I can still feel the overwhelming sadness and pure heartache of that day. Every time I looked at my children, I wondered how many weeks, months, or years I’d be able to see their faces.
The surgery and chemotherapy were grueling, as I knew they would be. I also knew that the end of treatment would be only the beginning of getting well. I had helped many people with all kinds of illnesses heal; now I needed to help myself.
Like most people struggling with serious illness, I lost my appetite, slept fitfully, and became less physically active. From a human standpoint, this was perfectly understandable. But from the standpoint of a body trying to heal, it was a disaster.
Skipping meals saves time in the short run. But in the long run, it can delay healing and hinder your return to health.
I call inadequate nutrition, lousy sleep patterns, and physical deconditioning the Triple Threat to optimal healing. These three factors affect almost everyone who has had a serious injury or illness—including chronic-pain conditions such as arthritis or fibromyalgia—and they work synergistically to interfere with your body’s natural healing processes, creating an environment for mediocre healing at best and unnecessary disability at worst.
I knew the Triple Threat was keeping me from healing optimally, and I needed a plan to combat it. The answer seemed simple: eat better, sleep better, and exercise. But these goals don’t seem so simple when you’re weakened, depressed, and isolated by the million worries on your mind. For me, the trick came from having learned not only what to do but why and how it all works to accelerate healing in the body. When I acted on this knowledge, I got results, and I know you can, too.
STEP ONE: DON'T NEGLECT NUTRITION
We often read about how to eat to avoid disease. But once you get sick, there are also foods that will help you get better. For example, skin and bones need vitamin A to repair themselves. Vitamin C is crucial to the formation of collagen, the main protein of our connective tissue. Bromelain, a mixture of enzymes found in fresh pineapple, reduces swelling, bruising, and pain, and it improves healing time following trauma or surgery. And adequate protein is absolutely essential for optimal healing.
When people are healthy, they often get away with bad dietary habits. Skipping breakfast and using coffee as a pick-me-up might have worked fine for you in the past. But if you are ill or injured, these timesavers will actually cost you time, because your recovery won’t go as quickly as it might otherwise.
I tell my patients to eat five times a day: three small- to medium-size meals and two nutritious snacks. This helps prevent severe drops in blood sugar levels that can leave you fatigued. A registered dietitian can be helpful for patients who need to gain or lose weight, or who have other specific needs.
So what are the best eating habits for optimal healing? Some will sound familiar, while others may surprise you.
Carbohydrates These compounds provide ready energy, and they are crucial to a healing diet. All carbohydrates are broken down into sugar when digested, but complex carbohydrates such as nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains break down more slowly than simple carbohydrates such as sugar and white bread. The slower a carb breaks down, the less likely it is to cause a blood sugar spike. Since these spikes can spark inflammation and lead to damage on a cellular level, you should avoid them always, but especially when you’re healing. A measure called the glycemic index indicates how fast the body converts a food into sugar. As much as possible, stick with complex carbohydrates and other foods that have a relatively low glycemic index (below 55). One reliable source of this information is www.glycemicindex.com.