The Amazing Placenta Part 1: What’s So Amazing About It Anyway?

I think that the placenta is a truly amazing thing that deserves a moment (or two) of your attention.  Will you open your mind for a moment and let me sing the praises of this amazing organ?

Western culture tends to treat the placenta like a bodily excrement.  Like a booger, ear wax, menstrual blood, a turd, a clipped fingernail, shaved hair, etc..  It isn’t like that at all though.  It is a fully functional and complex organ.  And, it is a very unique and interesting organ at that:

The Placenta Is Cool

Aellyn at 3 days old
  1. The placenta is a common feature with most of our mammal relatives.  Only the platypus, as an egg-layer, and marsupials don’t have a full placenta (they have what is called a choriovitelline).  There are also some lizards and snakes that have a placenta.
  2. The placenta is the only “transient” organ.  It completely grows and dies for a short period of time.  No other organ in the human body does that (mammary glands, for example, don’t always function in milk production but they are always there).  I think it is amazing that this important organ grows so fast and does something so amazing so quickly.
  3. The placenta is the only organ that is genetically two people (besides the rare condition of the chimera).  The placenta isn’t “mine.”  The placenta is a fetomaternal organ that means the final organ consists of genetically fetal and genetically maternal cells.  This is part of the reason I kept Aellyn’s.  It isn’t mine – it is ours.
  4. More than half of the cells present on day 5 post-fertilization (blastocyst stage) becomes the placenta while the rest becomes the embryo.  Isn’t that amazing?  When we first saw Aellyn at 3 days old – we were looking at as much placenta as we were baby girl.  This is why some cultures believe the placenta is the baby’s twin (it is in a way).

So, it is unique right?  Would you agree “cool” even?  Ok, cool and unique but who cares?  It just passes oxygen right?  Things the amazing placenta does:

The Placenta Is Powerful

  1. Nutrient transfer.  The placenta passes nutrients from mom to baby and passes waste back to mom to eliminate.
  2. Oxygen transfer and CO2 removal.
  3. It secretes hormones responsible for maintaining the pregnancy and growing the baby.  We often think the mothers body is doing the hard work but it isn’t.  Everything it does is in response to the placenta’s hormone messages.   
    1. Progesterone is released by the placenta to stop egg production and thicken the lining of the uterus.   
    2. Somatomammotropin increases the mothers metabolism to support the energy needs of the baby.  
    3. Relaxin is released by the placenta that helps soften the pubis symphysis to enable delivery of the baby.
  4. It serves as an immune buffer to protect the baby from mom’s immune system.  It secretes Neurokinin B containing phosphocholine molecules.  These molecules are like high-tech cloaking devices that render the placenta invisible to mom’s immune system.  the same cloaking device used by parasitic nematatodes (ewww, worms) in diseases like heartworm and trichinosis.
  5. Ewww, worms (nematatode)
  6. It starts and maintains labor.  The baby releases cortisone when its adrenal gland is mature.  Cortisone makes the placenta convert estrogen to progesterone which then causes the mother’s body to produce prostoglandins that cause contractions.

Still with me?  Cool and amazing maybe?  Here’s where I may lose some of you – but bear with me – even if you don’t agree it might help you understand other people.  Lots of cultures have seen the placenta as spiritual, mystical and very important.

The Placenta Is Mystical

  1. Among the Navajo Indians of the Southwest, it’s customary to bury a child’s placenta within the sacred Four Corners of the tribe’s reservation as a binder to ancestral land and people.
  2. New Zealand’s Maoris have the same tradition of burying the placenta within native soil. In their native language, the word for land and placenta are the same: whenua.
  3. The indigenous Bolivian Aymara and Quecha people believe the placenta has its own spirit. It is to be washed and buried by the husband in a secret and shady place. If this ritual is not performed correctly, they believe, the mother or baby may become very sick or even die.
  4. The Ibo of Nigeria and Ghana treat the placenta as the dead twin of the live child and give it full burial rites.
  5. Filipina mothers are known to bury the placenta with books, in hopes of a smart child.
  6. Other cultures place a symbol of their people with the placenta when burying it, as a kind of heritage insurance.
  7. Among the Hmong culture of Southeast Asia, the word for placenta can be translated as “jacket,” as it’s considered an infant’s first and finest clothing. The Hmong bury the placenta outside. They believe that after death, the soul must retrace the journeys undertaken in life until it reaches the burial place of its placenta jacket (source). 
  8. The Parigi of the Celebes Islands also view the placenta as the older brother. It is carefully preserved in a special pot, wrapped in white cotton, and is ritually buried by the mother. Palm trees are then planted to honor the burial site. Similar beliefs can be found in Java and Bali
  9. The Toba-Bataks of Sumatra believe the placenta is the younger brother. It is also thought to contain one of the seven souls that each person possesses, which can act as a sort of conscience for the child. 
  10. In Iceland, it is held that the child’s guardian spirit resides in the placenta, leading them to name it “fylgia”, which means “guardian angel”. 
  11. In western Australia, the placenta is considered to be the child’s companion. It is stored in a covered pot for three days before burial, during which there is an honorary silence. 
  12. The Baganda of Ugandabelieve that the placenta is actually a second child. Not only is it the child’s double, but the placenta also has its own spirit that resides in the umbilical cord. The portion of the cord attached to the baby must be carefully preserved to ensure the good health of the child. If the child is of royal blood, the placenta itself is ritually preserved and carried in processions by a high-ranking officer. 
  13. Ancient Egyptians believed in duality of the souls – one soul inhabited the body, the other the placenta. The placenta even had its own hieroglyph, which looked like a crosscut section of a human placenta. In royal processions, a high-ranking official would carry a standard representing the placenta. This standard, or symbol, is depicted as an organ with two lobes, an umbilical cord, and membranes folded back. In certain ancient texts this symbol is even the correct color; dark brown with touches of red. Entire tombs may have been built to house the royal placentas of the pharaohs. Neter-Khet of the Third Dynasty built the step pyramid of Saggara, but his body is interred at Bet Khallaf. Menkau-Ra of the Fourth Dynasty built Her, the smallest of the Giza pyramids, yet his body is entombed at Abu-Roash. Some experts interpret this to mean that the second tomb was created specifically for the placenta (source).

    The first of the four Royal Standards carries the Royal Placenta or the King’s Twin (more info here)

     Stay tuned for The Amazing Placenta Part 2, where we’ll look at modern ways to honor this amazing organ.


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    3 thoughts on “The Amazing Placenta Part 1: What’s So Amazing About It Anyway?

    1. Anyone who does not think the placenta rocks is uneducated! It’s not a waste product, although it certainly gets treated as such in the birth process.

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