Recovery nutrition: how to bounce back from injury

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Sports Nutrition Sundays Blog

After an unfortunate mountain bike left me in hospital for three days last year, I had ample time to investigate optimum nutrition therapy post injury. While my story may be more than your average calf strain during running, we can absolutely apply the same principles to most significant injuries. In this post I’ll discuss the injury process, appropriate foods, supplements and protein.

Injury healing occurs in three steps: inflammatory, proliferation and maturation/ remodelling. While it is uncomfortable and usually results in swelling, the inflammatory process is crucial for your body to remove damaged cells and begin tissue repair. In the proliferation phase, collagen is formed and granulation (laying down of new connective tissue and tiny blood vessels) occurs), which may take three weeks or more. Finally the maturation/remodelling stage, which may last two years, allows new collagen to be synthesised and results in the formation of scar tissue.

It may be helpful to reduce longer term inflammation, after the acute inflammatory stage, and there are a number of foods that may play a role in doing so. Suggested anti-inflammatory foods include Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), fruits and vegetables (particularly carotenoid containing bright orange and dark green cruciferous), fibre, turmeric and garlic (Franz, 2014; Galland, 2010; Tilg, 2015). Whereas pro-inflammatory foods may include excessive saturated fatty acids (SFAs), and diets with a high Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio (Galland, 2010). However more research is required in this area.

People often turn to supplements when injured, though most research would suggest we are better off eating whole foods to get our vitamins and minerals. So eat up your vegetables, like mum always told you to do. Consuming vitamins in tablet form, for example antioxidants (Vitamin A, C and E), may actually do more harm than good. Other supplements may have some evidence in injury recovery, though it is important to always ask: is my diet deficient in this? If so can I get it from whole foods? If not, will this affect any medications I am taking? If you are not sure, please ask a dietitian. One new theory being investigated at the moment is gelatine supplementation to assist tendon/ligament repair, by increasing circulating levels of the protein collagen. This is a promising new area, so stay tuned for an update.

Protein is also an important consideration, particularly for muscular injury. We need to ensure an adequate protein intake to assist muscle repair. For most Australian’s this isn’t an issue. Though if you are on a restrictive nutrition plan, are vegan or vegetarian, are a large athlete or in hospital then you may need to take extra steps to ensure adequate intake. If we consume all of our protein in one meal, we can’t use it all for building new muscle. Finally, one food product that is going to counteract your ability to rebuild muscle is alcohol. While it is easy to think consuming alcohol won’t be a bad thing because you aren’t training, alcohol may reduce protein synthesis, making for a longer recovery time.

In summing up: initial inflammation is important, though we may be able to reduce injury time by focusing on our fruit, veg, MUFA’s, Omega-3 PUFA’s and adequate protein intake. Forgetting alcohol and only consuming supplements with good evidence behind them. For more advice on recovery from injury nutrition, talk to an accredited sports dietitian at Sunshine Coast Dietetics.

Peter Herzig (APD, AccSD)