Good nutrition and the right supplements can speed up injury recovery.
What happens when you get injured?
Injury recovery is characterised by an organised response to the acute trauma. The first stage is the inflammatory stage. Pain, swelling, redness and heat draw chemicals to the injured area. The second stage involves the removal of damaged tissues and the building of temporary tissue. Finally, new cells replace the intermediary cells, which builds stronger and more permanent tissue1.
How can nutrition help the repair process?
During each step of the repair process, you can use targeted nutritional strategies to support and enhance this repair process.1,2,3
Calorie needs during recovery
Energy needs increase during acute injury repair. In fact, basal metabolic rate (BMR) may increase by 15-50% based on the severity of the trauma. For example, a sporting injury or minor surgery may increase BMR by 15-20%. Of course, comparatively speaking, a person who is very active will have to eat less during injury recovery than during training, yet it is important not to under eat. Speak to a dietitian who can calculate your individualised needs.
Protein during recovery
Injury repair requires more protein. To ensure quick recovery, it is recommended at a minimum to have 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight. Each meal/snack should contain complete protein, including lean meats or meat alternatives, eggs, moderate amounts of dairy or a protein supplement (if whole food is not available).
Carbohydrates during recovery
While glucose is needed for injury healing, no specific carbohydrate recommendations have been established for injury periods. You should eat fewer starches when not training but don’t cut the intake too low, especially if you are accustomed to a high carbohydrate intake, as a low carb diet can be an additional stressor. The focus should also be on the quality of carbohydrates consumed. Aim for minimally processed, higher fibre carbs.
Fats during recovery
The key with dietary fats is that you get the balance of fats right. Aim for more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats than inflammatory omega-6 fats. Focus on eating avocado, olive oil, mixed tree nuts, flaxseeds and oily fish. Limit vegetables oils like sunflower or soybean oil.
Micronutrients during recovery
Eating a balanced diet ensures that you get the necessary vitamins and minerals needed. However, vitamins A, B, C and D, as well as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese and zinc, are all important for injury recovery. Supplementing with these beyond normal doses for small periods of time can help with recovery. Interestingly, vitamin E may slow down wound healing, so avoid vitamin E supplements during injury. Speak to a dietitian who can calculate your individualised needs.
Additional nutrients that may affect injury recovery3
- Supplemental amino acids powerfully affect injury healing. When the body is under stress (as within an injury), arginine and glutamine become conditionally essential amino acids, which means supplementing with them may speed up healing. However, before loading up on amino acids, note that many of the studies discussed in this section were done on either older people or hospitalised patients. Malnutrition is common in both. Speak to a dietitian to see if you would benefit from a supplement.
- Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties. Research has found that it may help to decrease swelling and also give relief from muscle soreness. Curcumin is the active ingredient. Studies show that 7tsp of turmeric or 500mg per day in supplemental form may have an effect.
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Dr Linia Patel has a BSc degree in biochemistry and physiology and has recently achieved a PhD in public health. Linia is a leading dietitian and sports nutritionist. Her passion is translating nutritional science into easy-to-digest and practical advice.
- Ryan et al (2020), Nutritional considerations and strategies to facilitate injury recovery and rehabilitation, J Athl Train., 55(9): 918-930.
- Papadopoulou S (2020), Rehabilitation nutrition for injury recovery of athletes: The role of macronutrient intake, Nutrients, 12(8): 2,449.
- Rawson et al (2018), Dietary supplements for health, adaptation and recovery in athletes, Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab., 28(2): 188-199.