By Christine Frackelton
In 1954, some researchers had the insight to run an experiment trying to increase the milk supply of women with hypogalactia (insufficient milk supply). Although the study did not meet standards for contemporary scientific studies, the results were promising. Of the 201 women to whom they administered dried placenta, 181 (86.2%) reacted positively, with 117 (55.7%) reporting good results and 64 (30.5%) reporting very good results. Soykova-Pachnerova E, et. al.(1954). Gynaecologia 138(6):617-627.
How is this 61 year old study relevant to a blog post titled “Could placentophagy help prevent breast cancer?” It turns out, there has been much research (and much more funding for research) on breast cancer than on women who are struggling to sufficiently lactate. As far as I can tell, even less research has been done on placentophagy, or the consumption of placenta, than hypogalactia alone (although results of placentophagy are promising). I suspect the reasons for this are our human nature to react to problems rather than prevent them, as well as the fact that, with modern infant formula, hypogalactia is not considered a priority to prevent, even though risks of infant formula are well documented. In any case, a 2002 analysis of data from 47 studies of 50,302 women with breast cancer and 96,973 women without breast cancer revealed key insights into prevention of breast cancer:
The relative risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3% for every 12 months of breastfeeding in addition to a decrease of 7.0% for each birth. The size of the decline in the relative risk of breast cancer associated with breastfeeding did not differ significantly for women in developed and developing countries, and did not vary significantly by age, menopausal status, ethnic origin, the number of births a woman had, her age when her first child was born, or any of nine other personal characteristics examined. It is estimated that the cumulative incidence of breast cancer in developed countries would be reduced by more than half, from 6.3 to 2.7 per 100 women by age 70, if women had the average number of births and lifetime duration of breastfeeding that had been prevalent in developing countries until recently. Breastfeeding could account for almost two-thirds of this estimated reduction in breast cancer incidence. (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS01406736(02)09454-0/abstract?cc=y=)
It is worth noting that, while the analysis suggests our breast cancer rate is 6.3 per 100 women by age 70, it examined studies conducted in 30 countries. In North America alone, the incidence is much higher than the rest of the world. Below is a screenshot I took today of data found on the Susan G. Komen website for breast cancer incidence worldwide. See how we compare with other global regions?
If then, breastfeeding can reduce our risk of breast cancer, and placenta can increase the odds of sufficient milk production, does having sufficient milk production increase the length of time that we spend breastfeeding? Although the answer, to me, feels like it should be obvious, I wanted to find the numbers to be sure. After combing through some scholarly papers, I settle here with a concise statement found on the National Institutes of Health website:
Concern about insufficient milk supply is another frequently cited reason for early weaning of the infant.90,113–116 One national study on feeding practices found that about 50 percent of mothers cited insufficient milk supply as their reason for stopping breastfeeding.112 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK52688/
I did not find the detailed data I was hoping to see, however, and I ran into some other concerns too. One of the problems with finding data on breastmilk production is that, unless a mother exclusively pumps, it can be challenging to know exactly what volume of milk she is producing. Because the breast pumps are not as efficient at extracting milk as the babies’ suckle reflexes are, a mother who needs to pump at work, or a mother who out of curiosity runs a pumping experiment to determine her milk volume, may be disappointed with the results and believe she is not producing enough, when in fact, her supply is sufficient. In these cases, more needs to be done to inform mothers and the care providers who advise them to prevent unnecessary formula supplementation. However, for other moms, they genuinely do have hypogalactia, and their infants’ insatiable desire to nurse and potential failure to thrive indicate this problem. While the causes of hypogalactia are multifactorial, a strong start to breastfeeding makes a significant impact on preventing low supply, and correcting the low supply can be very challenging. It is, I suspect, the #1 reason why this galactagogue-filled tea is the #1 best-selling herbal tea on Amazon.
If our placentas were by default saved after birth, labeled with the mother’s identification, and placed in a freezer at Amazon’s warehouse, I wonder if they would not also be a top seller. Fortunately for mothers, because their placentas are products of their own conception, they do not have to buy this product at all. They merely have to tell their care provider and hospital team that they’re planning to bring it home to encapsulate, preserve it in a fridge or cooler with ice, and then bring it home. After they arrive home, they can place it in the fridge for up to 4 days after the birth, or in the freezer for a few months until they decide what they want to do (options include planting it in the garden under a new tree or bush, tossing it in a bonfire or otherwise safely discarding, or preparing it for consumption). If they determine that a galactagogue supplement would be helpful, they can, at that time, contact their local placenta encapsulator to have the placenta transformed into pills. Because it takes a couple days before the pills are ready, prearranging for the encapsulation during pregnancy ensures that mothers will not have to wait until they are dire and can receive the impact of placentophagy when it is most helpful at preventing problems.
With current data, it is not really possible to know how many cases of breast cancer could be prevented with postpartum supplementation of placenta capsules. Because placenta encapsulation is an industry that has only been around for about a decade, placenta encapsulation is not covered by insurance, and a minority of women are taking advantage of the practice, any soon-to-be-released study on breast cancer rates in this population would probably be too small to be given a lot of consideration. Moreover, much more research needs to be conducted on placentophagy itself, to begin with. However, I see enough logic to believe that there is good reason for a study to be conducted on the effect of postpartum placentophagy on later incidence of breast cancer. If, as you are reading this, you realize that you have a connection to a researcher in the health field, please consider sending them a link to this blog post, so they can consider investigating this idea.
Other than that, I wish you all a wonderful finale to Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2015!
In full disclosure, I admit that, because I professionally encapsulate placentas, the aforementioned logic could be biased. Because of general lack of research on the placenta (and placentophagy especially), the logic is also missing information. I am not a medical doctor. For medical advice, please consult your primary care physician, OBGYN, or midwife.