Recovery and recuperation

Alex Ruani suggests some foods and supplements to help if you are recovering from illness

Any type of illness can really take its toll on the body, leaving us feeling weak and exhausted. Opting for healthy foods and supplements can help the body to heal and repair itself so that you are back on the road to recovery. Here, Alex Ruani, Chief Science Educator at The Health Sciences Academy, offers some nutritional advice.

Essential micronutrients

All essential vitamins and minerals in the right amounts are needed for a full recovery. And depending on the cause of the illness, some of them may be needed in higher quantities. For example, some essential micronutrients may be used and depleted faster when the immune system is fighting a viral infection, in particular vitamins C, D and A, and minerals like zinc, iron, selenium and chromium. Upping our intake of fresh produce like fruits, vegetables, herbs, legumes, grains like rice and oats, and seeds can be very helpful during recovery from a viral infection.

Gastrointestinal disturbances are common during illness. Incorporating prebiotics can be helpful, in particular fibre which feeds ‘good’ gut bacteria (from grains like oats; allium vegetables like onions; and fruits like bananas), as well as probiotic-rich foods such as fermented vegetables and dairy.

Rehydration

Fever can be very dehydrating. The higher your body temperature, the more dehydrated you may become. Since rehydration is the number one priority, drinking plenty of fluids is essential. In addition to sipping water, we need to replenish electrolyte losses – that is, salts and minerals like potassium. This can be helped by having foods with a high water and electrolyte content like berries, oranges, melons and cucumber, in addition to beverages like broth, herbal teas or coconut water. Because these are more palatable than water on its own, they can help rehydrate more effectively, too.

Protein

Muscle loss during illness is a side effect we shouldn’t ignore and it often translates to generalised weakness. Calorie and protein requirements during recovery are usually higher than your regular intake. Depending on the illness severity, daily protein needs go up to over 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight in mild cases and over 1.2g of protein per kilogram of body weight in the severely ill. Therefore, besides rehydration, foods with a high protein content need to be prioritised. These include chicken, eggs and fish, as well as plant foods like beans, lentils, quinoa, rice and hulled hemp seeds, which also contain some carbohydrate, aiding protein uptake by muscle and organ tissues. A number of scientific studies found that nutritional supplementation in older patients after being hospitalised, in particular complete amino-acid supplementation, may aid recovery and increase physical strength.

Simple foods

The problem is that during illness and recovery, appetite tends to go down and taste changes, with some reports suggesting that it may take 28 days for hunger hormones to return to their normal levels after critical illness. Going back to eating normally can be further worsened by gastrointestinal disturbances, swallow disfunction and poorer chew strength. For these reasons, each eating episode is a golden opportunity to get the right nutrients into a body that is still recovering. However, when each bite we take feels like a tremendous effort, it’s important to go for softer textures by puréeing and blending foods into soups and smoothies. This way, we can take in more food and more nutrition, but with less effort. And this is critical during recovery.

Alex Ruani is a UCL Doctoral Researcher and Chief Science Educator at The Health Sciences Academy. Visit thehealthsciencesacademy.org

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