The Cutting Edge
After surgery, herbs can support your path to recovery

By Patti Woods

By now, you've probably heard the warnings: Before surgery, tell your doctor about any medicines, vitamins, herbs, or other supplements you normally take because they can react negatively with prescription medications and anesthesia. This is sage advice, but what about herbs that are beneficial in the context of surgery? Is there such a thing as an herb that can speed healing? Yes, say many studies. In some instances, going natural may be the best path to rapid recovery.

Herbs For Pain
When a patient contemplates surgery, pain is often the worst fear. Luckily, a pretty yellow flower can help. Arnica (Arnica montana) grows in the mountains of Europe and Siberia and has been used as a topical folk remedy for centuries. Recent studies suggest that this plant's healing powers are more than just anecdotal. In a study conducted at Queen Victoria Hospital in England, 37 patients undergoing carpal tunnel surgery either took homeopathic arnica tablets and applied herbal arnica ointment or took placebos. After two weeks of treatment, the arnica group showed a greater reduction in pain than the placebo group (Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2002, vol. 8, no. 2). Homeopathic arnica tablets (containing minute quantities of arnica), creams, and gels are available at natural products stores or pharmacies—just make sure to follow the package instructions because arnica, when taken internally, can be poisonous.

Herbs For Nausea
Anesthesia, other drugs, and the simple invasiveness of surgery can all cause queasiness. This disturbance, in turn, can keep patients from eating, thereby weakening immune systems and slowing recovery. Natural ways exist to help quell a queasy stomach, according to Judith Petry, MD, FACS, a consultant in complementary and alternative medicine and holistic healing. "Specific herbs, such as ginger, have been researched in the immediate and post-op periods and appear to be safe," says Petry. In one study, researchers looked at 60 women who had major gynecological surgery (Anaesthesia, 1990, vol. 45, no. 8). Those who received gingerroot (Zingiber officinale) reported significantly fewer bouts of nausea than those taking a placebo. Subjects taking either gingerroot or a pharmaceutical antinausea remedy had similar incidences of nausea. A second study conducted three years later yielded comparable results (Anaesthesia, 1993, vol. 48, no. 8). To tame your tummy troubles, try taking two capsules (500 mg each) every few hours as needed.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remedies can also help. According to this ancient system of healing, illness occurs when the body is imbalanced or in disharmony. A TCM practitioner prescribes an herb or a blend of herbs to combat the problem and to restore balance. To treat nausea, try one of two TCM herbs. Huo xiang, better known in the West as patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), is used to relieve nausea, vomiting, and reduced appetite. Take 3 to 10 grams per day. Another herb with similar healing properties is cang zhu (Atractylodes lancea). Take 3 to 10 grams a day to ease stomach problems. Before starting treatment, however, consult a professional TCM practitioner who can advise you on appropriate herbs and balanced formulas.

Herbs For A Speedy Recovery
Fast recovery is a top priority for most surgery patients. Although no miracle herb for instant healing exists, some simple teas can keep the process moving along. "Antioxidants in their natural form can speed up healing," says Vladimir Badmaev, MD, PhD, contributor to The Whole Family Guide to Natural Asthma Relief (Avery Penguin Putnam, 2002). Antioxidants, including those found in fruits and vegetables, help us for many reasons. Research highlights their anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial abilities.

Green tea and raspberry, which both work to neutralize free radicals, can help your body recover from surgery. The antioxidants in green tea (Camellia sinensis) are soluble, meaning the body absorbs them easily. Green tea is also easy to take-just brew and sip two to three cups a day. One caution with green tea: Because it contains caffeine, those with weakened cardiovascular systems should take care not to exceed 1.5 grams of caffeine per day.

Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) also has antioxidant properties that can help speed the body's healing. The medicinal parts of the plant include both the leaves and the fruit; raspberry tea is readily available at natural products stores. For a therapeutic brew, infuse 2 teaspoons of dried raspberry leaves in a mug of hot water and enjoy the drink several times a day.

Another way to quicken recovery is to boost your immune system with herbs. James Balch, MD, co-author of Prescription for Nutritional Healing (Avery Penguin Putnam, 2000), recommends echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) to boost yourself to optimum wellness. Other options for strengthening the immune system are 5 to 15 grams per day of the Chinese herb huang qi, or astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), or 5 to 15 grams per day of ling zhi (Ganoderma lucidum).

Be Prepared Before And After
For many people, being prepared both before and after surgery is the best way to help the healing process go smoothly. "The more time you can give yourself prior to surgery to get in shape, the better," says Petry. And once you've left the recovery room, you and your doctor may want to consider herbs to accelerate your healing.

Patti Woods is a freelance food, health, and nutrition writer based in Stratford, Connecticut.