By J. E. Hinners, MD MPH
If you’re looking to speed up your recovery, consider targeting your nutritional intake towards boosting your body’s natural wound healing process.
What happens when you get wounded?
The body’s natural wound healing cascade begins and happens in 4 stages:
1) Clot formation: Blood clots start to immediately form and help protect the body from further bacteria, viral, and fungal invasion. Neutrophils (white blood cells) also come to the rescue anywhere from 3-24 hours later to help accomplish the same purpose. Within 24-48 hours, skin cells begin dividing to regenerate new skin cells by a process called “mitosis.”
2) Inflammation: Bacteria and damaged tissue get cleaned up by “macrophages” and phagocytic cells; these cells also release growth hormone which trigger the body’s creation of new capillaries (small blood vessels) in the wounded region.
3) Proliferation: New skin tissue (granulation tissue) begins to develop in this phase; this tissue contains fibroblasts which produce various types of collagen that cover the wound area.
4) Maturation: Unneeded blood vessels that were formed in the proliferation stage are eliminated in this stage, and the collagen that covers the wound area matures and becomes more organized, sometimes forming a scar. This stage can last for more than a year.
In his 2014 article, “Immunonutrition: Role in Wound Healing and Tissue Regeneration,” Oliver Chow and Adrain Barbul discuss a review of the current literature findings pertaining to nutrition and wound healing.
Nutrition to boost your body’s wound healing:
- Vitamin K
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A
- Antioxidants, in general
The body needs Vitamin K to form blood clots that help stop bleeding from wound sites. You may not be able to expect immediate bleeding to be stopped by an instant consumption of foods rich in vitamin K, as this vitamin needs to be absorbed by the intestines. However, it wouldn’t hurt to nutritionally increase your vitamin K intake for longer term bleeding concerns (perhaps in the case of wounds reopening, for example). Caution should be taken if you are taking blood thinning medication such as Coumadin, as nutritional sources of vitamin K can alter the metabolism of these medications.
Nutritional sources of vitamin K generally include green leafy vegetables, meat, and dairy. Here are a handful of the best sources of vitamin K:
- kale, spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts, asparagus, lettuce, cabbage, arugula, celery, scallions, leeks, okra, pickles
- mustard/beet/turnip/dandelion greens
- herbs: basil, sage, fennel, thyme, oregano, parsley
- spices: chili powder, cayenne pepper, curry powder & paprika
- soybeans, olive oil, prunes, dried blueberries
Vitamin K content in specific foods can be looked up here.
Arginine is an amino acid that is required for the body to create nitric oxide (NO), a small free radical that is critical in wound collagen synthesis. Arginine has been shown to speed up wound healing by increasing collagen accumulation at the wound site. Arginine also stimulates the cell division process (mitosis) whereby new cells are generated.
Arginine can be found in a wide range of foods: seafood, meat, soy products, eggs, beans, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, and grains. Some foods particularly high in arginine include:
- seafood: crab, shrimp, lobster, crayfish, cuttlefish, tuna, and many other fish
- soy protein, seaweed, spinach
- peanut flour & seeds: sesame, sunflower
- turkey, game meat, buffalo, chicken
Arginine content may be looked up for specific foods here.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Essential fatty acids are understood to serve an anti-inflammatory function in wound healing. One recent October 2014 study found oral olive oil consumption to significantly reduce the duration of wound healing and hospital duration time. Another recent November 2014 study adds that while omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to benefit the wound healing process, the combined effects of omega-3 fatty acids alongside of arginine appear to be even stronger than the effects of omega-3 fatty acids alone.
Foods with omega-3 fatty acids include: fish, fish and vegetable oils, flaxseed, walnuts, and green vegetables. Foods with especially high omega-3 fatty acid content include:
- flaxseeds, chia seeds
- flaxseed oil, salmon oil, fish oil, canola oil
- fish: salmon, caviar, sardines, mackerel, white fish, herring
- herbs: basil, oregano, cloves, marjoram
To find omega-3 content in specific foods, see this database.
Vitamin C plays a significant role in collagen formation, increasing the strength and stability of the collagen fibers. It also serves as an antioxidant and supports neutrophil function. Vitamin C improves both the quality of the wound healing as well as the duration of wound healing time.
Foods with vitamin C include fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. Foods particularly rich in vitamin C are:
- bell peppers
- dark leafy vegetables: kale, spinach
- broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage
- berries: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries
- citrus fruits: oranges, lemons, clementines, grapefruit
- papaya, pineapple
Vitamin C content may be found in specific foods here.
Vitamin A is involved in wound healing in multiple ways: it enhances the inflammatory response, is involved in collagen synthesis and strength, assists with skin cell differentiation, and reverses the body’s stress-induced inhibition of wound healing.
Vitamin A can be found in vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs, meat, and fish. Foods especially high in vitamin A include:
- sweet potato
- dark, leafy greens: kale, spinach, romaine lettuce
- pumpkin & squash: butternut, winter squash
- dried apricots
- cantaloupe melon
- sweet red peppers
- tuna fish
- mango, papaya
Notice that the above foods mostly appear to either be bright orange or dark, leafy greens…makes it easier on a shopping trip.
Vitamin A content may be found in specific foods here.
Zinc has antioxidant and antibacterial properties but also plays wound healing roles in enzymatic reactions and in preventing skin cell death. Evidence so far has only really showed significant wound healing improvement with zinc supplementation in cases where the patient was previously deficient in zinc. Topical zinc has also been shown to improve wound healing.
Zinc foods include seafood, meat, beans, seeds, and nuts, mushrooms.
- seafood: oysters, crab, lobster
- meat: beef, lamb, pork, chicken
- pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, cashews
- cocoa, chocolate
Zinc content may be searched here.
Selenium serves as a powerful antioxidant and appears to accelerate wound healing in burn patients.
Selenium can be found in seafood, meat, nuts, and seeds. Foods high in selenium include:
- brazil nuts, sunflower seeds
- seafood: oysters, mussels, octopus, lobster, clams, squid, shrimp
- fish: tuna, swordfish, halibut, tilapia, mackerel, snapper
- whole wheat bread, oat bran bagel
- meat: pork, beef, lamb, steak, sirloin, chicken, turkey
- mushrooms: crimini, shitake
- whole wheat bread, oat bran bagel, rye, brown rice
To view selenium content in more foods, check here.
We’ve already discussed several antioxidants above (vitamin C, vitamin A, zinc, and selenium). However, antioxidants, in general–also including vitamin E and beta-carotene–play an important role in fighting the body’s oxidative stresses, such as those that result from injury. Antioxidants appear to reduce the duration of wound healing time.
Foods with the greatest antioxidant potency are ranked and discussed here. Herbs and spices (namely, cloves!) top the list as the food category with the most antioxidants.
So there is an overview of nutrition that can boost your body’s wound healing process!
If you’re overwhelmed about fitting in all of needed nutrients, then check out the below list for a simplified shopping trip:
More general list of foods to get at the grocery store for wound healing
- seafood (*salmon, tuna, other)
- protein (*meats, eggs, dairy)
- fish & vegetable oils
- dark, leafy vegetables (*spinach, kale)
- green, cruciferous vegetables (*broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage)
- orange vegetables and fruits (*carrots, squash, citrus, mango)
- herbs & spices (*cloves, oregano, cinnamon)
- seeds & nuts (*flaxseeds, chia, sunflower, pumpkin, peanut, walnuts, brazil nuts)
- beans and soy products
Happy shopping and healing!