Our bodies have natural healing methods, designed to see us through major or minor ordeals, from root canal to triple bypass, and the better we understand how these mechanisms function, the more we can get out of them. They're known to minimise pain, accelerate the healing process and prevent post-surgical operations – a worthy case for "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure".
What the experts say
What we eat is fundamental to our health. Dr Neal Barnard, co-author of the book Foods That Fight Pain: Revolutionary New Strategies for Maximum Pain Relief recommends a vegan diet pre- and post surgery, saying that because "it's loaded with antioxidants, it helps the body respond to the stresses of surgery and recovery".
He explains that by omitting meat and dairy products, you eliminate both animal proteins, which tax the kidneys and compromise calcium balance. He also raises the point that animal fats raise blood pressure and impair circulation.
Eating at least three servings of vegetables and fruit (each) a day, especially broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes and carrots, facilitates the body's recovery process. The fibre in whole grains helps to keep the blood from clotting, and because anesthesia is essentially the paralysis of the body, there's often the associated risk of a blood clot moving into the heart or lungs.
Barnard emphasises the elimination of dairy products from the diet, especially after the surgical procedure. His findings, in conjunction with those of the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, showed that people recovering from digestive tract surgery had a slower recovery time if they consumed dairy products than those who didn't.
Dairy products are also associated with bloating, gas, cramps and diarrhoea in lactose-intolerant people.
Take a multivitamin
Taking vitamins and minerals also aids in the body's ability to cope with recovery, and in The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book, by Shari Lieberman, a high-dosage multivitamin is recommended to be taken 4 - 6 times a day.
Also, 2000mg of vitamin C, taken up to three times a day, as well as a zinc supplement, is recommended. There are other natural supplements, like bromelain (a pineapple derivative), that helps with bruising and swelling.
Relaxation techniques are also invaluable as post-surgery aids. These include visualisation, breathing exercises, self-hypnosis, or anything that can help towards becoming calm and centered and focused.
Take the time to form a relationship with your surgeon, because anxiety affects one's vital signs, and having established trust can do a great deal for the bodys ability to be relaxed, and therefore more receptive to a lower dose of anaesthesia.
Many people nowadays turn to acupuncture, an ancient Asian technique, to help reduce stress before surgery. Acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins, a natural painkiller, and whereas pharmaceutical painkillers tend to tax the body, acupuncture not only reduces the amount of painkiller needed, but also helps the body to "detox" more quickly.
It's also known to help circulation, and because surgery mostly involves incision through the circulatory system, acupuncture can help the tissue and blood vessels recover, and can even help prevent the development of scar tissue.
There are also many herbs that help post-operative healing, because they affect connective tissue. K.P. Khalsa, a dietician and co-author of the book "Herbal Defense", recommends four tablespoons a day of turmeric, mixed into a paste with water, honey and molasses, to be taken orally several times a day.
Gotu kola helps bones, skin and cartilage heal, and can be taken in a tea form once daily. Another good tissue healer is comfrey, used in a poultice over an incision. Everything that's being written about green tea these days is also true - it contains polyphenols, and this can slow bleeding and promote healing.
Homeopathy, considered a healing art, works off the principle that it doesn't cure, but rather stimulates the body to heal itself. It is based on miniscule doses of plants, minerals and even sometimes animal products, that activate the body's own healing capabilities, and can profoundly speed up healing for a surgery patient.
Aconite is one of the most commonly used remedies, and Arnica is highly recommended for post-operative care, as it deals with injuries to the soft tissues and reduces swelling markedly. Some doctors might object to a patient using herbs internally prior to surgery, saying that either they will not work, or they may counteract the doctor's programme.
If this is the case, you can stop taking them up to three days prior to surgery, and then resume post-operatively. Certain herbs do thin the blood, or can intensify the action of pharmaceuticals, so discussing your plan of action with your doctor is very important.
Managing the levels of energy during the recovery period, and giving your body the rest it needs from work and anxiety, can have a major effect on the recovery rate after surgery. So, stay in tune to your body's needs and you'll find yourself feeling better that much sooner.
(Health24, updated July 2009)