Preparing for Surgery with Cell-Boosting Nutrients

Empower your body and lessen surgery’s damage
Nuts, salmon and avocado pictured next to a bowl of omega-3 supplements.
© Can Stock Photo / dolgachov

Surgery is meant to help correct problems, but it can take a significant toll on your body. Rather than simply taking pain medication, there are strategies you can adopt right from the start to help damaged tissue recover more readily.

Preparing for surgery

Incorporating a good quality multivitamin and vital nutrients into your pre-surgery routine will help you build resilience in your cells and systems. Check with your health care team to see which whole foods and supplements they recommend for your specific situation.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3s help make cell walls more flexible, contribute to cardiac functioning, and regulate the blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls. They also reduce inflammation. Our bodies are most efficient at absorbing animal sources of omega-3s, especially fatty fish like salmon or mackerel or a high-quality fish-oil supplement. For plant-based sources, consider adding ¼ cup of high-lignin flax seed oil, a tablespoon (or more!) of chia seeds, or a handful of walnuts per day to your diet. You can also try a microalgae like fermented seaweed or a perilla seed supplement.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that can bolster your immune system to help in the prevention of post-surgery infection and is vital for regulating the synthesis of collagen to heal skin. Moreover, vitamin C can help stimulate bowels which can become sluggish with pain medications and lack of exercise. Topical application of vitamin C in combination with vitamin E has been shown to have significant benefit to wound healing, but less so if patients are already deficient, so going into surgery with adequate vitamin C levels is a must. Bump up your intake by eating citrus fruit, green leafy veggies, bell peppers, and tomatoes.


Zinc is important for immunity and skin integrity and is crucial to the wound healing process. It contributes to membrane repair, regulates oxidative stress, helps improve coagulation, decreases inflammation, and reduces scar formation. Organic leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, chicken, and oysters are good food sources of zinc.


Iodine is an essential nutrient and a cornerstone of our DNA, the genetic code that makes new cells. Iodine also fuels all metabolic activities, certain structures like the thyroid, brain, and breasts, and also bolsters our immune system. Even though table salt may be “iodized", a healthy amount is not enough to replenish the body’s iodine needs. However, some seaweeds, like kombu, can provide up to 2000% of the RDI in just one sheet, and seafood, cod, and dairy (especially cottage cheese and yogurt) are also great sources. If you don’t eat animal products, consider a daily drop or two of an iodine supplement.


Antibiotics will likely be involved in your surgery so eating foods high in probiotics and/or taking a supplement will help you through the recovery period by reducing the risk of yeast overgrowth commonly associated with antibiotic use. A healthy microbiome rich in diverse gut flora promotes a healthy immune system which will help to avoid other types of infections like C. diff, a commonly acquired bacterial infection during hospital stays. Feed yourself lots of fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut, and drink beverages like kombucha and kefir. If your digestive system is compromised, stick with supplement forms of probiotics.


As your cells are composed mostly of water, dehydration will slow your healing process so drink plenty of the pure, unadulterated stuff or organic herbal teas.

Use immune-stimulating herbs

Along with their immune boosting properties, many herbs can be beneficial in other ways but they should be used only under the supervision of your health care provider, and your surgeon and anesthesiologist must be informed that you have been taking them, especially if you have little warning before your surgery. Herbal supplements and tinctures should be stopped one to two weeks before surgery and be discontinued after a defined period of time. They may be contraindicated for certain health conditions and in combination with some medications.

Common herbals include:

  • Oregon grape root, which is also good for upset stomach caused by certain medications that cause gut irritation.
  • Echinacea, which is helpful for inflammation.
  • Licorice, which is helpful with the adrenals and stress of surgery and also benefits the gut lining.
  • Astragalus (an adaptogenic herb), which is good for the liver and kidneys, organs vital for detoxification.
  • You can also eat more medicinal mushrooms like shiitake, portobello, and reishi, and add garlic, turmeric, ginger, oregano and thyme to the foods you cook.

Finally, the last meal before your surgery should not be heavy. Save your body’s energy to heal, not digest rich foods. Avoid red meat, refined sugar, and processed salty foods. Try a nice bone broth soup or stew with lots of vegetables.

While your surgery is in the hands of your doctors, you can help it be more successful by coming in prepared with more than an overnight bag. It’s good to know that you can take simple steps to empower yourself and your body for the challenges that such medical procedures entail—but it doesn’t end there! Enhance your surgery recovery with healthier nutritional choices and supportive practices and get back on your feet (and out of the hospital!) in less time.