Post-Surgical Nutrition: Speed Your Healing With A Good Diet & Supplement Plan

Friday, December 15, 2006 - 10:17am

By Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD

"In health we should continue to be the people we vowed to become when sickness prompted our words."

—Pliny the Younger (circa 61-113 AD)

During the last month, I’ve spent significant time at the hospital. First, one of my close friends who’s an amateur athlete had elective surgery. One week after she left the hospital, one of my family members was in a car accident in which she broke her hand, smashed both her feet and ankles, and sustained extensive bruising. As a result, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the importance of nutrition in post-injury care.

Clinical nutrition trumps hospital food

While research clearly demonstrates that clinical nutrition reduces the time of hospital stays and improves a patient’s overall recovery, hospitals continue to serve unappetizing swill. Most meals are high in saturated fat and simple carbohydrates, low in fiber, and include few fruits and vegetables that haven’t been boiled, canned, sugared, fried, and otherwise processed to death. Indeed, studies typically find that hospital patients—especially those who stay for a long periods—are malnourished.

Thus, every day, to the great amusement and puzzlement of the hospital staff, I marched into my friend’s ward laden with cooler bags packed with spinach salad, fresh vegetables, homemade stews and curries, my Ukrainian great-grandmother’s healing borscht recipe, and lots of protein. I sent back the hospital’s tepid gluey waffles and syrup and served homemade granola and fruit for breakfast instead. For my family member, I hit up the Chinatown stores near the hospital to bring her golden mangoes, figs in season, fresh berries, etc.

Supplement suggestions

Both patients also ended up with a row of bottles on their windowsills. Here are the supplements I provided:

1.   Glutamine

This is an amino acid (one of the building blocks of protein) that generally comes in a tasteless powder form. It can be mixed into water or juice. Use about 1/4 teaspoon of powder for each dose, two to three times daily. Glutamine supplementation can start as soon as a patient can eat solid foods, which generally means about 12-14 hours post-surgery.

2.   Omega-3 fatty acids

The easiest source of omega-3s is fish oil capsules, which should be taken twice daily. This should wait till about two to three days after surgery to ensure it does not interfere with normal blood clotting. (Fish oil has a very slight anticoagulant effect, which is mostly good—just not in the acute, post-trauma phase). Patients can also eat walnuts and pumpkin seeds as they are also sources of omega-3s.

3.   Probiotics

Lately, probiotics are getting lots of attention as friendly bacteria that help keep bad bacteria and fungi under control. We all harbor friendly bacteria in our systems; when these colonies are disrupted (for example, by antibiotic use), it can cause problems such as intestinal distress as the antibiotic takes a scorched-earth approach to our insides. Patients can eat yogurt daily (which contains friendly acidophilus and/or lactobacillus bacteria), or take a probiotic supplement, which is just a capsule full of the little guys. Don't consume probiotics within two hours of an antibiotic. If the patient is on intravenous antibiotic, wait until she transitions to oral antibiotics.

4.   Antioxidants

Best consumed in food; studies suggest that supplemented antioxidants don't work, possibly because they work synergistically with other flavonoids and chemical compounds present in the native format. Consume lots of colorful fruit and veggies, especially dark leafy greens, citrus, berries and cherries.

5.   Fiber

Painkiller medications tend to cause constipation. You do not want to be straining if you have stitches, so keep fiber intake high with whole grains and fruits/veggies, plus a psyllium supplement (such as Metamucil) if things are really slow.

6.   Protein

Other amino acids besides glutamine are involved in wound healing and tissue regeneration, so ensure an adequate intake of lean protein: lean beef, chicken, fish, seafood, eggs, low-fat dairy and soy products.

7.   Glucosamine sulfate

Glycosamingens are well established in the literature for the repair of connective tissue. Aim for approximately 1500 milligrams daily.

8.   Turmeric

Turmeric is a potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic that is getting a lot of attention lately in research. It can be taken in capsule form.

Conclusion: good diet helps the healing process

Good nutrition has clearly demonstrated beneficial effects on the immune system and healing process. Also remember that fitter, healthier people will recover faster to begin with; don’t wait until you’re flat on your back in an undignified hospital gown to eat your vegetables. However, if you find yourself laid up, remember that a good nutrition plan with intelligent supplementation will help you get back on your feet!

Further reading
Grimble, R.F. "Nutritional Modulation of Immune Function". Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 60: 389-397 (2001).