I'm scheduled for abdominal surgery in a couple of weeks and I'm told there will be a 6-8 week recovery period. Do you have any natural tips for a quick recovery from surgery? Thanks, Raewyn.

Hi Raewyn, thanks for your question.

Start by laying the groundwork for a quick recovery in the weeks before the surgery. Keep your diet simple, with plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits and quality protein sources such as lean meat, fish, eggs and legumes.

The immune system plays a key role in recovery from surgery, and a diet high in sugar and alcohol detracts from its ability to successfully repair damage and keep the body protected from infection. Therefore, minimise your intake of alcohol and processed foods high in sugar and artificial additives and preservatives.

The micronutrients vitamin C and zinc are particularly important for tissue repair post-surgery, since they are required for protein synthesis and collagen formation. Food sources of zinc include red meat, eggs, shellfish such as oysters, oats, sardines, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. Vitamin C is readily found in oranges, grapefruit, capsicum, green leafy vegetables, and those of the Brassica family such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Supplementing these minerals for a short period of time to speed healing may also be beneficial, if your dietary intake of them will be limited for any reason. When taken at the low therapeutic dosage range, supplementing prior to surgery has not been shown to be an issue.

Advertisement

If the surgery involves anaesthesia it may be beneficial to utilise the wonderful herb St Mary's Thistle (Silybum marianum). Whilee some people tolerate anaesthesia well, others describe a "foggy" feeling that may last for several weeks after its administration. St Mary's Thistle can be used to protect the liver from drug-induced damage associated with anaesthesia. It has been shown to improve liver enzymes and reduce markers of cellular damage (oxidative stress) when used in the three days prior to surgery.

Check with your leading healthcare professional or registered Medical Herbalist if you're unsure about any pre-surgery measures.

After surgery, therapeutic herbs can help to promote mending of cut tissue such as muscles, tendons, connective tissue and nerve fibres. Key plants to consider are:

Arnica (Arnica montana): One of the most well known healing plants, Arnica is anti-inflammatory and pain relieving. It stimulates circulation to the injured area, re-absorbing internal bleeding and reducing swelling. It is therefore excellent after surgery to relieve trauma, inflammation and pain. It is most commonly available as a homeopathic preparation, but medical doctors and herbalists have been using the actual plant and documenting the results for centuries. It is most commonly applied topically. Traditionally, it is also used internally as a fresh-plant tincture to speed up healing from within. It was used extensively in medical care during World War I and World War II. As it is a strongly acting plant, it is administered at a low dose combined with other tissue healing plants.

St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is the best plant for any type of physiological trauma to the nerves that results in pain and inflammation. Its analgesic and anti-inflammatory actions make it excellent after surgery to accelerate healing and it is specific for regenerating nerve tissue. Standardised pharmaceutical-type pills with a level of more than 4mg of hyperforin cannot be used alongside some pharmaceutical medications, so check the label and seek professional advice before using one of these. Traditional preparations such as medicinal teas and tinctures (an oral liquid) are naturally low in the active constituent hyperforin (considerably less than 4mg), and have not shown to produce interactions. This is well documented in the scientific literature, and international regulators, including Medsafe, have acknowledged this fact. Used externally, St. John's Wort oil is an excellent scar healer and helps in the epithelial reconstruction of surgical wounds and with numbness and pain around the scar. Studies show it helps to accelerate recovery from surgical incisions.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a cell proliferant (helps to build new healthy tissue) and is often nicknamed the "scar healer" due to its outstanding tissue mending actions. It is high in minerals and the skin healing active constituent allantoin, that is scientifically proven to stimulate new tissue growth, supporting the healing of skin lesions with little or no scarring. Comfrey is therefore very beneficial in wounds, scars and after surgery. Like Arnica, it is most frequently used as a topical application, but can be used internally if professionally and expertly prepared.

Most herbal preparations should only be applied to closed wounds. However, you can apply them on the surrounding tissues. Best results are seen with regular daily application over several weeks until complete healing is achieved.

Good luck for your surgery and all the best for a speedy recovery. Please remember to talk to your leading healthcare professional about what might be right for you or if you have concerns about your recovery.

References
Altaei, T. (2012). Protective effect of silymarin during coronary artery bypass grafting surgery. Experimental & Clinical Cardiology, 17(1), 34-38. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3383366/
Lavagna, S. M., Secci, D., Chimenti, P., Bonsignore, L., Ottaviani, A., & Bizzarri, B. (2001). Efficacy of Hypericum and Calendula oils in the epithelial reconstruction of surgical wounds in childbirth with caesarean section. Farmaco, 56(5-7), 451-453.

Mueller, S. C., Uehleke, B., Woehling, H., Petzsch, M., Majcher-Peszynska, J., Hehl, E. M., . . . Drewelow, B. (2004). Effect of St John's wort dose and preparations on the pharmacokinetics of digoxin. Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, (6), 546-557. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/o/cochrane/clcentral/articles/418/CN-00468418/frame.html doi:10.1016/j.clpt.2004.01.014

Sarkar, D., Phil, D., Jung, M., & Wang, H. (2015). Alcohol and the Immune System. Alcohol Research, 37(2), 153-155.
Turina, M., Fry, D., & Polk, H. (2005). Acute hyperglycemia and the innate immune system: clinical, cellular, and molecular aspects. Critical Care Medicine, 33(7), 1624-33.