What I learned from going to see a nutritional therapist

I had to go back into hospital for some manipulation under anaesthetic due to the limitations on my movement from the scar tissue after my hip surgery. I had been dutifully massaging the scar tissue on the outside but came to realise just how much scar tissue there was on the inside that was reducing my range of movement and potentially one of the causes of pain. This led me into a journey to look at what I could do with nutrition to try to help my recovery.

So, for the first time ever, I went to see someone for dietary advice – with the specific question of whether I should be taking supplements to help my healing, and if so, which ones.

Layering the different aspects

I had previously thought that nutrition was mostly common sense, but I learned a lot from the way that Saffron (the nutritional therapist) layered what I needed:

  • Starting from a well balanced diet – with 7-a-day vegetables and fruit, plus a good split at each meal of complete proteins, good fats, and wholemeal carbohydrates as well as maintaining good hydration. She also specifically asked about how often we eat fish, and especially oily fish – as apparently the British are standardly very short of the long-chain omega 3 fatty acids. The ideal is apparently at least two portions of fish per week, with at least one oily fish.
  • Then looking at my age and lifestyle to get a sense of the hormonal pressures and tensions, as well as the aging factors on all of my tissues.
  • Whether I have had any blood tests to give information on nutrient shortages. These are very useful for things like anaemia (shortage of iron) and vitamin D shortages (common in Northern Europe, especially in winter or for people who stay inside a lot).
  • Checking for any food allergies or intolerances, or specific dietary requirements. I am very lucky with the robustness of my digestive system, so it means that I can draw on most foodstuffs – I just need to be organised enough to plan the right meals, shopping, and preparation! (I am sorry – I realise that some of this advice is not going to be so helpful for vegetarians, but a nutritional therapist will work with everyone’s dietary requirements).
  • Building from there to the current medications that I am taking – and talking me through the receptors that these medications block and hence what dietary changes and vitamin supplements may be needed to reflect this. For instance, the need for extra fibre for the constipation from painkillers, sulphur if taking ibuprofen, and extra B-vitamins (B6 and B12) when taking muscle-relaxants and antidepressants.
  • Then looking at the injury and the surgeries to understand what tissues are trying to heal – in my case covering bone, joints, cartilage, muscles, ligaments, and fascia, as well as scar tissue.  She talked about the importance of protein and zinc to help the muscles and ligaments repair. So a quality protein with each meal, and a wide range of pulses, grains, seeds, and nuts for the zinc. Getting nutrients to the bone and joint is more challenging – so I will come back to this theme below.
  • From the symptoms that I am still experiencing what extra may be needed. For instance, Magnesium is the mineral involved in relaxing muscles (whilst Calcium is involved in muscle contractions), so extra Magnesium can help with the muscle spasms and cramps. Magnesium-rich foods include spinach, avocado, seeds, nuts, yoghurt, banana and best of all: dark chocolate!
  • Then we talked about inflammatory foods, vs anti-inflammatory foods. Whilst inflammation is an important process in the initial weeks after the injury and surgeries, now months down the line there is a chance that swelling and inflammation is getting in the way of healing. Hence foods can help as one of the factors that can reduce inflammation. Overall, processed foods with high fat and processed sugars are inflammatory, plus fizzy drinks and nitrates, and nitrites in processed meats like smoked bacon and ham (you can buy nitrite-free versions), and of course, mild toxins like caffeine-based drinks and alcohol. The anti-inflammatory foods include tomatoes, leafy greens, olive oil, nuts, fruits, and oily fish.

Reducing scar tissue

As I said, reducing the scar tissue internally is a big goal for me, as I think that it will improve my mobility and potentially reduce the pain.  Saffron recommended proteolytic enzymes which are supposed to help minimise and reduce scar tissue after the surgeries.  These need to be taken away from food for best impact (either 30 mins before a meal, or an hour after a meal). Natural enzymatic foods include pineapple and papaya (yum!)

Rebuilding the bone

Of all of the injury and surgical aspects, we spent a lot of time talking about how to get blood flow and nutrients to all of the damaged tissues. Obviously, the bones are one of the most difficult to reach and the only access in the joint is via the synovial fluid. This points to the importance of movement in healing, as this only happens with movement that increases both blood flow to carry the nutrients around the body, and synovial fluid movement and regeneration.

The nutritional advice is to bring bone broths into my diet – using them instead of stock.  She counselled that it might seem weird to begin with but that you can get bones from butchers – they just give them away (I think that they normally assume they’re for a dog…) https://wholefully.com/bone-broth/

Normally your body will synthesise the necessary building blocks itself for bone synthesis and (to a certain extent) repair but it does get more difficult as we get older and we have less of the ‘whole’ ingredients in our diet such as animal skin (like on chicken etc), marrow, offal etc.  So this is where a supplement may be easier. 

Dealing with continued inflammation

Turmeric has become one of the anti-inflammatory supplements of choice for athletes. There is a lot of discussion about the format, and whether it is needed to be activated with black pepper or not. There is not a clear answer. The focus is probably best on getting one with sufficient amounts of the curcuminoids that create the reduction in inflammation. It needs to be taken with omega-3s for impact, which given the frequency really means using a good quality supplement.

More that we could have talked about

I have to admit that there was so much more that we could have talked about – and maybe I should go back in a few weeks once I see the impact of a few changes.

For instance, many people say that having had 7 general anaesthetics, rebuilding the gut fauna with a good probiotic is a priority to ensure good absorption of nutrients.

In summary

I came away with a much clearer view of what I should be doing in my base diet and the things that I should be eating more of and the things to avoid. I also finally answered the debate that I had been having with myself about supplements – and decided that the extra demands of this recovery phase meant that a few specific supplements would really help me.

But more than this, it was a real wake-up on the complexity of nutrition and how everything works together. It has been a great insight at this stage of injury, medication etc. But when life changes again, I think that there is a real value from getting expert insight on the body’s nutritional needs and how to meet them effectively. I really hope to be back to sport and when I start training would definitely go back again, plus at different physical lifestages as hormones change, or lifestyle changes. I had not previously realised the benefit that one can get and I would recommend it to others.

Imagining the Numskulls in the context of how bones heal

I don’t know whether you remember the Numskulls? This was a cartoon strip involving little people who lived inside the head of a person and did all of the hard work to make the person’s life function. 

I thought that they might be a helpful analogy for understanding why we really do need to give a broken bone the time to heal properly. So I created a couple of new characters:  

  • Mr(s) Preparation with a broom and all of the cleaning materials
  • Mr(s) Repair with a full tool-belt and DIY kit and team to help build the structure
  • Mr(s) Remodeller with the filler and sandpaper to make it fit in with the rest of the bone

Just like the healing of surgical cuts and tendons/ligaments/cartilage (covered in previous blogs) there are 3 phases, which I have added a little detail to below. Sadly all of this process goes a little slower when we are older (like most things!) – so worth adding a little extra time if you are older and ensuring that you pay even closer attention to the cues from your body.

  1. Reaction – with inflammation and initial tissue formation. The severed blood vessels in area of the break (or fracture – same thing) in the bone release blood into the area and this forms a clot very quickly (normally within a few hours). Then the first few days are characterised by a lot of inflammation as some of the body’s cells start to clear away the bone fragments and other damaged cells. In parallel, the new blood capillaries that have grown into the area bring the cells that start to build fibres to connect the bone and lay down the spongy bone structure.
  2. Repair – initially with a cartilage callus formation and then with bone: this stage starts after about 7-9 days and takes about 2 months to join the two ends together with a bony connection that has most of the bones original strength. During this time it hardens from being a fibrocartilaginous callus to a bony callus matrix, which evolves through two stages of bone hardening. This is often wider or thicker (so much so that you can feel this under the skin).
  3. Bone remodelling: The bony callus is remodelled over the next months (and often takes as long as 3-5 years) with the excess material on the outside and other locations being removed. There are also different layers of bone, so the remodelling gets back to the correct layering of these different types of bone – rather than the fast fix of the callus. Areas of well-healed breaks can remain uneven for years, but with 5-7% of bone mass being remodelled in the body each week, this will get fixed in time.

How is the fracture treated?

If you are lucky with your break, you have not got an infection in the fracture, and there is not the issue of the bone ends not coming together at all, or not coming together in the right way, or coming together too slowly.

These days it seems that many more people are having their fracture stabilised with surgical insertion of plates and screws (which generally stay in forever) and are being given a sling or protective boot, rather than the plaster-cast of old. The reasons for keeping away from the plaster-cast are often to maintain Range of Movement, but are not meant for you to keep doing your sport in the same way!

So what happens if you try to exercise with a broken bone?

Let’s go back to our friends the (new) Numskulls that I introduced at the start of this blog.

In those early days Mr(s) Preparation is out there working her socks off trying to clean everything up ready for Mr(s) Repair to get going. But if the area keeps getting moved, vibrated or jogged more bit of stuff keep falling off and Mr(s) Preparation keeps getting called back and getting in the way of Mr(s) Repair.

Likewise, Mr(s) Repair is trying to build out a new structure into the gap. This job takes weeks (like most building jobs!) and happens once the worst of the swelling and inflammation has passed. But if the area keeps getting moved, vibrated or jogged the bits fall off – meaning the work has to be done over and Mr(s) Preparation has to keep coming back and cleaning up again, rather than sitting down and having a cup of tea!

So activities like running and strong movement of the area lead to delay and having to repeat the healing

But there are a number of things that you can do to really help the healing:

  1. Good nutrition: the body needs a lot of nutrients to heal the bone, so ensuring that you have a good balanced diet with enough protein, and key vitamins (C and D) and minerals (Calcium, Iron, Magnesium and Phosphorus)
  2. Sleep well at night: a lot of healing happens in the deep sleep phases, so ensuring that you are getting your head down for a good uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep (or more if your body feels that it needs it) will be a big help.
  3. Avoid aspirin and ibuprofen, if you can: there can be a lot of pain, especially in the early inflammation stages, but the problem is that aspirin and ibuprofen delay the body’s natural healing process and therefore delay progress. So the sooner that you can stop taking them, the better. (There are some other medications that have impact – so worth checking with your Doctor, if you are taking any medication)
  4. Avoid smoking and limit alcohol intake
  5. Don’t feel tempted to test your broken bone whilst it is healing! Do keep it immobilised and work out how to take away risks in your day-to-day activities that could lead to a knock to the area. If you have been told that you must not be weight-bearing, then respect that and get shower chairs, scooting devices, crutches etc that enable you to do this all of the time (cycling gloves are brilliant for protecting your hands If you are on crutches).

So no sport at all?

You should review this with your medical team and coach. Depending on the fracture and the treatment, there may be some things that you can safely do that keep your strength and give you a cardiovascular workout whilst keeping the fracture immobilised. I have seen some really clever ideas that are safe and keep things going.

But if that is not possible? This is 6-8 weeks of your life. Add up how many weeks you have been alive (52 weeks per year!) – and this 6-8 weeks will be a very small percentage. Be kind to your body: let those Numskulls go their job without having to keep going back and repeating it, because you knocked down their hard work!

Good luck and keep smiling!

How do you heal after invasive surgery?

Just recently I had two athletes each bemoaning the fact that they were not successful in returning to training within 2 weeks of surgery. They had both had abdominal incisions and were having issues with the wound not sealing and a lot of pain in the surgical area.

So how soon can you start back to training?

I thought that it would be useful to understand the hard work that our bodies are doing in this time. The hard part of today’s ‘instant-everything’ world is that we are not giving ourselves a chance! But we can help ourselves by looking after the wound and the healing process.

The healing process is 4 stages – and last in total over a year and possibly two years!

The four stages of healing happen in an organised and sequential way – but they can progress better or worse, depending on factors associated with you (both as a patient and how you treat the wound). The second part of this blog will look at the factors for you to promote better healing.

Stage 1 seals the wound and is really quick!

The hemostasis phase closes the wound with a clot (usually in a matter of minutes/hours). Various components of the blood combine to create a mesh that forms a clot that adheres to the wound and closes it off. You need to protect that. There used to be a school of thought that you had to let the wound be open to air for the scab to harden properly, but the new hospital dressings allow it to do this without removing the dressing – so you will probably be advised by the hospital to keep the same dressing on for some time, in order to stop infection entering the area.

Stage 2 prepares the wound area for the growth of new tissue

The defensive/inflammatory phase focuses on destroying bacteria in the area and removing any debris, such that the wound area is all set for the growth of the new skin and tissue. White blood cells and microphages in the blood do this. It normally takes around 6 days and you can often see and/or feel swelling, redness of the skin, heat and pain. Obviously if the area keeps getting new infections into the area, then this period is extended. During this time it is absolutely critical to keep the scab dry – so you will need to find some good waterproof dressings or a different way of staying clean (wrapping cling-film over the area does not work!)

Stage 3 is the progressive filling and covering the wound, starting from the outside edges

The proliferative phase follows three distinct stages: 1) filling the wound, 2) contraction of the wound margins, and 3) covering the wound with new skin. You probably remember watching this as a child, as the new, pink skin forms from the shallowest and outside parts of the wound and eventually closes it up. It is a very clever process that remakes the blood vessels, tighten the open wound (often giving an uncomfortable feeling of tightness for a time) and then the skins cells work their way up from inside the body to form the boundary layer. This can all last anywhere from 4 to 24 days, and during this time dissolvable stitches on the surface should drop out. In order to protect the wound, it is still really important to keep the scan dry in order to protect it from damage, although to the latter end of the timeframe many nurses say that you can have a quick shower, but must keep away from baths and any kind of swimming pool/hot tubs etc until it is all completely sealed. Also across this time, a lot of nurses suggest gently putting Vaseline or moisturiser on the scab, in order to keep it flexible and stop it cracking and getting damaged.

Stage 4 is where the scar gains strength and flexibility

The maturation phase is where the tissues reorganise and remodel as they mature. During the proliferative phase the tissue gets laid down haphazardly, whereas the uninjured tissue is all lined up in a standard structure. Over the usual replacement of the layers of skin, this slowly gets addressed and as it does the way that the scar tissue moves stops being a big block and starts to move with the body and has strength. This phase can vary from 21 days to 2 years, and you can help it by gently massaging the wound and encouraging the tissue to realign. Also many nurses recommend rubbing in Bio Oil or a Vitamin E cream, which seems to visibly help the scar to fade in colour and settle back to flat with the skin.

So it all takes time

Back to our athletes – getting the wound to seal and be ready for the forces of movement in the area of the surgery is probably around 6 weeks, and within this time nurturing the area to maximise the healing will really help.

Things that you can do to encourage faster healing

There are many factors that mean that people heal differently. Some of these are inherent to you as the patient. Age has a direct effect on how fast we heal – as we get older, the skin is thinner and less elastic so we need to allow it more time. There are also factors associated with your body make-up in terms of how your body lays down the scar tissue, which you cannot change.

However, there are a number of things that you can look after.

  • What you eat is really important – You need to ensure that you are getting some good protein at each meal, and foods that are high in zinc, copper, vitamins A, B and C can also help the healing,
  • Good hydration really helps too, as this has a direct effect on the blood stream.
  • A good overnight sleep is key. The body’s repair mechanisms work hardest during the deep sleep cycle – so do make sure that you are getting your head down and getting a good quality 8 hour overnight sleep (or more if your body needs it)
  • Reducing inflammation – many people swear by arnica. Obviously the cream cannot be applied to open wounds, but I found major reduction in the bruising around where the cannula was inserted by using the cream on the adjacent skin areas. And you can buy oral arnica from homeopathic providers such as https://www.helios.co.uk/ and it generally does not have any interactions with other medication that you may be taking (although check with your own Doctor and/or surgeon)
  • Managing your weight – skin heals better when it has the blood supply into the tissue, which muscles give but fat does not. This helps the supply of all of the agents for the different phases of healing, as well as oxygenating the wound area.
  • Keeping the wound area dry and clean – this is so important for the right conditions for wound healing. This can be hard to do, but is a really significant factor. Try to get the right balance between waterproof dressings to stop external moisture and getting it open to the air if it is in an area of your body that stays damp and then covering it again.
  • Medication can slow healing down – some medications slow healing by impairing the inflammatory response, leading to a reduction in the collagen production which is key, especially in the 3rd and 4th stages. Treatments such as chemotherapy affect the new cells, so have a strong impact on healing, Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) that you may commonly take as over-the counter drugs can also slow down the process. Obviously you are likely to need medication after major surgery, but it will help if you can keep it to the minimum that you need and bear in mind that you may need to allow longer for your body to heal. 

So best of luck with your healing – do nurture your amazing body to do its thing! And after a major surgery taking a good month or 6 weeks off training that involves the juddering of impact, or the strain of strength training could be well worth it. It is also worth saying that there are other factors from surgery – for instance, anecdotally many Doctors say that it takes around 6 months for the body to completely recover from a general anaesthetic.