In a perfect world, no one would have to undergo surgery – we would all regenerate our organs and heal our bodies whenever we pleased. But there are times when no matter how healthy you eat and/or live, surgery is necessary and warranted – and that is okay. I struggled before my own thyroidectomy back in 2019 and tried everything within my power to help heal my thyroid and Grave’s Disease naturally. Supplements, AIP diet, lifestyle changes, acupuncture, meditation…in the end I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and fed up! But I was also frightened about the prospect of surgery. Looking back, I have no regrets and am so grateful for the healing that removing my thyroid has allowed me. What I do wish, however, is that I’d had more information with regard to holistically preparing my body, mind, and spirit for surgery, and for the recovery afterwards.
As I would find out, laying the groundwork for a speedy recovery begins in the weeks prior to the surgery, and recovery is a journey all its own. Surgery can be painful, invasive – and let’s be honest – downright scary, but with the proper preparation and knowledge, it can also be manageable and fit into a healing protocol as needed. Below are tips and tricks that I have gathered over the years through my experience as a Physician Assistant, and also as a patient.
How to Prepare for Surgery on AIP
Thankfully, most surgeries are scheduled weeks or months in advance, allowing you ample time to mentally and physically prepare. My first recommendation is to eat a clean, Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet in the days prior to surgery. I recommend eating foods rich in vitamins and minerals, including green, leafy vegetables, bone broth, and organ meats, and reducing starchy, high-carb and processed foods. If already on the AIP diet, you will most likely be incorporating more healing foods and reducing processed, difficult-to-digest foods as it is, but focusing more on ‘superfoods,’ will empower your body to reduce inflammation and manage stress. Turmeric is a fantastic spice to add to your food, as it not only has anti-inflammatory properties, but also antibacterial benefits. It is safe to eat as a spice added to food, but in supplement form, turmeric should be avoided prior to surgery as it has a blood-thinning effect. Many surgeons will also recommend avoiding fish oil or omega-3 supplements a week or so prior to surgery due to the supplement’s ability to interfere with blood clotting and increase bleeding during surgery. In fact, my own daughter’s tonsillectomy was canceled on the morning of her scheduled surgery due to not excluding fish oil from her diet seven days prior to her surgery!
Consuming bone broth throughout the day, drinking it plain or using it as a base for soups/purees is an excellent way to absorb minerals and amino acids, and to nourish and heal the digestive tract. Gelatin is also a great addition to foods, as it provides essential protein for recovery of tissues and muscles and aids in decreasing inflammation. You can also make homemade gummies, which are not only tasty, but a great way to consume gelatin after surgery. Fruits and vegetables provide excellent fiber, which are important in regulating blood sugar and managing inflammation and detoxification, all of which will help prepare your body for surgery! They are also chock-full of Vitamin C, which in turn promotes the formation of collagen, which allows our body to recover and promotes healing.
I also recommend adding probiotics to your daily supplement regimen if you’re not already taking them. Many surgeries require antibiotics and drugs during and after surgery, and ensuring that your gut and body are protected during this time is vital to your preparation and recovery. I recommend taking a stronger probiotic supplement than normal, and maybe even doubling the dose a few days prior to, and after, surgery to support your body as best as possible. Probiotics are known to boost immunity, fight infection, increase antibodies, help remove toxins from the body, and restore a healthy flora within the body. Vitamin C is an integral vitamin when it comes to recovery after surgery. Research shows that serum Vitamin C concentration falls after uncomplicated surgery, which is believed to be due to the increased oxidative stress on the body during surgery. To replenish one’s levels, supplementation is recommended. Vitamin C is a vitamin that I typically recommend in our practice, and patients are encouraged to take it before and after surgery to accelerate healing (1000 mg is safe to take).
Stress! We have all been there…feeling run down, overworked, overstressed, overtired and just OVER IT! A few weeks ago, the surgeon that I work for, Dr. Vazquez, and I had a hard week in surgery; actually, “hard” doesn’t even begin to cover it! It was a terrible week punctuated by long hours and difficult surgeries. By Thursday, Dr. Vasquez and I were both battling colds. Despite my AIP diet, daily use of dry brushing and gua sha stone, and acupressure mat, stress and lack of sleep ultimately lowered my immune system and left me vulnerable. Stress is a powerful emotion, as it not only has the power to weaken the immune system, but can also promote systemic inflammation and ultimately leaky gut. My recommendations for coping with pre and post-surgical stress include:
- Make sure to make the most out of your surgical consultation! Knowledge is power, and knowing that you’re in good hands can minimize the stress that you feel prior to going under the knife. Know what to expect before, during, and after surgery so there are no surprises. Ask all the questions – expected recovery time, precautions, risks and complications, alternatives, and so on. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions!
- A few nights before the surgery, begin meditating and visualizing yourself recovering from a successful surgery. Start incorporating positive thinking! Before my own surgery, I would tell myself, “I am safe. I have complete faith in my surgeon. I am confident in my ability to heal, etc.” Guided imagery is extremely powerful – countless studies have shown that the art of guided imagery can help lessen pain, reduce recovery time, improve sleep, decrease anxiety, and fortify the immune system.
- Get extra sleep in the weeks prior to surgery – you won’t be sorry!
- Make a plan! Make sure you know who will be picking you up, dropping you off, and who will be picking up your prescriptions. When my husband and I were preparing for my own thyroidectomy, we picked up Vitamin C and Calcium (required for total thyroidectomies) prior to the surgery, made bone broth and other healthy meals, got a special ice pack for my neck, and even bought a special warm blanket to snuggle in during recovery.
Exercising regularly prior to surgery is my last recommendation with regard to preoperative preparation. Many surgeons will not operate on a patient with a BMI over 50 given the increased risks and complications. Better fitness levels and overall health greatly reduces complications when undergoing surgery. My recommendation is to do light exercise the week prior to your surgery, as HIIT and more intense workouts can increase stress hormones and leave them elevated for a period of time. Remember…last thing you need now is stress of any kind! Gentle walks, yoga, biking, and low-impact workouts are ideal prior to surgery.
At this point, you’ve rocked the surgery and now are on the other side! Everything went smoothly thanks to your pre-operative preparation, and now it’s time to focus on healing that body! The most important step in the recovery process is to continue a healthy diet! More than ever, your body needs minerals and vitamins to heal and ultimately recover! Make sure to stock your fridge with fruits, vegetables, broth, and healthy proteins, unless your postoperative protocol states otherwise. Double up on those probiotics for the next few days after surgery, as you most likely were given an antibiotic in your IV during surgery! Continue to take Vitamin C, and incorporate other supplements to optimize healing after surgery. Vitamin A supplementation will support healing of your incision since it promotes the production of collagen. A multivitamin with adequate zinc, selenium, and iodine (especially after thyroid and parathyroid surgery) is extremely important for supporting healing and overall health.
Don’t forget to LAUGH! Surgery is a stressful experience, no doubt, and allowing yourself to laugh afterwards is not only good for the soul, but for your brain, organs, and body as a whole! Watch funny movies, shows and videos, read a comical book or magazine – just LAUGH! My go-to show after surgery was ‘Impractical Jokers’ – nothing makes my husband and me laugh like those guys do!
Just like sticking with a healthy diet, I recommend continuing to exercise as well within the limits of your postoperative instructions. I tell my patients who undergo thyroidectomies and parathyroidectomies to make sure to turn their necks so the muscles don’t get stiff and to avoid development of trigger points. Many people are convinced that bed rest if the best way to recover; instead, if possible, you want to increase blood flow to the tissues in your body, expand your lungs, and maintain strength and flexibility to support the healing area. Gently incorporate slow, targeted movement with stretching and icing as needed.
My final piece of advice pertains to scar care; many surgical offices offer Silagen, which is an amazing medical grade, silicone-based cream that helps fade old scars and prevents new scars. It is hypoallergenic and worked extremely well for me following my own thyroidectomy three years ago. I also recommend massaging the area lightly a few weeks after surgery in order to break down scar tissue, and to keep the scar out of the sun to avoid hyperpigmentation. Although scars show the world where we have been, they certainly don’t define us and healing both internally, as well as externally, is extremely important in the recovery process.
A few years ago, I decided to run a marathon. I trained for weeks until finally, the big day came. I finished the race, and actually qualified for the Boston Marathon, but boy…it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! I’ve come to realize that preparing for surgery is a lot like preparing for a marathon. Try to think of surgery as a marathon…a marathon you’re going to train for and then WIN! You’ve got a few weeks to get ready for the big race, so what are you going to do? First, you’re going to gather information and find out all about the race. Be prepared. Make sure you understand exactly what’s going to happen and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Next, you’ve got to get into shape! You’re going to follow a healthy diet and get plenty of sleep. And you’re going to exercise…but not too much. You want to be fit and ready for this marathon…not worn out or injured! Finally, like every other athlete in the race, you’re going to work on reducing stress and thinking positively. Say to yourself, “I CAN do this! I WILL do this! I will WIN!”
Thank you so much for this crucial and timely info. I’ve been careful to keep my gut flora healthy so introducing antibiotics to an upcoming surgery had me anxious. Now I feel more confident about managing my recovery. With gratitude–Deb