When emergency surgery rudely interrupted my life last year, I sailed through the procedure. The recovery process, however, was a different story. A veteran of two Caesarean sections, I figured I knew the score when it came to bouncing back from surgery. But, unlike my past operations, this time it took a full six weeks from the moment I woke up in the recovery room until the time I was finally able to resume my former life.
When your life is turned upside-down by major surgery, it can take weeks, even months, to fully recover. Fortunately, there are a host of natural ways to get you back on your feet fast.
Surgery taxes the body’s organs and tissues—the more invasive the procedure, the greater its demand on the body. No matter how healthy your pre-surgery diet was, what and how you eat after surgery directly affects the healing process.
According to Elson M. Haas, M.D., founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, California, one’s diet immediately after surgery should be lighter than normal. Many hospitals offer the standard fare—from beef stew to enchiladas—for a patient’s first meal after surgery, but a postsurgical body, just beginning its journey toward recovery, is often unable to properly digest fatty or processed food. It’s wise to request a liquid or soft diet initially. Unfortunately, in most modern hospitals, that means low-nutrient foods such as bouillon, gelatin, coffee, and colas. Better options, says Haas, are protein or nutrient powders, vegetable and meat broths, fresh juices, light soups, and pureed fruits and vegetables. If your hospital is unable to provide these alternatives, Haas recommends having family and friends bring you healthy contraband.
What if you’re just not hungry? It’s a common complaint among patients after surgery and can result in involuntary weight loss and delayed healing. To perk up your appetite, try sipping some lemon balm tea several times a day. In Germany, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is licensed as a standard medicinal tea to stimulate the appetite. Better yet, it is a natural sedative that can help you get the rest you need.
If you suffer from postoperative nausea—a condition that can be triggered by anesthesia—reach for a cup of ginger tea. Clinical trials have found that ginger (Zingiber officinale) is effective and safe for calming a queasy stomach. In fact, a systematic review of six studies by the University of Exeter in England found that ginger was superior to a placebo, and two of the studies reported the herb was just as effective as metoclopramide, a common anti-nausea drug.
Enhance your immune system
Perhaps the biggest physical roadblock to a speedy recovery is the impact that major surgery has on your immune system. Not only are your nutritional reserves tapped to help repair tissue and fend off infection, Spanish researchers have found that general anesthesia can temporarily lower T-cell activity. What’s more, pre- and postsurgery X-rays and CAT scans can deplete antioxidant stores. And certain drugs, particularly antibiotics, can suppress immunity.
The good news is that, along with a nutrient-rich diet, there are a bevy of supplements and herbs that can rebuild your immune system and boost its healing powers. Topping the list is vitamin C, which enhances white blood cell formation, increases antibody production, and raises interferon levels. As an added bonus, this antioxidant vitamin helps metabolize anesthetics and may reduce postsurgical bleeding, say researchers from the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse Wisconsin.
An equally important nutrient is vitamin A and its pro-vitamin form, beta-carotene. Not only is vitamin A credited as a potent antioxidant, it enhances immune cell function and helps protect against infection. Because antibiotics can interfere with the absorption of vitamin A, it’s important to increase the amount you take while convalescing. But be aware that taking high doses of vitamin A (more than 100,000 IU a day over a long period of time) can damage your liver. Fortunately, beta-carotene isn’t toxic at high doses and may be the best source of vitamin A because it is converted by the liver into only the amount needed by the body.
Supplementing your diet with glutamine and arginine can also boost immunity. One comparative study of these amino acids found that patients who took glutamine had significantly shorter hospital stays, while arginine supplementation improved the level of albumin, the proteins found in blood serum. Earlier research indicates that both glutamine and arginine help postsurgical patients maintain their immune function and reduce the incidence of infection.
You can also stimulate your immunity with herbs. One pleasant way to take your medicine is in a cup of green tea (Camellia sinensis), which is known for its anti-carcinogenic properties. And an in vitro study by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences found that extracts of this tasty beverage “turn on” immune cells and may protect against bacterial infections.
Preliminary research also suggests that fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum) contributes to a strong immune system and has antibacterial properties. Not only has fo-ti been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a tonic to increase overall vitality, but test-tube experiments suggest that it stimulates immune function and increases red blood cell formation. And a recent study by researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey discovered three compounds in fo-ti that showed strong antioxidant activity.
Adaptogenic herbs can also stimulate immunity while helping the body cope with postsurgical stress. Among the best adaptogens are medicinal mushrooms, particularly reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and maitake (Grifola frondosa). Both contain active constituents called polysaccharides—complex carbohydrates that stimulate the immune response against infection.
“Reishi can act as a metabolic regulator and demonstrates anti-tumor and immunomodulating activity,” says C. Jong, Ph.D., of the American Type Culture Collection in Rockville, Maryland. What’s more, research by the Purkyne Military Academy shows that reishi contains anti-inflammatory triterpenoids which may help ease postoperative pain.
Maitake mushrooms are also gaining recognition as a powerful means of enhancing immunity, thanks to a unique beta-glucan known as D-fraction. “Beta-glucans stimulate the body’s natural immune system to work in a proactive way to fight cancer and infections,” says Robert Murphy, a naturopathic doctor based in Torrington, Connecticut.
Put pain in its place
To keep the pain of a fresh incision or surgical procedure at bay, most hospitals rely on a host of prescription and over-the-counter pain medications—from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to narcotic analgesics such as meperidine, codeine, and morphine. While these drugs ease pain, they come with a bevy of side effects and many are habit-forming.
Instead of potentially dangerous drugs, why not opt for natural pain relievers? One effective botanical is bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapple stems. Approved by the German Commission E for acute postoperative swelling, bromelain inhibits platelet aggregation, which may explain its anti-inflammatory activity. Researchers from the Czech Republic followed sixty postsurgical patients throughout a placebo-controlled study of bromelain and found that those taking the enzyme therapy had less swelling, needed fewer pain medications, and healed faster than patients in the control group. As an added benefit, bromelain boosts immunity and has no adverse side effects, according to the findings of a study by the Institute of Pharmacy in Berlin, Germany.
Another herb that can help reduce inflammation and pain is devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens). During a double-blind, randomized clinical trial of thirty-one patients suffering from muscular pain, German researchers found that the herb significantly reduced the sensation of pain.
Scarred for life?
The day you get your stitches (or staples) out is truly a day for celebration. But to avoid complications later, it’s important that you treat your surgical wound with care. Wounds heal best when they are allowed to repair themselves from the inside out. Only later should the outer layer of skin begin to heal. Fortunately, there are a number of nutritional supplements that help the underlying tissue heal properly.
Vitamin A is critical to healthy tissue formation and is needed for the repair of epithelial tissue. And because of its ability to stimulate immunity, it helps protect the wound from infection. Another essential supplement is vitamin C, a key component of collagen. Preliminary studies suggest that vitamin C can speed the healing of wounds and help create stronger tissue. Zinc is another vital supplement. Even a mild deficiency of this important mineral can interfere with the repair process and delay healing.
Two amino acids can give your incision the support it needs. Arginine increases protein synthesis and collagen deposits, and carnosine improves the strength of wound tissue in animal studies.
Herbs can also encourage healthy healing. “Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is very high in silica, a mineral that helps strengthen tissues,” notes Haas. And a new study conducted at Italy’s University of Bologna found that one type of echinacea (Echinacea pallida) helps protect the skin’s connective tissue and enhances wound healing.
There are a number of topical remedies that can also speed healing, reduce bruising, and help prevent scarring. Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is a botanical that has been found to help heal wounds in numerous scientific studies. According to animal research, the herb contains a terpenoid known as asiaticoside, which increases antioxidant levels and facilitates the repair of connective tissue. Not only does gotu kola increase cellular proliferation and collagen production, a study published in Aesthetic Plastic Surgery found that this herb helps form a finer scar.
Honey has been used for more than 2,000 years to heal difficult wounds—and with good reason. New Zealand researchers have discovered that, used topically, the sweet stuff provides a moist healing environment, rapidly clears infection, and reduces inflammation.
If bruising is a problem, try applying a compress of arnica (Arnica spp.) several times a day. Approved by the German government for accelerating wound healing, arnica speeds the disappearance of discoloration. Be aware, however, that arnica can burn the skin if not diluted and should not be taken internally.
Antibiotics are routine after an operation. While they may keep an infection at bay, antibiotics can destroy the body’s good bacteria and increase the risk of developing a yeast infection, urinary tract infection, or digestive problems. Supplementing with probiotics—the beneficial bacteria normally found in the digestive tract—can counteract some of the damage done while the antibiotics were on their search-and-destroy mission. Two of the most popular probiotic supplements are acidophilus and bifidobacteria. Both can be found in the refrigerated section of most health-food stores.
Because surgery can expose you to a myriad of radioactive diagnostic tests, anesthetics, and narcotics, it’s wise to rid your body of any lingering toxins. Once you’ve truly healed—two to three months after surgery—Haas recommends a mild cleansing and detoxification program. “Many people realize that the anesthesia is often more difficult to recover from postsurgically than the actual cutting of tissues,” he says. Try a juice fast for a day or two, then gradually begin a two-week diet of organic fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Herbs, especially milk thistle (Silybum marianum), can also help your liver clear the body of any residual toxic compounds.
Kim Erickson is the author of Drop Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary, 2002) and a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.
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