What to eat when you have an injury and you want to heal fast.
Nutrition for healing.
I usually write on education, but I’m also a bit of a health nerd…and general nerd…so when I had a random accident that left my right achilles tendon partially lacerated just a few weeks before I was meant to go on a once-in-a-lifetime hiking trip in Madagascar, I got to work researching everything I could about healing quickly. I scoured National Institutes for Health, the reputable health websites like WebMD, Healthline, and others, and even read some into blogs and alternatives sites.
When my doctor said I was healing well, I offered to put together a shorter informative piece on all I learned that they could use if other patients were curious but perhaps didn’t want to read 100+ articles on nutrition, wounds, and tendons. Here is the summary of what I found — and what you need to know if you’re recovering from injury and want to control what you can about the healing process.
1. Why is nutrition important?
A variety of factors play into how well your injury will heal and how long it will take. Ask your doctor to talk with you about specific risk factors you might have related to age, smoking, diabetes, and more.
Nutrition is one factor we have direct control over and is very important for healing injuries. Your body depends on specific vitamins and nutrients to heal. This article explains what is happening in your body, what it needs nutrition-wise, and provides links to additional reading and to great recipes filled with these nutrients that you can make during your recovery. Because food provides our nutrients in balance with one another, it’s important to try to get your nutrients from your food rather than supplements, though there may be some additional supplements that could help (talk with your doctor).
2. Background: What’s happening in your body?
There are four stages to wound healing.
Phase 1: Hemostasis Phase — begins at the when you get injured, and the objective is to stop the bleeding. In this phase, the body activates its emergency repair system, the blood clotting system, and platelets come into contact with collagen to activate and aggregate to stop drainage.
Phase 2: Defensive/Inflammatory Phase — prepares the wound for growth of new tissue. Inflammation both controls bleeding and prevents infection. White blood cells called neutrophils enter the site to destroy bacteria and remove debris. Then specialized cells called macrophages arrive to continue clearing debris. These cells also secrete growth factors and proteins that attract immune system cells to the wound to facilitate tissue repair. This phase lasts ~4–6 days and can include reddening of the skin, heat and pain.
Phase 3 — Proliferative Phase — the focus is to fill and cover the wound, which includes: 1) filling the wound; 2) contraction of the wound margins; and 3) covering the wound with new cells (epithelialization). New connective tissue and blood vessels are formed. This phase lasts ~4 to 24 days.
Phase 4: Maturation Phase — the new tissue slowly gains strength and flexibility. Collagen fibers reorganize, the tissue remodels and matures and there is an overall increase in tensile strength. The time for this phase varies greatly depending on the wound, nutritional status, and other factors — from 21 days to 2 years.
Citations & Read More on Wound Healing:
Tendons are mechanically responsible for transmitting muscle forces to bone and in doing so permit motion and enhance joint stability. Tendons are made of collagen, proteoglycans, glycoproteins, water and cells. There are three stages to tendon healing.
Phase I: Inflammation — During the inflammatory phase, vascular permeability increases (vascular permeability is the ability of a blood vessel wall to allow for the flow of small molecules like drugs, nutrients, water, ions, or even whole cells) in and out of the vessel. This allows a greater number of inflammatory cells to enter the healing site. These cells produce a number of cytokines and growth factors that lead to recruitment and proliferation (increase in numbers) of macrophages and resident tendon fibroblasts (fibroblasts are cells in connective tissue that produce collagen and other fibers).
Phase II: Repair — tendon fibroblasts make plenty of collagen and other cells needed for creating new tendon material and deposit them at the wound site. In this stage water content is very high. This phase lasts a few weeks.
Phase III: Remodeling — the repair tissue changes to fibrous tissue and then to scar-like tendon tissue after about 10 weeks. During the later remodeling phase the bonding between the collagen fibers increases resulting in repaired tissue with highest stiffness and tensile strength.
Citations & Read More about Tendon Healing
3. Nutrition for Healing: What your body needs & why
Vitamins A, B, C, and D, zinc, iron, and micro-nutrients arginine and glutamine are essential for a healthy inflammatory process and the creation of collagen.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin derived from carotenoids (the orange part!) in vegetables. At appropriate doses, it is essential for creating new skin cells through the binding of retinol (the active form of vitamin A) to cell surface receptors. Vitamin A deficiency delays collagen and skin cell creation, decreases collagen stability, and increases susceptibility to infection.
=>Vitamin A is particularly important in the inflammatory phase of wound healing.
Foods High in Vitamin A:
- Orange and yellow vegetables: sweet potatoes, pumpkin, butternut, carrots
- Dark leafy greens: spinach, kale, chard, broccoli;
- Yellow Fruits: Mango, cantaloupe melon, dried apricots
- Other: Cod Liver oil & Beef liver; Black eyed peas;
“Vitamin B complex” consists of eight water-soluble vitamins. Vitamin B complex helps to promote cell creation, maintain healthy skin and muscle tone, support and increase metabolic rate, and enhance immune and nervous system function.
Foods High in Vitamin B
- Some Meats: Salmon, Trout, Beef (especially liver), shellfish, poultry
- Eggs, milk, yogurt
- Whole grains: brown rice, barley, millet
- Legumes: beans, chickpeas, lentils, edamame
- Seeds and nuts: sunflower seeds, almonds,
- Dark, leafy vegetables: broccoli, spinach, kale,
Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin vital for collagen synthesis, connective tissue, bones, teeth and your small blood vessels. It also helps protect cells from free-radical damage. Studies have shown that the vitamin can help speed the healing process of wounds.
Foods High in Vitamin C:
- Fruits: acerola cherries, strawberries, citrus (e.g. lemon, orange), guavas, blackcurrants, kiwis, lychees, persimmon, papaya
- Herbs: thyme, parsley
- Chilli peppers
- Dark Leafy Greens: spinach, kale, chard, broccoli, brussel sprouts
Zinc is required for the function of over 300 enzymes and is involved in many important processes in your body — for instance, to process vitamin A. It’s also necessary for cell mitosis (creation of new cells through division) and cell proliferation.It metabolizes nutrients, maintains your immune system and grows and repairs body tissues.
=>Your body doesn’t store zinc, so you need to eat enough every day to ensure you’re meeting your daily requirements.
Foods High in Zinc
- Meat: Beef, lamb, pork
- Shellfish: oysters, mussels, shrimp, crabs
- Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, beans
- Seeds & nuts: hemp, flax, pumpkin, cashews
Protein & Collagen
Proteins provide the main building blocks for tissue growth, cell renewal, and repair after injury. Protein deficiency has been demonstrated to contribute to poor healing rates with reduced collagen formation and wound dehiscence (continued wound separation where the edges don’t come together).
Foods High in Protein & Collagen
- Nuts & seeds: Almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts
- Meat: Chicken breast, lean beef, tuna, other fish,
- Vegetables: broccoli, brussel sprouts
- Whole grains: Oats, quinoa,
- Dairy: Greek yogurt, cottage cheese,
- Bone broth
Iron carries oxygen-rich hemoglobin to the cells and tissues of the body. Healing cannot happen without oxygen. When you are low in iron, tissues throughout the body do not get enough oxygen, which can halt or slow wound healing and makes wound infection more likely.
=> Your body cannot produce Iron so it’s important to consume iron-rich foods regularly.
Foods High in Iron
- Meats: Shellfish, red meat,
- Dark Leafy Greens: spinach, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts
- Legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and soybeans (tofu!)
- Meats (especially organs like liver)
- Nuts & seeds: pumpkin seeds
- Whole Grains: Quinoa
- Dark chocolate (everyone cheer!)
- Blackstrap molasses (yes, really!)
Arginine & Glutamine
Arginine and glutamine are two amino acids — building blocks that help the body create proteins. They are considered “conditionally essential” meaning they may be needed during periods of stress, such as during wound healing.
Foods High in Arginine & Glutamine:
- Arginine: Nuts, legumes
- Glutamine: Meats, tofu, spinach, legumes
Citations & Read more about Nutrition for Healing
Healthline has great information on each of the vitamins and their corresponding foods
It’s pretty clear when reviewing the lists above that there are a lot of overlaps — foods that are nutrient rich and thus appear in nearly all the lists. You can get the most bang for your buck by concentrating on including them in your diet EVERY DAY. Those “superfoods” are:
Dark Leafy Greens: You just cannot get much better for your healing or your long-term health than dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, brussel sprouts and broccoli.
Whole fruits, especially those dark in color: strawberries, mango, cantaloupe, raspberries, cherries, citrus, papaya. It’s important to eat these whole, not juiced, for their fiber content which helps regulate blood sugar after eating.
Fish: Among the healthiest foods on the plant. Most fish is packed full of nutrients and protein. Fish is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are super important for your brain and overall health.
Shellfish: Shellfish are low in calories and rich sources of lean protein, healthy fats, and many micronutrients. Most of the fat in shellfish is in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, which offer a range of health benefits, such as improving brain and heart health. Regularly eating shellfish may boost your immunity, aid weight loss, and promote brain and heart health (Healthline).
Eggs: One egg has only 75 calories but 7 grams of high-quality protein, 5 grams of fat, and 1.6 grams of saturated fat, along with iron, vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids. The egg is a powerhouse of disease-fighting nutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin (WebMD).
Legumes: Legume is a general term used to describe the seeds of plants from the legume family, which includes beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts. They are low in fat, high in protein, and rich in nutrients and vitamins.
Whole Grains: These are nutrient rich and also provide the body with much-needed carbohydrates — your body’s energy — and glucosamine helps all the healing processes run too. The best whole grains include quinoa, whole oats, farro amaranth, brown rice, barley.
Turmeric (curcumin): Turmeric is a superfood for healing because it has many anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties due to its curcumin. Curcumin may accelerate the healing process by shortening the inflammatory phase. Curcumin might also facilitate collagen synthesis, fibroblasts migration, and differentiation. You can add turmeric to curries and soups, juice it raw (though it will make your juicer bright orange), or you can buy it as a supplement.
5. Favorite Delicious, Easy Recipes:
It’s helpful to have ideas of how to actually incorporate these foods into your daily eating.
One thing I did every single day to maximize nutrient intake was juice one lemon and mix it in very warm (think tea) water with a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses. This gave me a boost of vitamin C and iron and other vitamins right off the bat in the morning. I also took a high-quality turmeric supplement three times a day to aid in a healthy inflammation process.
Also, I love exploring and adapting recipes! These recipes below all contain superfoods — some combine many of the superfoods into easy “super meals”. There’s something here for everyone. Try something new — then adapt it to your taste!
- Parmesan-roasted broccoli
- Crunchy kale & coconut farro bowl
- Crispy coconut kale with salmon
- Skillet braised brussel sprouts
- Massaged kale salad
- Easy sauteed spinach
- Easy Chicken, Sweet Potato, Kale Skillet Cranberries & Goat Cheese
- Butternut, kale, quinoa bake
- Spicy quinoa and sweet potato
- Moroccan carrot spinach salad
- Warm carrot lentil salad
- Easy hummus
- Lentils with roasted beets & carrots
- “Buddha” bowls
- Steamed mussels with garlic
- Easy garlic shrimp
- Sheet pan kale & egg bake
- Huevos rancheros
- Spinach frittata
- Turmeric chicken and rice
- Perfect summer fruit salad
- Oven baked salmon
- Kale & sweet potato saute
- Chickpeas with baby spinach
- Roasted Brussel Sprouts
- Roasted carrots
While not every aspect of your healing is in your control, your nutrition is!
Eat one of these meals (or something similar) every day and you’re on the way to both faster healing and long-term health.
Make sure you make extra so you have some for lunch the next day :)