Herbal supplements have long been an integral part of folk medicine dating back at least 5000 years. Some herbal remedies go back to ancient Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Indian and even Sumerian civilizations.
Egyptian hieroglyphs show doctors healing constipated patients with senna pods as well as using peppermint, caraway, and opium poppy to treat other ailments.
From the book of Ezekiel 47:12 (600 B.C.) “..and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.”
It is clear that specific nutrients play a major role in the physiology of wound healing and tissue repair. Studies show that nutrient deficiency in patients generally is responsible for increased healing time after surgery.
It is very likely, and demonstrated in some research, that providing sufficient quantities of such nutrients aids the recovery process.
The recent resurgence in the interest in herbal medicine has led to an increase in research on their efficacy. Still, much ongoing experiments and clinical trials are needed to map their scientifically based effectiveness regarding healing and wellness.
herbal remedy: a plant or a part of a plant that is used as medicine
Here’s what science has found so far about what botanical medicines have to offer to people who underwent a surgical procedure.
Herbal medicine may be beneficial in the post surgery healing process for several reasons:
- natural anti-inflammatory agents for pain relief
- ameliorate the postoperative bruising and swelling process
- improve wound healing when applied topically
- reduce systemic and topical inflammation
- help reduce stress and anxiety and improve sleep
- help protect and detoxify the liver
White willow bark, a natural painkiller
Bark of the white willow tree (Salix alba) is one of the oldest known herbal remedies for treating inflammation, as pain relief (analgesic) and as a fever reducer (antipyretic).
White willow bark was already used during the time of Hippocrates, people would chew on the bark to relieve fever and pain.
Aspirin and white willow bark work similarly but the latter does not cause nausea.
White willow bark contains salicin, which is a chemical similar to aspirin but is considered to have fewer side effects than aspirin. This botanical works not as quickly as aspirin but does work much longer.
Because aspirin, irritating the stomach lining, may cause stomach trouble white willow bark has recently become more popular for the treatment of inflammatory syndromes.
What does the research say?
Various randomized, placebo-controlled studies comparing white willow bark with nonsteroidal agents (NSAIDs) have shown an efficacy comparable to these agents and aspirin.
Chamomille, a herbal anti-inflammatory agent that helps reduce swelling and pain
Chamomille (Chamameleum mobile) does not only make delicious, relaxing tea. The flowers of chamomile contain volatile oils which possess anti-inflammatory properties.
Chamomile flowers have been used in traditional medicine as a poultice (compress/ dressing) or hot foment for inflammatory pain or congestive neuralgia. (sometimes combined with crushed poppy heads)
It was used to treat external swelling ( associated with underlying infection or abscess), to treat wounds, ulcers, eczema, gout, skin irritations, bruises, burns, canker sores, neuralgia, sciatica, rheumatic pain, hemorrhoids, mastitis and other ailments.
Being anxious and stressed are common after surgery. The calming effects of chamomile, which is widely regarded as a sleep inducer and relaxant, can therefore be of use.
- Research found that topical chamomile improved wound healing (epithelization) and caused complete wound healing faster than corticosteroids.
- Chamomile extracts have shown to exhibit benzodiazepine-like hypnotic activity and inhaling chamomile oil vapor showed a physical stress reduction in patients.
- Chamomile is claimed to boost the immune system and studies found that drinking 5 cups of chamomille tea daily for 2 weeks increased antibacterial activity in the body.
Ginseng, traditionally thought to boost the immune system and combat post-op stress
Doctors in China commonly prescribe Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) to help their patients recover from the stress of surgery.
Several animal studies suggest that ginseng increases physical endurance and causes physiological changes that may help the body adapt to adverse conditions
Sometimes ginseng is called an “adaptogen,” a substance supposed to increase the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning.
Well-designed studies however haven’t found any evidence that adaptogens exist.
Ginkgo biloba increases healing success in surgical reconstruction
Ginkgo has many properties that could make it helpful after surgery. It is touted a potent antioxidant that can help neutralize the proliferation of free radicals generated by surgical trauma.
Commonly used in studies, EGb 761, a Ginkgo biloba extract with potent in vitro antiradical properties.
One study examining the ability of Ginko extract to limit oxidative stress showed an improved clinical outcome of recovery of treated patients.
Although the improvement was not significant compared with untreated patients, Ginko extract was claimed useful by the researchers.
- Research shows Ginko biloba extract supports nerve function regeneration after surgery. It has also been demonstrated to act as an effective pain remedy in acute inflammatory pain following surgery.
- One animal study suggestst that Ginko may be useful for the management of neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain is pain resulting from injury to the nervous system. Often characterized by shooting and burning pain, numbness or a tingling sensation.
- Another animal study suggest that GbE 761 administered on day 1 after surgery increased successful healing in reconstructive surgery.
Ginkgo has shown to improve circulation in the brain and the extremities. Which is why it is claimed to be useful to anyone recuperating from surgery, especially when having to have bed rest for prolonged periods of time. Clinical evidence for this claim however, is limited or non-existing.
Garlic assists the liver with detoxification
Garlic (Allium sativum) is a plant in the Allium (onion) family. Thanks to its delicious smell and taste it is used in cooking all over the world but apart from that it is one of the world’s most praised health-giving plants.
Garlic contains lots of a sulfur compound called allicin, which is thought to bring about the health benefits
Garlic strengthens the immune system and helps prevent infections.
Post-operation it can be helpful to protect the liver against the oxidative stress caused by the surgery, anesthesia and other medications. Garlic is often used as part of a detox regimen.
Taken before surgery garlic can increase the risk on prolonged bleeding post-surgery.
- Taking a garlic supplement daily reduced the number of colds by 63% compared with placebo according to a large 12-week study.
- Garlic has potent protective and detoxifying properties. The sulfur present in garlic showed to decrease heavy metals in kidneys, liver, and bones and protect against organ damage from heavy metal toxicity. A four week study in car battery plant employess who are typicallly exposed to lead found that garlic reduced lead levels in the blood by 19%. Garlic also reduced common complaints linked to toxicity such as headaches. Researchers concluded that garlic seems safer clinically and as effective as the drug d-penicillamine.
- As a powerful antioxidant, it has the ability to prevent damage to the liver by eliminating toxins (hepatoprotective ability).
Milk thistle protects the liver and helps detoxifying after surgery
Another valueable herbal hepatoprotectant is milk thistle (Silybum marianum).
The active ingredient in milk thistle is known as silymarin, a chemical extracted from the seeds.
Since the liver is subject to heavy strain during surgery milk thistle is often recommended by naturopaths and medical professionals who know their fair share about herbal medicine.
Milk thistle acts as a potent antioxidant that also increases levels of glutathione which is a detoxifying substance.
Because of these properties the herb aids and protects the liver in recovering from the toxic damage caused by general anesthetics and other drugs.
“there is considerable evidence from studies in animals that milk thistle can protect the liver from numerous toxins.”
Two herbal remedies used to manage bruising and swelling
Nearly any surgery, from bariatric surgery to cosmetic surgery, may cause bruising and swelling. Although a normal part of the healing process bruising and swelling can be quite prominent and when excessive minimizing is necessary for to enhance overall recovery.
The reason is that excessive swelling can lead to complications such as incision breakdown, incision infection, and delayed overall post-op healing. To manage post-surgical swelling and bruising the two botanicals bromelain and quercetin are often used by doctors in Germany.
Bromelain, present in pineapple stems is a potent enzyme that acts as an anti-inflammatory. Quercetin is a plant flavanoid derived from fruits also is a strong anti-oxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.
Clinical studies show echinacea (Echinacea spp.) and gotu kola (Centella asiatica) to enhance wound healing.
Before you start supplementing
Always inform your doctor about the herbal supplements you are taking. If you plan on taking herbal substances to speed your post-op recovery also talk to your doctor before you start.
Various herbal supplements could interact with pharmaceutical drugs you are already taking such as sedatives, NSAID painkillers like ibuprofen and naproxen, blood thinners, antiplatelet drugs, and aspirin.
Herbal supplements themselves can also interact with other supplements. Chamomille for example could interact with garlic, ginkgo biloba, valerian, St. Johns wort, and other botanicals.
Each herb may also have its own side effects. Each person is different so keep in mind that taking high doses may have adverse effects. Therefore it is often recommended to start with lower doses and build this up gradually.
If you are a otherwise healthy patient that is not taking pharmaceuticals and without complicating medical conditions even then it’s best to check with your physician.
Images: garlic, Wikimedia commons.