Benefit From Herbal Support For Surgery

Safe nutritional and herbal support for before, during, and after surgery.


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More than 40 million Americans undergo in-patient surgery each year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. For many, the experience is negative—traumatic for both the body and mind.

If a planned surgery is in your future, you needn’t feel that circumstances are beyond your control; many healing modalities can make the event less stressful and the recovery smoother. The nutrients and herbs suggested below are designed to strengthen the body, build the blood, heal tissue, and increase immune function. Don’t worry if you don’t find specific instructions for your type of surgery—these recommendations are appropriate for any type of surgery.

“Tissue is tissue,” says Alan Gaby, M.D., a professor at Bastyr University in Washington and the former president of the American Holistic Medical Association. “A general health program is all that’s needed for surgery.”

Before surgery: nutrition and herbs 

A combination of a nutritious diet, strengthening herbs, and a vitamin and mineral supplement plan is recommended prior to surgery by many health-care practitioners. It’s generally agreed that starting your healing program about three to four weeks before the surgery is best. In emergency cases when you don’t have time to plan, begin the protocol as soon as you find out you need to have surgery.

Don’t skimp on healthy food. “Nutrition before surgery is paramount,” says Stephen Brown, a naturopathic doctor living in Bandon, Oregon. He recommends lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and foods high in vitamins C and A.

“It’s also important to get sufficient protein in the diet,” he says.

Elson Haas, M.D., author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition (Celestial Arts, 1992), says that high-quality protein—such as that found in fish, poultry, nuts, and seeds—is crucial because protein is required for tissue healing. However, Haas does not recommend that people change their diets drastically prior to surgery—just eat a basically nutritious diet, low in fat and high in protein and vitamins. Haas also recommends a thorough supplementation program prior to surgery (see “Nutrients before and after surgery” on page 48).

Some of the most important surgery supplements are antioxidants: vitamins A and C, selenium, and zinc. These nutrients can help reduce tissue damage after surgery, according to herbalist and acupuncturist Christopher Hobbs.

Herbalist Kathi Keville suggests anthocyanidins, which are potent antioxidants in deep red and blue fruits, for pre-surgical use. Immune-building herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.) also help ready the system for surgery, says Keville, author of eleven books including Aromatherapy for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 1999).

You should also try to build your strength with herbs. Tonic and strengthening herbs such as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), gentian (Gentiana lutea), and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) can help with stress, digestion, and immune function, Hobbs says. Haas suggests horsetail (Equisetum arvense) to support wound healing because the herb is high in silica, which can help strengthen tissues. Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis) works as a tonic and is a natural, mild infection fighter, Haas says.

Of course, check with your surgeon and anesthesiologist to make sure these herbs and supplements will not interfere with any procedures or medications.

Neroli, chamomile, and lavender for relaxation 

Following your operation, you will likely spend at least one night in the hospital, where your health-care providers can closely monitor you. But it may be impossible or impractical to make teas or take supplements in the hospital. Aromatherapy can be a good substitute—it’s portable, safe, and easy to use, Keville says.

“You don’t have to be as cautious with aromatherapy as you do with herbs,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about the scents interfering with any drugs you’re taking.”

Keville recommends scents that have both relaxing and antidepressant effects, such as neroli, chamomile, and lavender. In more liberal hospitals, using a plug-in aromatherapy diffuser may be allowed, she says. However, if using a diffuser is not appropriate, there is another method to try.

“Try using a hanky with a couple of drops of the scent on it—you can just hold it to your nose and breathe in,” Keville says. “Hankies are great, even though they’re out of fashion. If you want to use different scents, just use a separate hanky for each one.”

Ginger for your tummy 

Teas can be very helpful in the days following surgery. For example, ginger (Zingiber officinale) has been shown to reduce nausea, a common side effect of anesthesia and pain-relieving drugs. In one study of sixty women undergoing major gynecological surgery, ginger was found equally effective to metoclopramide, a traditional medication used for preventing postoperative nausea. Ginger tea is easy to make, and you could have a friend or relative bring some to you in a thermos or jar. Just make sure you get your health-care providers’ approval before using herbal teas.


Help your body heal with supplements. As soon as your digestive system is strong enough, Haas recommends continuing the nutritional supplementation program (see “Nutrients before and after surgery” on page 48) for four to six weeks following surgery. The goal of his protocol is postsurgical wound healing and rebuilding strength and the immune system.

Vitamin C is very important after surgery because it promotes wound healing, says Brigitte Mars, herbalist and author of Herbs for Healthy Skin, Hair & Nails (Keats, 1998). Bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapple, is also helpful after surgery because it can reduce postsurgical inflammation and may help with digestion.

If you want to help speed healing and minimize the appearance of scars, Keville recommends an essential oil formula.

“The two best essential oils for scars are lavender and helichrysum,” she says. “Combine 1/4 teaspoon vitamin E oil, 3 teaspoons aloe vera gel or juice, and 3 drops of pure lavender or helichrysum essential oil. Blend well and apply several times a day.”

In her book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (Bantam, 1994), Christiane Northrup, M.D., writes that a vitamin E oil formula or other scar formula can be applied as soon as the surgical dressings are removed—just check with your surgeon to make sure there are no contraindications.

Detoxify with herbs

Dealing with the aftereffects of anesthesia and pain-relieving drugs can be a concern to patients. Although the body does have the ability to detoxify on its own, processing the medications can be very stressful on the liver, especially in individuals with compromised liver function. Keville says that a course of liver-supportive herbs such as milk thistle (Silybum marianum), burdock (Arctium lappa), and shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is a good idea after getting home from the hospital.

Haas suggests a mild cleansing and detoxification program two to three months following surgery. After that time, he says, the body is stronger and most tissue healing is complete. For more information on cleansing, see Haas’ book The Detox Diet (Celestial Arts, 1996) or Hobbs’ Foundations of Health (Botanica Press, 1994).

Rebuild with herbs

“Astragalus is helpful to rebuild the system and speed tissue healing,” says Bill Schoenbart, a licensed acupuncturist and author of Pocket Guide to Chinese Medicines (The Crossing, 1999). “Tonic herbs such as Siberian ginseng and reishi are also good for rebuilding the body.”

About a week after surgery, Hobbs suggests using blood-building and blood-moving herbs such as fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum) and dong quai (Angelica sinensis). He says fo-ti will help tonify the blood and bring nutrients and healing factors to the wound site. (Note: These herbs should not be used until a week following your operation—see “Herbs to avoid” on page 47.)

Amy Mayfield is the editor of Herbs for Health, our sister publication. She cooks, gardens, and supplements her health with herbs from her home in Williams, Oregon.


Herbs for athlete’s foot

Your feet may have been shoeless and free for the summer, but chances are good that athlete’s foot may have been a part of that summer fun. Two herbs may help soothe your itchy feet.

The oil from the tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) has long-documented antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. It’s especially effective against athlete’s foot. Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), on the other hand, has been shown to inhibit some fungal growths at more than four times the rate of tea tree oil. A prominent ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, lemongrass is characterized by its strong citrus flavor. The volatile oil’s main compounds are ciltral and citronellal.

To treat athlete’s foot, try drinking lemongrass tea several times a day. If you want an extra boost, apply the used leaves or teabags directly to the affected areas.

Another alternative is to make a tea tree oil solution. The antifungal properties of the tea tree and the soothing properties of the lavender (Lavandula angustofolia) are sure to squelch the screaming itch. Mix 2 parts lavender essential oil with 1 part tea tree essential oil (40 drops lavender to 20 drops tea tree will make enough to use for several days). Moisten a cotton ball with the solution and rub between toes and over the entire affected area.

Cooling herbs for summer burns, scrapes, and bug bites

The cooling gel of Aloe vera soothes minor burns, cuts and scrapes, and other skin irritations. It has proven to slow skin damage by penetrating skin tissue and it aids in healing. Keep an aloe plant close at hand, snipping a section off to release gel onto bug bites or burns, or store a bottle of the gel in your medicine cabinet for easy access. Once the gel has dried, it may leave the skin feeling dry and tight. Follow use with a moisturizer.

Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)—not to be confused with German chamomile (Matricaria recutita)—takes the swelling and sting out of bug bites, sunburn, and windburn. It also helps calm the itchy skin associated with eczema and psoriasis. For bug bites, try mixing 1 teaspoon of aloe gel with 5 drops of Roman chamomile essential oil. Do not ingest Roman chamomile, as it may produce allergic reactions and should not be used if you are ragweed-sensitive.

For a cooling bath after sun or wind exposure, mix 5 drops of Roman chamomile, 3 drops of geranium, and 1 to 2 drops of peppermint essential oils with 1 tablespoon of jojoba oil. Shake well and add the mixture to the bath.

The essential oil of lavender is an excellent antibacterial, antiseptic, and analgesic. On burns and small cuts, it cleans, soothes, and speeds healing. For burns: Run cold water over the affected area for at least ten minutes, then put 2 drops of pure lavender oil directly on the burn. Repeat as needed. For severe burns, seek professional assistance from your health-care provider. For small cuts and scrapes, apply lavender essential oil to the affected area with a cotton ball.


More than fifty species of angelicas spread across the globe. Several have longstanding reputations as prized healers, with different species having widely varying uses. In many cases, all parts of these medicinal angelicas carry healing chemicals.

The roots and leaves of angelica (Angelica archangelica) are used medicinally for ailments ranging from colic and indigestion to bronchitis and debilitating chest conditions. It’s also used in candies and to flavor liquors.

Chinese angelica (A. sinensis) also known as dong quai, is a sweet, pungent herb. It is the main tonic in Chinese medicine for regulating menstruation and strengthening the female reproductive system.

American angelica (A. atropurpurea) has similar properties to A. sinensis, although it’s less aromatic.

Fragrant angelica (A. dahurica), also known as bai zhi, is a Chinese herb used for headaches and aching eyes, nasal congestion, and toothache.

10 herbs to have on hand

1. Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Used for: Immune stimulation. Special instructions: Don’t take long-term; studies show this may reduce effectiveness. Large doses may be most effective when fighting a cold. Cautions: Avoid if you have an autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis. May counteract immune-suppressant drugs.

2. Ginger (Zingiber officinale). Used for: Motion sickness, nausea, inflammation. Special instructions: The medicinal chemicals in ginger survive processing, so pick your favorite form—fresh root, dried powder, liquid extract, or candied slices. Cautions: It’s relatively nontoxic, but don’t exceed the recommended daily dose of 2 to 4 g.

3. Shiitake (Lentinula edodes). Used for: General tonic, cancer, heart disease, HIV, viral diseases. Special instructions: Don’t overlook fresh or dried whole mushrooms. The traditional dose is 1 or 2 daily for preventive care. Cautions: In rare cases, may induce a rash.

4. Ginseng (Panax ginseng, P. quinquefolius). Used for: Tonic, athletic performance, mental sharpness, cancer, heart disease, aphrodisiac. Special instructions: Use products within a year of purchase because ginsenosides become less effective over time. Cautions: People with high blood pressure, mood imbalances, heart palpitations, asthma, or high fever should not use it.

5. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). Used for: Alzheimer’s disease, age-related memory loss, circulation problems, tinnitus, asthma, and allergies. Special instructions: Studies have used highly concentrated extracts, standardized to 24 percent flavone glycosides and 6 percent ginkgolides. Cautions: Enhances anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs. Rare reports of gastrointestinal upset, headaches, and skin allergies.

6. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Used for: Tonic, fatigue, concentration, stamina, stress, immune stimulation. Special instructions: Long-term use provides better results. Cautions: Enhances some antibiotics. The German Commission E warns it shouldn’t be used by those with high blood pressure, but no solid clinical evidence supports this caution.

7. Green tea (Camillia sinensis). Used for: Antioxidant, stimulant, bacteria fighter, cancer prevention. Special instructions: Research shows that 1 to 4 cups daily is a good preventive dose. Cautions: Green tea contains caffeine and is a diuretic. Milk may interfere with its healing properties, so wait 45 minutes after drinking one before drinking the other.

8. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus). Used for: Immune stimulant. Special instructions: The dried sliced root is simmered for several hours. Commercial tinctures, tablets, and capsules are also available. Cautions: No known side effects.

9. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.). Used for: Angina pectoris, early stages of congestive heart failure, coronary insufficiency, circulation. Special instructions: Consult your health-care practitioner before using for heart disease. Cautions: No known interactions with prescription cardiac drugs nor toxicity during pregnancy or nursing. However, don’t diagnose or self-treat heart problems.

10. Garlic (Allium sativum). Used for: High cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure, poor circulation. Special instructions: Add raw garlic to cooked foods just before serving to retain sulfur compounds. Cautions: There’s some controversy about which form is most effective. Look for products that deliver 900 mg, standardized to 0.6 percent allicin per 100 mg.

Compiled by The Herb Companion staff.