Eating to Heal
What you put on your plate can affect your ability to bounce back after trauma.
November / December 2009
Chiropractor Tim Ramirez barely noticed the utility truck that broadsided his SUV, totaling the vehicle and leaving him with four ruptured discs and torn rotator cuff muscles.
“Doctors told me I needed immediate surgery and that I’d never be the same,” says Ramirez, founder of Pacifica Wellness in Costa Mesa, California. He wanted to avoid surgery at all costs. “I realized I would need to apply everything I knew to help myself heal, of which nutrition would play an essential role,” Ramirez says.
As part of his recovery plan, Ramirez eliminated all sugar and white flour from his diet. Instead he focused on fresh fish (for its protein and anti-inflammatory properties) and berries (for their antioxidants). He also ate a lot of organic fruits and vegetables, especially such cruciferous types as broccoli and cabbage, along with high-quality supplements. Ramirez also devised a regimen of stretching and strengthening.
Ramirez walked into work two weeks after the accident and now, a year later, feels he has nearly returned to health. “I took care of myself from the inside out without ending up addicted to drugs,” he says. “After all, there are no side effects from ahi tuna.”
While Ramirez admits his approach may not work for everyone, he believes his adherence to a strict dietary regimen helped get him back on his feet faster. Current research backs him up.
Cooling Off Inflammation
It takes only minutes after an injury for your body to react. “An injury alerts your immune system to send white blood cells to the site to heal the damage,” says Mary Shackelton, MPH, ND, a naturopathic physician who practices in Boulder, Colorado. The resulting inflammation and swelling is a natural part of the healing process, but excessive inflammation may actually impair healing and cause unnecessary pain.
Several nutrients act as effective anti-inflammatories. One is bromelain, an enzyme found in the fruit and stem of the pineapple, which has been found to reduce swelling, bruising and pain (Alternative Medical Review 11/03). It acts as a digestive aid when taken with food and therefore works most effectively as an anti-inflammatory when taken on an empty stomach between meals; Shackelton recommends taking 500 milligrams four times a day. (Always speak to a practitioner when designing an injury-recovery supplementation plan. It’s especially important if you take medications or remedies of any kind; for example, bromelain enhances the absorption of antibiotics and both prescription and herbal sedatives.)
If you’re a fan of Indian food, you’re probably familiar with the yellow spice turmeric and its main component, curcumin. Curcumin is another natural anti-inflammatory that also acts as a powerful antioxidant (Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology 5/19/09). You’ll need more than what you’d get in the average recipe, though. “Curcuminoids are the active component in curcumin,” says Shackelton. “So look for curcumin supplements high in curcuminoids.” She recommends 300 mg three times a day and says, “You should see a 70% improvement [reduced swelling and pain] within 48 hours, depending on the injury.”
Salmon may be the most flavorful anti-inflammatory, thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids it contains. Omega-3s can be found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel as well as in dark leafy greens, flax seed and some vegetable oils. Shackelton suggests taking 1,000 mg of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and 500 mg of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These omega-3s, found in fish oil, help promote proper wound healing (Wound Repair and Regeneration 5-6/08).
“Aside from fish oils, be sure to get enough zinc and vitamin D, which are also essential for healing,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, a noted chronic fatigue researcher and author. He recommends white willow bark for pain relief. “And include an abundance of antioxidant-rich berries in your diet along with fresh vegetables,” adds Teitelbaum. Cherries are noted for their anti-inflammatory properties.
While some foods help speed healing, others can slow it down. “The body is always trying to balance itself,” says Amy Day, ND, of San Francisco Natural Medicine. “A diet high in animal fat can also contribute to a pro-inflammatory process.” Animal fats contain arachidonic acid, which promotes inflammation.
Replace pro-inflammatory omega-6 vegetable oils such as peanut oil with anti-inflammatory oils such as flax seed oil. Limit or avoid alcohol, sugar, white flour and caffeine, which can contribute to inflammation.
Moderate amounts of lean protein help repair damaged tissue. “Protein shakes with branched chain amino acids [leucine, isoleucine and valine] are easiest to absorb,” Days says. But too much protein can instigate inflammation, so use caution. “If you have cartilage or ligament damage, make a homemade bone broth,” says Day. “Use the bones from a chicken and simmer it for eight hours to pull out the nutrients. You can’t go wrong with chicken soup.”
If you’re recovering from an injury, proper nutrition can get you on your feet faster.
Dousing the Fires of Inflammation
While inflammation can help you heal from an injury over the short term, this immune-system reaction can harm health if it becomes chronic. Alternative healthcare practitioners use a number of agents to help cool the inflammatory flame, including: