Newborn baby (Karen Strauss)

While it might sound like a novel concept, placenta ingestion has been a mainstay of Chinese medicine for hundreds of years.

Home birth midwife Claudia Booker can convert your placenta into vitamin-sized pills by the time you leave the hospital after giving birth.​ She also can distill it into an alcohol-based solution​ for you to take in drop form, or give you a piece to blend into a smoothie. On occasion, moms will request to eat silver-dollar sized pieces of their placenta right after labor.

The placenta is an organ that develops on the wall of the uterus during pregnancy, removing waste and providing oxygen and nutrients to the baby through the umbilical cord.​ Some mothers and midwives believe the placenta offers benefits that help recovery after birth – allowing women to regain energy, reduce bleeding, increase milk production and fight off "baby blues" or a more severe form of postpartum depression. Doctors tend to be skeptical, pointing to the lack of scientific evidence and regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.

The act of ingesting your placenta, or placentophagy, isn't new –it has been used​ in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, according to the UK-based Independent Placenta Encapsulation Network.​ Celebrities have triggered attention to the practice in recent years. Alicia Silverstone, who played the lead in the 1995 comedy "Clueless," ​is the latest to confess she ate her placenta after giving birth​. Actress January Jones from "Mad Men" did the same. In an episode of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," sisters Kim and Kourtney Kardashian trick their mom and stepdad into thinking that they had eaten a placenta with their dinner to teach them a lesson about being squeamish about the practice. Kim, who was pregnant at the time, had considered eating her placenta after giving birth, but ultimately decided against it.

[See: Best Hospitals for Gynecology.]

The Business of Placenta Medicine

Those who offer placenta products have seen a rise in demand. Booker, who owns Birthing Hands of DC and is a doula, or labor coach,​ has​ been encapsulating placentas for six years. During the last three years the request for the pills has doubled to about six a month, at a cost of $225 to $250 per bottle​. Moms of any age can try it, and it doesn't matter if you have health issues like a history of high blood pressure or smoking, Booker says. However, she does say no to encapsulating two types of placentas: one that has chorioamnionitis, a bacterial infection, or one touched by meconium, a baby's first poop.
Most moms opt for encapsulation, in which the placenta is steamed, dehydrated and ground into into 35 to 70 capsules, depending on the size and thickness of the organ. Booker prescribes one capsule in the morning and one in the afternoon for about three weeks. This amount gives the body a chance to heal and restore itself, she says.

She has come across moms who take ​six to eight pills a day, making them hyperstimulated, nervous and unable to sleep – almost as though they have had several energy drinks. Moms need to understand that the pills are meant to restore them, not reinvigorate them, Booker says. ​"I look at postpartum as a time when moms and their new babies spend three weeks cuddled up getting to know each other," she says, "not a time to see how fast they can get themselves back into the gym or the real world."

[Read: 6 Questions About Exercise During Pregnancy  Answered.]

A Doctor's Take

Daniel Roshan​, an OB-GYN at NYU Langone Medical Center's Rosh Maternal-Fetal Medicine, says he has no conflict with his patients wanting to take placenta pills, though he does warn them that there are no clinical trials or scientific research to back their effectiveness. Advocates of the practice like to point out that most mammals eat their placenta, but Roshan counters that mammals eat a lot of things humans do not.

One survey published last year in the Ecology of Food and Nutrition journal looked at 189 women who had ingested their placenta. The majority reported positive benefits and intended to do it again the next time they gave birth. The researchers pointed out, however, that more studies are necessary to determine whether the pills were merely the result of a placebo effect.

Roshan says he doesn't think taking placenta pills can help women with postpartum depression, which affects about 10 to 15 percent​ of mothers, according to the American Psychological Association, and can involve a lack of appetite or desire to do anything. A woman who has experienced depression before giving birth is more likely to have postpartum depression and should talk to her doctor about antidepressants, Roshan adds. Post-labor, Roshan says, about 70 percent of women are affected by the baby blues, an emotional roller coaster that can last a couple weeks. It's important for a partner, nurse or family member to be available to help, he says. "The mom is going to be in pain and the baby will be demanding 24/7," he says. "The more people you have helping you after delivery, the happier you will be." 

[Read: How to Find the Best Gynecologist for You.]

Moms Share Their Experiences

Melissa Moneya27-year-old mom who lives in the Houston area,decided to try placenta encapsulation after suffering anxiety, postpartum depression and unfounded fears following her first delivery. After her second birth she felt better, but still had the baby blues, she says.

She took the pills following the birth of her third child, now age 2, and says she healed faster, felt positive, didn't bleed as long and had an easier time breastfeeding. "My husband said it made a huge difference," she says. "If it's something that can be used to stave off the depression that sometimes follows childbirth, I'd recommend it."

Genevieve​, 38, who blogs at MamaNatural.com, tried the practice after her second baby was born about 6 months ago because she heard positive things from her doula. (The Chicago-based mom declined to share her last name because she keeps it private in her blog.)

She shared her mixed experiences with the placenta pills in a YouTube video, where she explains she took six pills a day – two after each meal – and became "engorged, leaking (milk) everywhere" and began feeling depressed.

After receiving a message from one of her readers who also shared negative emotional effects, she decided to go off the pills. Within 24 hours her mood lifted and she felt like herself. The day after, her milk became more regular. "Watch your body and see what your symptoms are," she tells U.S. News. "It isn't the right fit for everyone."

Booker admits that in the six years she has conducted her business, two of her clients developed an itch after taking the pills, but she says they could have had an allergic reaction to their placentas or something else they took during labor.

Genevieve, despite her reactions, says she's glad she tried it, and admits she still keeps the placenta pills in her freezer. "Maybe I'll try them when I hit menopause," she says.

[Read: Hypnobirthing: How to Go With the Pregnancy Flow.]