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What Is Unique about a Human Placenta?

The placenta is discarded from the uterus after serving its single purpose, which makes it different from most body organs.
After fertilization, the human uterus prepares its lining for implantation.
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  • Written By: Elizabeth West
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2014
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The human placenta is unique among organs because it is formed for a single purpose and is then discarded after use. When a fertilized egg attaches to the uterus, the placenta allows oxygen and nutrients to reach the developing fetus from its mother’s bloodstream and removes its wastes. In some cultures, the human placenta is thought of as an extension or companion to the baby and is reverentially disposed of. Eating the placenta, or placentophagy, is common among animals, but some people believe it has medical and psychological benefits. Some will consume it after birth or use it in alternative medicine or cosmetic products.

Cells called trophoblasts produce human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) after fertilization to prepare the uterine lining for implantation. When this occurs, they burrow deep within and begin the process of placenta formation. A human placenta grows to about nine inches (22 cm) long and up to one inch (2.5 cm) thick, and it is covered with veining blood vessels. Its color is usually a dark red-blue to maroon, and it continues to grow throughout pregnancy.

A human placenta doesn’t just take care of the baby. It protects the mother from her own immune system, which sees the baby as an allograft, or foreign invader. The placenta secretes the hormone Neurokinin B and lymphatic immune suppressors to ensure the mother’s white blood cells will not attack it or the fetus.

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While most human placentas do their job adequately, there are complications that can threaten the lives of mother and child. Placenta previa is a condition in which the placenta lies low in the uterus and covers the cervix. Serious bleeding may occur if it tears from dilation during the later stages of pregnancy. Placental abruption occurs during birth when the organ separates from the uterus before the child is born. Heavy and life-threatening blood loss can cause exsanguination in the mother and deprive the baby of oxygen.

In Western society, the human placenta is usually incinerated after birth. Various cultures, such as the Navajo, the Maori of New Zealand, and the Ibo tribe of Nigeria and Ghana, bury it with ceremony and reverence to protect the child and connect it with nature. Eastern cultures think of the placenta as a medicinal element. Highly processed placenta is often used in beauty creams as a protein enhancement.

Animals will often eat their birth membranes for not entirely understood reasons. Some people believe that eating the hormones and proteins in the human placenta relieves postpartum depression and assists in childbirth recovery. Called placentophagy, this practice is not very common in the West. Arrangements should be made with the hospital for proper preservation of the organ if the mother intends to consume it or have it encapsulated as a nutritional supplement. Various preparation guidelines can be found online.

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Discuss this Article

discographer
Post 3

The hormones and immune suppressors have to be the most unique aspects of human placenta. Pregnancies would not be possible without these because the body would attack and kill the baby.

bluedolphin
Post 2

@literally45-- I personally disagree with human placenta extracts and supplements as well. Not due to ethics, but because I think that placenta is unhealthy due to the hormones it contains. My sister had her placenta encapsulated after birth however and claims that it helped prevent postpartum depression. So it's a decision that everyone needs to take on their own.

literally45
Post 1

Placenta is truly a unique and miraculous organ that attaches the mother with the baby. It is also a known fact that it is full of nutrition, vitamins and minerals. I don't agree with the idea of eating it however. I don't think that eating human placenta is an ethical act because it is technically part of the mother. It could be categorized as cannibalism.

It may be true that some animals eat their placenta and I'm not sure why exactly that is. Animals tend to clean their young immediately after birth, to remove the mucus and to help the young breathe. They may eat the placenta during that process. But just because animals do it doesn't mean that we have to.

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