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.
Some of the most important pre-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 also help ready the system for surgery, says Keville, author of eleven books including Aromatherapy for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 1999).
Build your strength with herbs. Tonic and strengthening herbs such as Siberian ginseng (also called eleuthero), gentian, and astragalus can help with stress, digestion, and immune function, Hobbs says. Haas suggests horsetail to support wound healing because the herb is high in silica, which can help strengthen tissues. Goldenseal root 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.
Other Ways to Prepare
Pack a portable cassette or CD player to listen to during surgery, says Brigitte Mars, herbalist and author of Herbs for Healthy Skin, Hair & Nails (Keats, 1998).
“People can be very susceptible to suggestion during surgery, even though they aren’t aware,” Mars says. “Doctors saying things like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t look good,’ can be harmful to the patient.”
She suggests guided visualization tapes or healing music like Bach, Mozart, or Vivaldi. Make sure your player has a continuous play function so that the recording plays throughout your surgery.
Make time to prepare for the best. Haas recommends a fifteen- to thirty-minute relaxation exercise prior to surgery. He suggests that patients relax deeply and see, feel, and believe that all will go smoothly, that the surgery will be successful, and that healing will occur. Patients can visualize their tissues healing and recovery taking place.
In the Hospital
Sniff a soothing scent. 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.”
Be kind to your tummy. Teas can be very helpful in the days following surgery. For example, ginger 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.
If you have an appetite while in the hospital, try to keep your dietary selections low fat and easy to digest. Good examples would be broths and juices (especially fresh). Miso soup would be perfect, because it’s easily digested and helps replenish the intestinal flora. Of course, you would have to have someone bring it you, because most hospitals won’t have it on their menu.
Make Yourself at Home
Mars suggests taking a few simple steps to make the atmosphere of your hospital room a little more pleasant. Bring in a special poster or piece of art that you enjoy. If you’d be more comfortable in a bed with your own soft, colorful sheets, bring them along. Pack healing, soothing music to play in your portable tape or CD player just in case you have trouble sleeping or need a little inspiration. She also suggests being gracious to the hospital staff and acknowledging the great work they are doing—this will make for a more pleasant environment for everyone.
Eat light, eat soft. Following your surgery, you may not feel like eating anything. When your appetite returns, you should focus on liquids and soft foods for a while, particularly if you’ve had abdominal surgery. Haas suggests a program of meat or vegetable broths, fresh juices, bananas, and other soft, easily digestible foods. Gradually, you can begin incorporating grains and richer soups into your diet. Once you’re feeling stronger, resume a nourishing diet, high in protein for tissue healing, like the pre-surgery diet.
Help Your Body Heal with Supplements
As soon as your digestive system is strong enough, Haas recommends continuing the nutritional supplementation program (see “A nutrient program for before and after surgery” on page 55) 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 Mars. Bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapple, is also helpful after surgery because it can reduce postsurgical inflammation and may help with digestion.
Acupuncture also can be very helpful after surgery, says Bill Schoenbart, a licensed acupuncturist and author of Pocket Guide to Chinese Medicines (Crossing, 1999). In fact, certain acupuncture techniques help treat scars, he says. Scars often run across the body’s meridians—the channels of the body that spread qi (vital energy)—Schoenbart explains. Acupuncture techniques heal by stimulating the movement of blood and qi, which is constricted by scars.
If you want to rub something on your scar to help speed healing and minimize its appearance, 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.
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 and Schoenbart agree that a course of liver-supportive herbs such as milk thistle, burdock, and shiitake 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’s book The Detox Diet (Celestial Arts, 1996) or Hobbs’s Foundations of Health (Botanica Press, 1994).
Rebuild with Herbs
“Astragalus is helpful to rebuild the system and speed tissue healing,” Schoenbart says. “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 like fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum) and dong quai. 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 54.)
Amy Baugh-Meyer is an editorial intern at Herbs for Health. She recently experienced a successful herb-and-nutrient supported surgery.