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Super Healing

You may not know it, but your body has an amazing ability to repair itself after serious illness or injury. A Harvard doc—and former cancer patient—reveals the secrets to tapping into your own powers of recovery.

Protein The building block of cell repair, protein gives you energy, as well. Generally, it’s a good idea to get about 15 to 20 percent of your calories from protein, though some conditions, such as burn recovery, may require more. If your body has undergone extensive cellular injury, talk to your doctor about what your protein needs are. Plant-based proteins such as beans and nuts have some advantages over animal proteins, especially if you don’t have much of an appetite. In addition to having cell-repairing properties, plant-based proteins provide phytochemicals (which can help with healing) and fiber.

Fruits and Vegetables Eating at least five servings each day of fruits and vegetables is one of the best things you can do for your body. A colorful array of fruits and vegetables provides a remarkable assortment of healing nutrients, including high amounts of vitamins and minerals that can promote physical recovery. Vitamin C, for instance, helps heal wounds, strengthen blood vessels, and ward off infection. Lycopenes—particularly powerful antioxidants that can boost immune function—are plentiful in tomatoes, apricots, guavas, watermelon, papayas, and pink grapefruit. As a general rule, dark-colored fruits and vegetables are richer than light-colored ones when it comes to phytochemicals and antioxidants.

Supplements While your doctor can best advise you on which supplements you may need, food is usually the best source for healing nutrients. We know that fruits and vegetables are extremely important in helping to prevent particular kinds of cancer, but we aren’t certain which ingredients are the most important. In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that taking too many antioxidant supplements (such as vitamins C and E) might actually depress rather than enhance your immune system. And while zinc, among other minerals, is critical to wound healing, taking too much of it can inhibit recovery and even lead to a copper deficiency. Foods such as beef, peanuts, and lentils are rich in zinc, and they’re the best way to get it.

The one supplement I routinely recommend is a multivitamin. This is a good idea even for healthy people, since it’s nearly impossible to eat a perfectly balanced diet every day. Consider taking a multivitamin that provides 100 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for essential nutrients established by the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies/Institute of Medicine, and ask your doctor whether you need calcium and vitamin D supplements, too.


If you’re like most people, you need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. During an illness you may need more rest than that, because some of your body’s healing processes require sleep to work. For example, the hormone melatonin is produced during sleep. This hormone is believed to boost your immune system and to help repair corrupted DNA. It may even play a role in preventing some forms of cancer. But if you’re tossing and turning at night, your melatonin levels can be diminished.

After David Rubin’s heart stopped on the airplane and he underwent surgery, he spent many weeks trying to get his sleep back to normal. In fact, up to seven out of every ten people who undergo heart surgery sleep poorly during the recovery period. This problem is of special concern because it can lead to rises in heart rate and blood pressure, both of which can cause unnecessary strain on the heart and put it at risk for further injury.

But if you’re ill and missing sleep because of discomfort, worry, or medications, the last thing you need is the added worry that sleeplessness is harming your recovery. That’s why it’s important to tackle the causes of your sleeplessness calmly and systematically. I have my patients write down how much sleep they are getting each night and what is interfering with it. Some causes might be pain, anxiety, hot flashes, or waking to use the bathroom. Then, one by one, we tackle these problems.

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