When healing's needed, seek out these immunity-boosting foods


My daughter is in the midst of three surgeries that will span five months. She seems much less anxious than I, but children often remain carefree while their parents worry. Before her first surgery, I wanted to make sure she was prepared emotionally and physically. There is only so much you can or should tell a 6-year-old about anesthesia, surgeons, operating rooms and recovery, so as advised by the experts, we kept it simple. 

In terms of her physical preparation, my daughter simply needed to warm up her immune system. Surgery increases inflammation and causes stress in the body, both of which a healthy immune system can reduce.

I wanted her to be as fit as possible so that it could heal the damaged tissue, build new tissue and fight off any infections that might come her way in a hospital. We also didn't want her ailing before surgery because any inkling of a cold meant we'd have to postpone.

Nutrition plays a meaningful role in how tissue repairs and rebuilds, as well as how the body fights off infection and regains energy. There are many nutrients that help with these tasks, including collagen, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Collagen and its amino acids are essential to healing because they build tissues such as skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, blood vessels, bones and more. Antioxidants remove the harmful free radicals from the bloodstream that can impair the immune system, and vitamins and minerals play specialized roles in healing.

Focus on these foods to help boost a child's immune system, whether for surgery or just to stay healthy all winter. The same goes for an adult. Just as cross-training keeps the body healthy by working many different muscles, eating a variety of these foods promotes health by benefiting many different parts of the body.

- Protein helps the body repair tissue and fight infection. Certain amino acids (arginine and glutamine) found in protein have been shown to increase surgical-wound healing and decrease bodywide inflammation. Eat lean meats, bone broth, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and avocado.

- Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that supports the immune response and helps to rebuild collagen. Choose citrus, leafy greens, bell peppers, broccoli and berries.

- Vitamin A boosts immunity, lowers the risk of infection and supports wound healing through collagen strength. Snack on carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, cantaloupe, salmon, eggs and grass-fed beef.

- Vitamin D plays a big part in immune health and can be found in milk, salmon and eggs, and from sunshine.

- B vitamins aid in tissue repair, immune support and cell metabolism. Make meals from dark leafy greens, whole grains, fish and chicken.

- Vitamin K aids the body with healthy blood clotting and is abundant in dark leafy green vegetables.

- Zinc helps to create and activate our immune system's white blood cells. It is important in collagen production and essential in the enzymatic reactions that transpire when wounds heal, and it is a protective antioxidant. Serve oysters, red meat, chicken, beans, spinach, nuts and pumpkin seeds.

- Selenium is a potent antioxidant that protects the immune system. Enjoy Brazil nuts, yellowfin tuna, halibut, grass-fed beef, turkey and chicken.

- Water keeps a body from becoming dehydrated. When patients are well-hydrated, they report less pain and nausea after surgery. It is easier for a nurse to insert an IV when veins are hydrated, and hydration can help prevent post-surgical constipation. Be aware that the sodium in sports drinks can cause the body to retain water, so stick to straight water.

Here are a few other recovery tricks we discovered thus far during our time in and out of doctor's offices. A patient may not feel hungry, especially during the first few days after surgery, so try packing the vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants into drinks such as smoothies and fresh vegetable juices, nurses at the hospital explained.

Skip the processed-sugar-filled beverages Ensure and Boost, and instead whip up a chocolate smoothie that delivers healthy fats, protein, vitamins and antioxidants. When the immune system is down or overworked, it is best to avoid sugar and other inflammatory foods that will further suppress the immune system and divert the body's attention from healing.

Cold foods such as fruits and vegetables often taste better to a recovering patient than warm or hot foods. And if the patient must take an antibiotic post-surgery, as my daughter did, probiotics can help support digestive health and repopulate beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Getting nutrients through healthy foods is a no-brainer, but consult your doctor before taking supplements, medications or herbs before or after surgery, as some can interfere with the surgical process and healing.

Before my daughter's first surgery, I stocked our fridge with colorful fruits, a variety of vegetables and lean proteins; I made smoothies (some she and her brothers rejected after one sip, while others they devoured); and I made bone broth for soups such as lentil, chicken tortilla and miso.

I feel in control when I am feeding my kids well. Who knows whether my efforts are partially responsible for her skipping back to school two weeks after surgery, and for keeping my boys from succumbing to the winter sicknesses surrounding them, but nevertheless, we are in great shape for whatever lies ahead.

- - -

Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington-based nutrition education company, and co-author of "The Super Food Cards," a collection of healthful recipes and advice.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Food

The Swiss consider the lobster. It feels pain, they decide.
The Swiss consider the lobster. It feels pain, they decide.

The government of Switzerland kicked off a debate this week when it ordered that lobsters and other crustaceans no longer be dropped alive into boiling water. Boiling them causes pain, the government said, and should be replaced by a more rapid method of death — such as stunning. Still, even the scientist who conducted the foundational research...
There's a big fight brewing over what pregnant women should eat
There's a big fight brewing over what pregnant women should eat

Many have seen someone throw a cold stare in the direction of a pregnant woman ordering a second glass of wine or, heaven forbid, smoking a cigarette. But with the list of potentially dangerous foods growing by the day, an expectant mother shouldn't be surprised if a stranger pipes up as she buys a box of macaroni and cheese. "Your doctor said...
How 50 Cent, rapper and actor, spends his Sundays
How 50 Cent, rapper and actor, spends his Sundays

Curtis James Jackson III, known to most people as 50 Cent, has yet to release his much discussed and delayed sixth album, “Street King Immortal.” But he has a good excuse for that. 50’s been busy. The rapper and actor, who has survived financial hardships and multiple gunshot wounds, is filming the fifth season of the Starz series...
Go red or white with wines to match an earthy turkey marsala
Go red or white with wines to match an earthy turkey marsala

Rich and complex, this dish could work well with a white or red. Here are two versions of pinot noir — from the Willamette Valley of Oregon and the Burgundy region of France — and a chardonnay from California’s Carneros region that will complement the dish’s earthy-savory notes, and also give it a little zip.  —&mdash...
Chicken pizza crust is an abomination that ruins both chicken and pizza
Chicken pizza crust is an abomination that ruins both chicken and pizza

A pizza crust is merely a template. It can be made of flour, or quinoa, or cauliflower, or ramen, or even, in a particular moment of madness that gripped America in 2015, hot dogs. And if you travel in certain circles, like those who follow a gluten-free or ketogenic diet, you may have noticed another innovation in pizza crust: chicken. It's not a...
More Stories