placentas. They deliver a litter of pups.
The ASPCA is going to be so thrilled with this. They're going to be like there is no love for djungarian hamsters.
Bethany Van Delft: I am showing love for djungarian hamsters. And you are showing solid respect.
Hosted by: Alok Patel and Bethany Van Delft
Producer/Camera: Emily Zendt
Producer/Director: Ari Daniel
Production Assistance: Diego Arenas, Glorie Martinez, Christina Monnen, Arlo Pérez
Senior Digital Editor: Sukee Bennett
Rights Manager: Hannah Gotwals
Business Manager: Elisabeth Frele
Managing Producer: Kristine Allington
Coordinating Producer: Elizabeth Benjes
Director of Audience Development: Dante Graves
Director of Public Relations: Jennifer Welsh
Legal and Business Affairs: Susan Rosen and Eric Brass
Director, Business Operations and Finance: Laurie Cahalane
Executive Producers: Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt
Katherine H. Campbell MD, MPH
Michelle Berlin, MD, MPH
Nicole Marshall, MD, MCR, IBCLC, FACOG
Mar lena /CC BY 3.0, CDC
Liver By Philip Hogeboom from the Noun Project
Heart By Nick Bluth from the Noun Project
Lungs By karina from the Noun Project
Hypothalamus By priyanka from the Noun Project
Kidney By Astoe Design from the Noun Project
Susan J. Fisher, PhD
Author, Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy The New Science for a Safe Birth and a Healthy Baby
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020