Yet Kristal said he suspects most benefits that mothers report from consuming their baby's placenta are rooted in the placebo effect. He notes that, among women who cite benefits, it does not seem to matter how the placenta is prepared, when the woman consumes it or how much she consumes.
"It's almost part of human nature to assign causality where it doesn't necessarily exist," Kristal said. "Two things happen and people relate them in their minds. We all do it."
Dr. Marybeth Lore, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said she also thinks benefits can be attributed to the placebo effect. Still, she added, it's hard to find fault with a placebo if it improves symptoms.
Kristal said he thinks one type of placental product — molecules called peptides — would be destroyed during processing or later in the digestive tract. But steroid hormones, which include progesterone and estrogen, could be intact in placenta pills and survive digestion to be absorbed in the small intestine, he said.
None of those ideas has been scientifically tested, he emphasized. Nor is it clear whether consuming a placenta could be dangerous.
"I don't think it's a huge risk; I think it's possibly a slight risk," Kristal said. "We just have to be very careful about whether there's a negative side to it or not."
Lore said that in 15 years she has encountered perhaps five patients who wanted to consume their baby's placenta. While she tries not to be obstructive, Lore said she does not encourage women to do it. "It's unlikely to be harmful, but you don't know."
Thirty-one percent of the women who responded to the survey on placentophagy did report some negative aspects, including unpleasant taste or smell, headache and cost to encapsulate.
Selander, who lives in Las Vegas and took placenta pills after the births of two of her three daughters, views encapsulation as a way to reduce the risk of postpartum blues during a time of fluctuating hormones.
"In every case, we're talking about healthy women consuming healthy placentas," which minimizes potential risk, Selander said.
Hospitals in Chicago have varying policies on patients who want to keep the placenta. Northwestern Memorial Hospital, for instance, requires the mother to sign a release form. She then is asked to take personal possession and transfer it out of the hospital, said Sue Fulara, operations manager of triage and labor and delivery.
Pocica, of Schiller Park, said the woman's partner or another family member usually brings the placenta home on ice. Pocica likes to start the encapsulation process within 24 to 48 hours, so the organ is as fresh as possible.
First she lightly steams the placenta, then dehydrates it overnight in a food dehydrator. The next day she grinds the dried placenta into a powder and puts the powder into capsules, which are kept in the fridge. She said she sterilizes all her equipment and wears gloves.
New Lenox resident Marcy Pluchar said her husband introduced the idea of placenta encapsulation during her second pregnancy. He hoped it would help her feel better than she had after the birth of their first daughter, she said. "I was never diagnosed with postpartum depression, but I think I had it with my first."
Pluchar said taking placenta pills "really helped" — she even found herself checking her watch to see if it was time for the next dose.
Because of her positive experience, it was "not even a question" that she would enlist Pocica to encapsulate the placentas of her next children, twins now almost 5 months old.
"I think it's awesome," Pluchar said. "Could it be partly the placebo effect, that it works because I think it's going to work? Sure. But I don't care."