Herb Drug Interaction: Herbal Healing After Surgery

| September/October 2001

  • Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Boulder, Colorado, where he practices integrative medicine.

The techniques employed by modern surgeons represent some of the greatest advances of the past fifty years. The skills of these surgeons have allowed them to save many lives, repair deformed or broken bones, remove cancerous tumors, transplant diseased organs and replace clogged arteries. What is more, these procedures have been made considerably easier to perform by parallel advances in anesthesiology. Sophisticated new anesthetic and analgesic (pain-killing) drugs have taken a process that was once excruciatingly painful and made it relatively easy to tolerate.

But despite these advances, surgery of any type is a form of injury. No matter how precise or careful the incision, it still involves cutting through living tissue. Sometimes bones must be deliberately cracked or sensitive organs must be manipulated in a way that can damage their ability to function. Surgery can also induce chemical injury. The anesthetic drugs used to numb body parts or induce a generalized coma-like state, along with the medications that temporarily relax or paralyze muscles, can be hard on the liver, which detoxifies these drugs after their work is done. Postoperative problems such as hemorrhages, blood clots and infections are also a concern.

Could botanical medicines and nutritional supplements have something to offer people undergoing surgical procedures? Considering that specific nutrients are known to play an integral role in the physiology of healing and repair, it’s a reasonable assumption that providing them in adequate quantities could assist in the recovery process. Research has clearly shown that poorly nourished patients take longer to heal after surgery. Yet supplements of zinc, vitamin C, bioflavonoids and the amino acid arginine can actually improve wound healing and speed up overall recovery.

Certain herbs may provide even more comprehensive benefits. For example, echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and gotu kola (Centella asiatica) have both been shown in clinical studies to enhance wound healing. Bromelain, a mixture of enzymes from pineapple stems, helps decrease swelling and inflammation after surgery or trauma. Many medical doctors in Germany use these supplements. Doctors in China commonly prescribe Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) to help their patients recover from the stress of surgery.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), another botanical from China, is a potent antioxidant that can help neutralize the deluge of free radicals generated by the trauma of surgery. Ginkgo also enhances circulation in the brain and the extremities. This makes it potentially useful to anyone convalescing from injury, especially when they must spend long periods of time resting in bed.

Garlic (Allium sativum) has many properties that could make it helpful after surgery. In addition to being an antioxidant, it helps prevent infections and assists the liver in detoxification. Other hepatoprotectants such as milk thistle (Silybum marianum) are also useful postoperatively. As an antioxidant that also increases levels of glutathione—a potent detoxifying substance—the herb can help the liver recover from the toxic damage that may occur after exposure to general anesthetics and other medications.

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