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Nutrition plays a key role in recovery, not only from day-to-day training but also from injuries and surgery. Although many people focus on the physical side of surgical recovery, nutrition is equally important. That’s because healing after an injury or surgery is a complex process, and nutritional deficiencies can impede recovery. Not only that, but healing tends to increase the need for certain nutrients, depending on the nature of the injury.
While recovering from an injury or surgery, it’s important to continue fueling your body with nutrient-rich foods as well as adding foods that can kick-start healing. Here are some specific areas to consider when it comes to nutrition following an injury or surgery:
Because activity is limited following an injury or surgery, energy demands tend to be low but remain slightly elevated to support healing and rehabilitation exercises. Pain and inactivity during healing often suppress appetite and make it more difficult to meet the nutritional needs for healing. To ensure adequate nutrient intake, it’s best that clients eat every four hours. Meals should always consist of a protein source, healthy fats, vegetables and fruits and, based on the individual’s needs, whole grains. Clients also should limit intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods.
Protein needs typically increase during tissue regeneration and repair. While minor injuries usually don’t affect protein requirements, major surgery can increase protein needs by 10 percent or more. A typical adult’s minimum daily protein needs are between 0.8 and 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight, depending on age and other factors. An athlete may require close to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. Injured athletes, depending on the nature of the injury and whether surgery is required, should continue to meet their minimum recommendations and consider their potentially elevated need for more protein when choosing meals and snacks. (Check out this piece from John Berardi for more information on meal planning.) High-quality protein sources include meats, fish, poultry, beans, lentils, and supplements such as whey, vegan protein, or an amino acid product.
- Vitamins and minerals
A number of vitamins and minerals are especially important for wound healing. Vitamin A is required for epithelial and bone tissue development and also appears to play a role in immune system function. In addition, vitamin C is critical for the synthesis of new collagen found in connective tissue. Research has demonstrated that a vitamin C deficiency can result in collagen defects, defective fibroblast response, and abnormal scar formation. Zinc is also needed for enzymatic activities in DNA synthesis, cell division, and protein synthesis. A 2014 study published in Nutrition in Clinical Practice found that a zinc deficiency can inhibit wound healing. To meet the increased nutrient demands for healing, clients should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. Supplementation with a multi-vitamin can help fill the gaps.
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Research demonstrates that omega-3 fatty acids can influence the function of pro-inflammatory cells and help maintain the body’s normal inflammatory response. A 2011 study involving 68 healthy medical students found that 2.5 grams daily of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation reduced inflammatory markers. Those findings were reproduced in a 2012 study of 138 healthy middle-aged and older adults. A 2009 study of 127 adults also found that higher levels of plasma omega-3 fatty acids were associated with lower levels of C-reactive protein, an important inflammatory marker. Encourage clients to eat two servings of fish per week and to include vegetables oils, nuts, and seeds to meet needs for omega-3 fatty acids. To ensure adequate omega-3 intake while recovering from an injury or surgery, clients also may consider taking a fish oil supplement.
Curcumin is a phytochemical found in turmeric. Turmeric has been consumed and used to treat ailments for thousands of years, especially in Asia. Recent research has demonstrated that curcumin has important antioxidant and wound-healing properties. Research also has shown that curcumin supplementation of 500 milligrams twice daily can effectively help reduce swelling and tenderness in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis and can improve function and reduce discomfort in individuals with osteoarthritis. Clients can add turmeric to vegetables, rice, and soups, or take a curcumin supplement.
Bromelain is a proteolytic enzyme naturally found in pineapples. In studies, bromelain has been shown to promote reduced swelling and bruising after surgery by helping to maintain a healthy inflammatory response in the body’s musculoskeletal system. In a 2012 study of 46 individuals, supplementation with 160 milligrams of bromelain per day effectively reduced swelling after dental surgery. Clients can increase their intake of bromelain by including pineapple in their daily meals or by taking a supplement that contains bromelain.
- Amino acids
As noted above, protein is necessary for wound healing. In addition to overall protein, individual amino acids also play a role. For example, arginine is not only required for protein synthesis, it’s also a precursor to nitric oxide, which is important for circulation, and glutamine is used within a wound as a source of energy. And beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB), a metabolite of the amino acid leucine, has anti-catabolic properties that help preserve lean muscle mass. In a 2013 study published in BMC Nephrology, individuals with foot ulcers supplemented with a combination of 14 grams of arginine, 14 grams of glutamine, and 3 grams of HMB per day exhibited accelerated wound-healing capabilities.