Sometimes surgery is necessary in an emergency situation as a life-saving act. Usually for these types of surgeries there is little or no time to prepare. Many surgeries however, are planned procedures, leaving ample time to preparation.
Nutrition plays a key role in pre-surgery prep and post-surgery recovery, but unfortunately far too many of us come to the surgical table at a disadvantage. The numbers vary, but on average 40% of 50 percent of people admitted to hospital for surgery are malnourished; that number is higher in patients who are already ill or clinically vulnerable, such as cancer patients.
Some estimates state that as many as 2 in 3 patients are malnourished. And malnourished surgical patients are at a greater risk of dying, having complications, and are more likely to have a prolonged hospital stay and recovery time, more frequent re-admissions and higher health care costs.
There’s no question that surgery, whether major or minor, is trauma to the body. Whenever there is tissue damage, there are multiple nutrients you can take to encourage healing and recovery both before and after surgery.
Overall, patients will require nutrients that:
- aid recovery
- reduce inflammation
- lower pain
- encourage wound healing and tissue repair
- support immune health
The following supplements can be applied both pre and post-surgery, with a few caveats:
- All supplements should be discontinued 2 weeks prior to surgery, except for the probiotic. Supplements can be commenced once the patient can eat solid food.
- We are all unique, and each patient requires a specific combination of supplemental nutrition depending on their health status and the surgery they are having. Consult a qualified health care practitioner to determine the appropriate regimen.
Therapeutic Supplements for Surgery Recovery
Broad Spectrum Multi Vitamin and Mineral
All known vitamins and minerals are essential before, during and after surgery either to promote healing, enhance immunity or both. By including a good quality multivitamin you cover the basic requirements of all essential nutrients. (It is essential that you use a good quality multi, as some multis on the market may be more harmful than beneficial).
Proteins are the building blocks of all our body tissues. They are used to repair and build damaged tissue.
In times of rapid growth (i.e. pregnancy, childhood, body-building and surgery) we require a greater amount of protein to avoid breaking down more tissue (catabolism) than is being built up (anabolism). In fact, under stressful conditions the body actually loses its ability to manufacture certain amino acids (the building blocks for protein).
Many surgical patients are under-consuming protein, having anywhere from 20% – 36% of what they actually need. Lack of adequate protein can reduce immune function and wound healing, as well as increase muscle loss and reduce muscle functionality.
The optimal pre-surgery protein amount is 1.2 – 2g per kilogram of body weight per day. Evidence shows that animal proteins contain more bioavailable amino acids and prompt more tissue building (anabolism) than plant-based proteins.
Wherever possible, I recommend purchasing the highest-quality animal proteins you can afford (poultry, meat, fish, or eggs). For most people I don’t recommend dairy or whey for protein-building purposes. If obtaining enough protein from food sources is challenging, I have an entire guide to protein powders that can help supplement protein needs pre and post surgery.
Every single cell in our body is surrounded by a double layer of fats. When we need new cells, we also increase the demand for fats.
The omega-3 fatty acids offer another very important feature for patients recovering from surgery: they are the precursors to anti-inflammatory compounds in the body.
The importance of getting inflammation under control post-surgery is two-fold. First, if we can reduce inflammation, pain can be controlled a lot more effectively. Second, by controlling inflammation, we bolster the healing process.
The most potent omega-3 fatty acids for decreasing inflammation are from fish oils. They offer the long EPA form of omega-3, which is easily converted into anti-inflammatory prostaglandins (PG3).
Evidence shows that fish oils:
- Improve surgical outcomes
- Reduce rates of infections, surgical complications, deaths and length of hospital stays
- Enhance immune function and decrease post-surgical inflammation
- Improve liver and pancreatic function in cancer patients
- Lowers the risk of embolisms and thrombosis in post-operative elderly patients
- Reduces length of stays and the risk of postoperative atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythm) in cardiac patients
- Lessens bleeding and the need for blood transfusions in cardiac surgery patients
- Decreases deaths from sepsis (a life-threatening and severe response to infection) in gastric surgery patients
Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant and helps to promote wound healing and collagen production. The most abundant protein in the body is collagen. It is the base protein for all of our connective tissue and bones. We need ample amounts of both Vitamin C and protein to make collagen, and surgery greatly enhances the need for collagen production.
Evidence indicates that Vitamin C:
- greatly reduces post-operative oxidative stress
- suppresses inflammation
- lowers the occurrence of post-surgery atrial fibrillation
- alleviates pain and lowers the need for opioids
Zinc is a key modulator of the immune system, impacting nearly all components of immunity to help protect against infections. It also helps to prevent inflammation and this impacts the risk of infection, too.
Zinc is involved in the production of collagen and is heavily involved in wound healing. It is a cofactor in cell repair and growth, and after surgery zinc is needed every step of the way in wound healing processes to reduce inflammation, prevent scarring and enhance repair. Studies show zinc deficiency is a common occurrence and can delay wound healing after surgery. Our bodies don’t hang onto excess amounts of zinc, so this is a nutrient we need to consume regularly.
The community of bacteria in our digestive tract, also called the microbiome, is crucial for immune health, digestive function and overall wellbeing.
One of the biggest dangers of being in a hospital is exposure to pathogens. Combine a pathogen with a compromised immune system (as seen with surgical trauma), and you’ve got the perfect combination for illness.
Common infections that people catch while in hospital are C. difficile and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). These are both notoriously difficult to treat and can be potentially life-threatening. Probiotics have shown to a be a solid strategy for reducing the spread and colonization of MRSA, and preventing C. difficile infections and its associated symptoms.
Other research has shown that probiotics can help lower the risk of infection and improve surgical outcomes after colorectal, gastrointestinal and other abdominal surgeries.
Prevention is the the most important strategy when going into a hospital. A simple course of probiotics can prevent unwanted sickness and subsequent slowing of the healing process. One of the best probiotics for this is called saccharomyces boulardii.
Also called ‘the sunshine vitamin‘, Vitamin D is critical to bone and dental health, calcium absorption and mineral balance, proper immune function, hormone production, cognition and mental health, and heart function.
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t getting enough Vitamin D and there is a body of evidence that Vitamin D deficiency impacts surgical outcomes.
As you might imagine, sufficient Vitamin D levels are particularly important for those having orthopedic surgeries. Studies indicate that there are high rates of deficiency in orthopedic patients. For example, in this study of foot and ankle patients 1 in 4.6 people were ‘grossly deficient’ in Vitamin D.
In this study on spinal fusion surgery, patients with Vitamin D deficiency had a lower success rate and reported greater back pain than those with normal levels. After hip surgery, patients who consistently took Vitamin D said they had a better quality of life.
(For more on Vitamin D, dosages, brands and its health benefits, visit the Vitamin D Hub – I update this site regularly with the latest research and information.)
Curcumin, one of the primary components in turmeric, is an antioxidant and potent anti-inflammatory agent that can relieve pain, improve IBS symptoms, help address inflammatory bowel diseases and prevent colon cancer.
Surgery is sometimes a necessary treatment, but there are many ways we can improve success of the surgery, decrease side-effects and speed healing. Again, I recommend you consult with a health practitioner about dosages and specific brands that can support your needs pre and post surgery.