Can Diet Really Help Speed Up Injury Recovery?
If only there were a diet that can heal our injuries and get us back to running right away. Well, there may not be a specific diet for that, but there has been recent research on the benefits of certain foods for tissue healing. Diet has been used as a part of recovery plans for people with cancer and other chronic diseases. As far as for orthopedic conditions, diet can play a role in macronutrient balance and keeping vitamin and mineral levels stable, both which can have an effect on an injured body. Injured tissue goes through stages during the healing process. In order to find the right foods for your injury, it all depends on the stage you are in.
Many athletes worry they may gain weight when injured. This may be true as activity levels drop significantly during this time, which means fewer calories burned every day. The key to avoiding this situation is to cut portions to match your calorie burn. This is much easier said than done as athletes tend to have a larger than average appetite, which unfortunately does not decrease immediately after an injury occurs. It usually takes a few weeks for the body to realize it is not burning as many calories and adjusts your appetite accordingly. The best way to work around this is to eat more foods with protein and fiber, which will keep you full for longer on the same quantity.
Stages of Healing
The term “inflammation” may sound negative, but it is actually the body’s natural response to injury and necessary in order for healing. This is when blood vessels constrict so that clots can form to stop internal bleeding. Once the bleeding stops, then the vessels begin dilating, allowing nutrients to flow to the damaged tissue. During this initial stage is when you will experience physical inflammation, along with redness, pain, and possible temperature and color changes. Rehabilitation includes anti-inflammatory procedures such as icing, elevation, compression, and resting, as well as taking medication. An anti-inflammatory diet can complement these measures. This does not have to be a specific diet by any means, but instead adding in certain foods that fight inflammation in the body in every meal is an easy approach. The following are excellent choices:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Olive oil
It is also a good idea to cut out foods that are known to contribute to producing inflammation in the body such as processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and fried foods.
Once the damaged tissue has received sufficient nutrients, new, healthy tissue begins forming, which is termed ‘granulation’. Collagen and other strengtheners work to create new blood vessels and a temporary tissue that replaces the damaged one. Since you will begin to be more active at this stage and metabolism increases naturally to help aid the healing process, more calories are required during this stage. It is important to include a good amount of protein since this macronutrient works to maintain healthy muscle. Eating unprocessed carbs and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables will assure you are getting enough of the vitamins and minerals your healing tissue needs. If not, including supplements such as vitamin A and C, zinc, and glutamine is useful.
This stage is the last stage and is considered the remodeling phase of healing. This is when a stronger tissue replaces the temporary healed one and blood vessels decrease in the area since not as many are required to heal at this point. Although athletes can gradually return to their sport during this time, it can take up to two years for the injured area to heal completely. Even after this time, many healed tissues remain as much as 20% weaker than they were initially. This means athletes must continue their rehabilitation in a way that includes continued strengthening and protecting the area. Working with a physical therapist is helpful during this time to develop a strengthening program for the long term.
Diet during this stage can resume to your previous one but should include a healthy amount of protein to help keep your muscles strong. This will help protect joints if trauma ever occurs again and limit the risk of a full-blown injury. It is always a good idea for athletes to include the anti-inflammatory foods mentioned above and limit those that can make any inflammation worse. Diet does not necessarily contribute to injury risk but studies have shown that joints and muscles respond better to healing when the body is supplied with the proper nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. Since athletes burn much more energy than non-athletes, they require a sufficient amount of calories from healthy food to assure their bodies have a necessary supply of nutrients at all times.