My daughter is in the midst of three surgeries that will span five months. She seems much less anxious than I, but children often remain carefree while their parents worry. Before her first surgery, which was the marathon of the three, I wanted to make sure she was prepared emotionally and physically. There is only so much you can or should tell a 6-year-old about anesthesia, surgeons, operating rooms and recovery, so as advised by the experts, we kept it simple.
In terms of her physical preparation, I figured nobody runs a marathon without training, so why would someone enter an operating room without the equivalent endurance work. My daughter didn’t need to strap on running shoes and clock mileage to prepare, she simply needed to warm up her immune system. Surgery increases inflammation and causes stress in the body, both of which a healthy immune system can reduce.
I wanted her to be as fit as possible so that it could heal the damaged tissue, build new tissue and fight off any infections that might come her way in a hospital. We also didn’t want her ailing before surgery because any inkling of a cold meant we’d have to postpone.
Every surgery leaves some tissue that needs healing, even a procedure as small as a few stitches, to the more invasive ACL repairs many of my son’s friends are presently enduring, to much larger scale operations on major organs. Nutrition plays a meaningful role in how tissue repairs and rebuilds, as well as how the body fights off infection and regains energy. There are many nutrients that help with these tasks, including collagen, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Collagen and its amino acids are essential to healing because they build tissues such as skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, blood vessels, bones and more. Antioxidants remove the harmful free radicals from the bloodstream that can impair the immune system, and vitamins and minerals play specialized roles in healing.
Focus on these foods to help boost a child’s immune system, whether for surgery or just to stay healthy all winter. The same goes for an adult. Just as cross-training keeps the body healthy by working many different muscles, eating a variety of these foods promotes health by benefiting many different parts of the body.
- Protein helps the body repair tissue and fight infection. Certain amino acids (arginine and glutamine ) found in protein have been shown to increase surgical-wound healing and decrease bodywide inflammation. Eat lean meats, bone broth, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and avocado.
- Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that supports the immune response and helps to rebuild collagen. Choose citrus, leafy greens, bell peppers, broccoli and berries.
- Vitamin A boosts immunity, lowers the risk of infection and supports wound healing through collagen strength. Snack on carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, cantaloupe, salmon, eggs and grass-fed beef.
- Vitamin D plays a big part in immune health and can be found in milk, salmon and eggs, and from sunshine.
- B vitamins aid in tissue repair, immune support and cell metabolism. Make meals from dark leafy greens, whole grains, fish and chicken.
- Vitamin K aids the body with healthy blood clotting and is abundant in dark leafy green vegetables.
- Zinc helps to create and activate our immune system’s white blood cells. It is important in collagen production and essential in the enzymatic reactions that transpire when wounds heal, and it is a protective antioxidant . Serve oysters, red meat, chicken, beans, spinach, nuts and pumpkin seeds.
- Selenium is a potent antioxidant that protects the immune system. Enjoy Brazil nuts, yellowfin tuna, halibut, grass-fed beef, turkey and chicken.
- Water keeps a body from becoming dehydrated. When patients are well-hydrated, they report less pain and nausea after surgery. It is easier for a nurse to insert an IV when veins are hydrated, and hydration can help prevent post-surgical constipation. Be aware that the sodium in sports drinks can cause the body to retain water, so stick to straight water.
Here are a few other recovery tricks we discovered thus far during our time in and out of doctor’s offices. A patient may not feel hungry, especially during the first few days after surgery, so try packing the vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants into drinks such as smoothies and fresh vegetable juices, nurses at the hospital explained.
Skip the processed-sugar-filled beverages Ensure and Boost, and instead whip up a chocolate smoothie that delivers healthy fats, protein, vitamins and antioxidants. When the immune system is down or overworked, it is best to avoid sugar and other inflammatory foods that will further suppress the immune system and divert the body’s attention from healing.
Cold foods such as fruits and vegetables often taste better to a recovering patient than warm or hot foods. And if the patient must take an antibiotic post-surgery, as my daughter did, probiotics can help support digestive health and repopulate beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Getting nutrients through healthy foods is a no-brainer, but consult your doctor before taking supplements, medications or herbs before or after surgery, as some can interfere with the surgical process and healing.
I embarked on my own endurance routine before my daughter's first surgery. I stocked our fridge with colorful fruits, a variety of vegetables and lean proteins; I made smoothies (some she and her brothers rejected after one sip, while others they devoured); and I made bone broth for soups such as lentil, chicken tortilla and miso.
I feel in control when I am feeding my kids well. Who knows whether my efforts are partially responsible for her skipping back to school two weeks after surgery, and for keeping my boys from succumbing to the winter sicknesses surrounding them, but nevertheless, we are in great shape for whatever lies ahead.
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, November 30, 2017.