Surgery can be a traumatic and stressful experience for anyone; as a single person, married, parent or grandparent; this challenge does not skip anyone and so it connects us. If undergoing elective surgery, there are many things you can do ahead of your admission date which will significantly improve your recovery and healing time. If you have very little time to plan because of the urgency of the problem or if you are taken to hospital as an emergency with no time to plan at all, don’t worry: there is much that can be done once the worst is over and the operation is complete, even while you are still in the hospital.
Don’t feel concerned if you don’t find specific instructions for your type of surgery — these recommendations are appropriate for any type of surgery and are based on strengthening your immunity, increasing and supporting your body’s natural healing capabilities and restoring the intricate mind-body connection, balance and harmony which is critical to achieving deep and lasting health.
Remember to always consult your GP, anaesthetist or surgeon if you feel doubts or uncertainty about any natural therapy or supplements you may wish to take.
Preparing for elective surgery
You can take steps to speed up your recovery even before you go under the surgeon’s knife. Ensuring you have good foundation of nutrition prior to your admission, is paramount for recovering after surgery. Ensure you drink plenty of water and cut down on fatty foods, caffeine, sugar and alcohol. Plenty of water: over half your body weight in ounces. My rule of thumb is 100 oz/day. Eat plenty of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, healthy protein sources and in particular foods high in Vitamin C and A. High-quality protein such as found in fish, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds) will greatly support your body’s healing mechanisms.
The use of specific vitamin and mineral supplements before surgery can help quicken healing of tissue damage after surgery and reduce wound healing time. They will also help you build a healthy and strong immune system to protect you from infection and assist in strengthening your adrenal glands (the endocrine glands responsible for managing all types of stress) for optimal recovery.
Some of the most important pre-surgery supplements are antioxidants including Vitamins A and C, selenium, and zinc. Zinc is best taken prior to surgery and has been shown to reduce wound healing time, rapidly reduce wound size and bolster immune function to help ward off infection. Vitamins A and C are integral to immune function and healing and are recommended to be taken before and after surgery. Also, B12 and iron both aid bone marrow in forming new blood cells.
Finally, it’s quite normal to be nervous before your surgery and you may wish to try a few drops of the Bach flower Rescue Remedy, which helps calm the nerves and reduce worry. Aromatherapy, using frankincense, copaiba, lavender, and citrus essential oils are wonderful for calming as well. There are many that can help to calm, because we are all biological beings and our systems may prefer something a little different than your neighbor. It's great that there are options with similar endpoints.
Herbs and supplements to avoid at least 2 weeks before surgery
May increase bleeding/affect blood pressure:
Garlic, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, feverfew, vitamin E, liquorice, fish oils.
May affect anaesthetic/medications:
St John’s Wort, liquorice, kava root, valerian, melatonin, gotu kola, echinacea, goldenseal.
Remember to consult your doctor about any supplements and medications you may be taking, especially if taking warfarin or other blood-thinning medications.
Hypnosis, visualisation, guided imagery and meditation
Studies from numerous American hospitals including the Mayo and Cleveland clinics and the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City have shown that patients who use self-help techniques before and after surgery — including hypnosis, music therapy, relaxation, breathing, visualization, guided imagery and meditation — may require less medication, undergo less pain and experience faster wound healing and shorter hospital stays.
“Simple mind-body techniques like relaxation breathing and vividly imagining the best possible outcome of surgery prior to the procedure can reduce anxiety, sleep disturbance and even the surgical stress response itself,” says psychologist Jeffrey Greeson. More than 30 institutions in the States have these practices as part of their treatment and care regimens.
I have personally used positive visualization techniques to create calming and help promote the best possible outcome during a high risk pregnancy. It worked well for me! They say that the mind must first see what the body is expected to do. Many athletes have created success for themselves leaning heavily on mind-training techniques, as they complete the rigorous physical training required.
In - hospital stay
Following your operation, you will likely spend at least one night in the hospital, where the medical staff can closely monitor you, control your pain and ensure you are on your way to recovering. While in hospital it may be impossible or impractical to take supplements, be in control of what you eat or get adequate sleep. However, there are some simple things which will start you on the road to recovery!
Herbal teas can help in the days following surgery. For example, ginger has been shown to reduce nausea, a common side-effect of anaesthesia and pain-relieving drugs. In one study of 60 women undergoing major gynaecological surgery, ginger was found equally effective to metoclopramide, a traditional medication used for preventing postoperative nausea. Chamomile tea will relax you and help you sleep. You could have a friend or relative bring some to you in a thermos or even as tea bags which you can pop into hot water. Always make sure you get your healthcare providers’ approval before using herbal teas.
Hospitals are not exactly renowned for their appetizing, nutritious meals so, if you’re able, ask a friend or relative to bring food in which will help build your strength and immunity. If you’re able to eat in hospital and have an appetite, try to keep your choices low-fat and easy to digest. Good examples would be broths and juices (especially fresh) and salads. Miso soup would be perfect, because it’s easily digested and helps replenish the intestinal flora. You will probably have to ask a relative or friend to bring these in for you because most hospitals won’t have it on their menu.
In hospital, make sure you are receiving something in the form of a laxative support from the staff to help prevent constipation. Analgesics and staying in bed will contribute to constipation. They may forget to ask specifically how your bowel habits are and it is crucial not to become constipated as this increases abdominal pain, places increasing strain on abdominal incisions due to the distension and prevents good elimination of toxins. When ordering your meals, don’t forgot good old-fashioned prunes and drink plenty of fluids if you are able. A nice option is essential oils which can tone the bowels and improve movement. Certified pure therapeutic grade oils are sourced, tested, and formulated in such a way to be considered "generally safe for consumption" by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (US FDA). When we see a "supplement facts" box on the bottle of essential oils, this indicates this standard and ability to be used internally. With this high quality of oils, internal supplementation can be helpful to soothe using just a drop or two at a time in water: any of the digestive stimulating oils found in ancient Ayurvedic teachings, including peppermint, ginger, fennel, anise, tarragon.
Unpack your healing, soothing music to play in your portable tape or CD player just in case you have trouble sleeping or need a little inspiration or encouragement. Use some aromatherapy oils that have both relaxing and antidepressant effects, such as neroli, chamomile, magnolia and lavender.
Recovering at home after surgery
The path to recovery, as mentioned previously, is obviously going to be different in different patients and will certainly vary depending on the type of procedure and whether elective or unplanned (emergency). However, there are general principles and therapies that will help everyone recovering from surgery, regardless of procedure, to help heal the body, mind and spirit.
Recovering involves three key things from our wellness pyramid: rest, good nutrition, and exercise. Sufficient sleep and rest are essential to strengthening the immune system, rebuilding the nerves and speeding the healing of injuries or recovery from surgery. You may find you need frequent naps throughout the day, which is normal and to be expected.
Eat a healthy diet of foods that you enjoy eating to stimulate the appetite and boost energy levels. Post-surgical patients require increased protein intake to repair injured tissue, strengthen the immune system and support vital organ function. Avoid junk food during the healing process, especially processed fats such as hydrogenated oils and homogenised milk fats — they interfere with healthy cell wall construction and healing tissue.
Gentle exercise such as slow, short walks strengthens the muscles, restores healthy circulation, strengthens the immune system and helps prevent respiratory problems like pneumonia and deep-vein thrombosis or clots, often associated with lengthy periods of bed rest. Walking and other exercise will also improve lymphatic circulation, helping your body move the waste products out so new blood can circulate to your wound site and any damaged tissue can rebuild without stagnation. Start slowly and gradually increase the length and intensity of the exercise as your body recovers.
Essential recovery plan
Reduce worry by focusing on other activities such as reading, listening to music, or watching a movie. Practise deep breathing exercises to release stress and tension. Learn to relax by listening to calming music or thinking of pleasant images. Interaction with friends and family will increase your recovery. Resume previous interests and hobbies and try and get out of the house for short periods of time.
Yoga involves specific breathing exercises that are tailored for post-surgical recovery. Meditation provides immense benefits, as it has numerous restorative powers, helps in healing with visualisation and provides peace of mind, which is really essential post-surgery. Numerous studies have shown it boosts the immune system and helps control pain. Both yoga and meditation are well recognized to reduce stress and anxiety, which is critical for recovery and healing.
Supplements for healing
After your surgery, your body’s tissues and cells need extra nutrients and support to heal. Unless there is an ongoing issue with bleeding or the need for blood thinners, you may restart the herbs and supplements you stopped prior to your surgery. Once again, remember to let your doctor know.
Amino acids complex.
Post-surgical patients tend to exhibit accelerated protein turnover and synthesis, but the increased synthesis rates seem to be inadequate to support required amino acid levels. Therefore it’s ideal to take supplements in the form of an amino acid complex which can be bought at any healthfood store. The amino acids serve to enhance immune system function, support vital organ function and promote wound repair.
Essential fatty acids.
Just as increased protein consumption is required for surgical patients, essential fatty acids, vitamins and antioxidants are valuable micronutrients that are crucial for healing. Fatty Acids such as omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential for repair of cell walls after a stressful event. Great dietary sources of these are to be found in flaxseed, walnuts, eggs, fish, fish oils and marine sources such as mussels.
Silica, zinc, calcium and magnesium.
Silica helps heal skin, ligaments, and other tissues. Zinc is critical to the body’s immune system, DNA synthesis and repair processes. Magnesium is important for wound healing and calcium for bone growth and repair, and also calming to the nervous system.
The sun has long been known to accelerate wound healing quite dramatically, probably by producing vitamin D in the skin. Patients who are exposed to sunlight heal much faster than those who are not. Phototherapy can also help wounds heal quickly. Cellular DNA responds by speeding up the repair process.
Echinacea, garlic, goldenseal.
If you have any concerns regarding infections, whether they are wound or even chest infections, remember nature’s own antibiotics. Do not take goldenseal if pregnant as its chief constituent, berberine, has been reported to cause uterine contractions and increase levels of bilirubin. We have also seen evidence of immune boosting and infection busting effects with cinnamon, clove, oregano, tea tree and Melissa essential oils.
Siberian ginseng, gentian, astragalus, rhodiola.
Tonic and strengthening herbs such as these can help with stress, digestion and immune function. Also, the herb horsetail is known to support wound healing due to its high silica content, which can help strengthen tissues. On an essential oils front, frankincense oil is powerful for tissue support and celery seed oil works as a tonic for esophagus, upper GI, stomach, lower GI, and colon, soothing all the tissues as it proceeds along.
Acupuncture can help speed wound recovery.
Needling the tissues near the wound can boost local circulation and help eliminate scar tissue. Scars often run across the body’s meridians; that is, the channels of the body that spread qi (vital energy). Acupuncture techniques heal by stimulating the movement of blood and qi, which may be constricted by incisions and scars.
Acidophilus/probiotics and yogurt.
If you had to take a course of antibiotics due to your surgery, remember that the body has lower levels of all types of bacteria, including the beneficial bacteria produced in the colon, such as acidophilus. The effects of antibiotic use on intestinal flora can last for many weeks even after stopping the drug and lead to yeast overgrowth, chronic infections, poor digestion, fatigue or allergies. One of best ways to repopulate the good bacteria is to consume yogurt with probiotics. Probiotics are living organisms which, when ingested in large enough quantities, produce beneficial effects. It is important to choose the right probiotic supplement for you, preferably one that is enteric ally coated to make it through stomach acid intact, and one containing a prebiotic as well is even better.
Bromelain is an enzyme found in pineapples and is useful for reducing post-op swelling and inflammation. This can found in digestive enzyme supplements made from raw, whole foods and will accelerate healing by supporting the survival need, digestive enzymes. Quercetin is also an excellent anti-inflammatory and will assist recovery from surgery and traumatic injuries. Quercetin is found in capsule form in high level supplements, sourced from dependable sources. Curcumin, the active principle in turmeric oil, has been shown in clinical studies to reduce the inflammation that occurs following surgery and facilitate wound healing following surgery. You may have heard that turmeric needs to be bioactivated, and this is due to the complex chemistry within. Curcuminoids are present in turmeric oil, and Turmerols present in the turmeric spice, and these compounds can bioactivate each other. By using the oil and spice together, we see the best results by integrating the two.
Grape seed extract is an extremely powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals and promotes healthy circulation. Twenty times stronger than Vitamin C and 50 times stronger than Vitamin E, it has been shown to reduce the oedema (fluid retention) that occurs after surgery and improve the structural integrity of blood vessels.
A number of essential oils can be very helpful in your recovery on a physical, mental and emotional level. Helichrysum is thought to release energy, unblocking and regulating this essential energy in the body, and is known to reduce pain, work as an analgesic and regenerative. Lavender oil is highly regarded for its relaxing effect on the nervous system, with an overall balancing effect on the mind and the emotions. Sprinkling a few drops on your pillow before bed will help you sleep calmly and soundly. Chamomile essential oil has a soothing, calming effect which helps relieve cramps and spasms. It is very important to source essential oils which have been tested and are trusted. One such signal of this is the Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade symbol on the bottle. Another is the supplement facts box, added to the label by the US FDA.
B vitamins. It is recommended that patients take a high-potency B-Complex vitamin to help post-operative healing, boost the immune system and adrenals and increase energy production and nerve repair.
Vitamin C is an extremely important component for full post-operative recovery. The minimum required intake of vitamin C to maintain healthy bodily function is about 500mg to 1g per day following surgery. Vitamin C is required to make collagen, the connective tissue in the skin that helps healing and prevents blistering. It strengthens scar tissue, helps to strengthen the immune system and is critical to adrenal function.
Vitamin E is a wonderful wound healer and also works as an antioxidant, mopping up all the surgery-initiated production of large amounts of free radicals. Surgery also increases the likelihood of vitamin E depletion.
If you want to rub something on your post-surgical scar to help speed healing and minimize its appearance, there are a number of topical creams and ointments available in health food stores and pharmacies. The important ingredients to look for are vitamin E, zinc, calendula, St John’s Wort, aloe vera and papaya. These will not necessarily all be present in one cream, remember, so you may need to look around for just the right one.
There are two excellent proven therapies for infected wounds: Manuka honey and Manuka oil and tea tree oil. Manuka honey has extraordinary anti-inflammatory and healing properties which reach deeply into tissues as well as being able to draw out bacteria and dirt from tissues and wounds. Manuka oil carries much of the characteristics as the honey, as it is the oil from the flowers and is a powerful tool for protecting skin and wounds. Tea tree oil has strong antiseptic, antifungal and antimicrobial properties. It is a great anti-inflammatory which penetrates the skin easily and heals wounds faster by avoiding swelling.
The best essential oils for scars are lavender, frankincense, chamomile and helichrysum, which can be applied several times a day. Lavender is highly regarded for its ability to promote tissue regeneration and speed wound healing. Chamomile helps skin regeneration and calming for the nervous system. Helichrysum is well known for its strong skin healing properties. Frankincense is a powerful healing agent for skin and tissues. For reducing scar tissue once formed, a blend of Myrrh and Frankincense, Sandalwood and Ylang yang is recommended for use topically.