Even without the threat of the Coronavirus, it's that time of year when many of us are either in the midst of illness or languishing in its aftermath. Body aches, low energy levels, reduced appetite and a heavy head are just some of the symptoms people experience post-illness. Whether it is a serious illness that involved harsh treatment or a viral attack such as the common cold and flu, nutrition plays a crucial role in your recovery. Poor nutrition during the recovery stage may hinder the repair and rejuvenation of the body and makes healing process a long, arduous road. Obviously, patients' needs differ greatly depending on age, the illness and treatment involved but there are some fundamental tips that apply to most of us during any convalescence. The aim of convalescent nutrition is to maximize nutrient-rich eating with minimum digestive effort. Most of our immune activity is secreted from intestinal linings, yet the digestive tract can take on the burden from any attack. Also, treatments such as antibiotics, steroids, chemotherapy and anti-inflammatory drugs can disrupt normal intestinal function. Therefore, it is important to keep food light, nutritious and easy to digest and make sure it offers an optimum supply of calories and nutrients for recovery and repair.
Avoid warmed-up leftovers and pre-cooked frozen meals as these are less nutritious and carry a greater risk of bacterial contamination - the convalescents’ immunity is already impaired and they may not ward off another infection as efficiently as a healthy person. Red meat, fried or fatty foods are also a no-no. They are difficult to digest and use up vital energy to process through the digestive system - energy that would otherwise be available to the repair process. Sugar, sugary drinks and snacks are also off the menu during illness and recovery. Just a teaspoon of sugar can suppress immune activity by 50% for up to four hours after ingestion. Sugar interferes with the transport of vitamin C into cells - possibly the most important nutrient in all aspects of immunity. Sugar reduces the production of protective antibodies. Sugar causes mineral imbalances and neutralizes the action of essential fatty acids making our cells more vulnerable to attack from viruses, bacteria and other invaders. You will not be doing any favours by placing fizzy drinks and hard boiled sweets at any patient’s bedside locker!
Best foods for recovery are made from fresh produce - fruit, vegetables and some wholegrains. Protein, necessary for rebuilding and repair of cells is best sourced from white fish, organic poultry and vegetables, beans and legumes. Red meat and pork products are not recommended as part of a recovery diet. However, bones from organic beef, chicken or lamb offer great support through minerals and can add extra nutrients and flavour to broths, soups and vegetable dishes. If you feel that you require extra protein during this time use energy-rich digestible whey protein powder or protein powder to increase protein intake. These powders can be added to cereal, smoothies, juices and soups and boost B vitamins and protein when appetite is low. Another valuable source of B vitamins include yeast extracts available in health food shops and some supermarkets. These can be added to warm drinks or soups with added chilli, ginger and garlic for extra oomph! Our bodies use up a great amount of B vitamins during stress and illness. We do not store B- vitamins so need replenishment daily for energy, immunity and recovery. Meeting this demand may be tough when you are ill or recovering which may warrant a boost through Vitamin B-rich foods, supplements and/or reputable yeast extracts.
Wholegrains offer the best plant-based supply of B vitamins especially buckwheat, oats, brown rice, amaranth and quinoa. During illness and recovery these grains are best soaked for 24-48 hours before cooking. No single food has all B vitamins in rich supply so eating a variety of grains and vegetables will help to ensure a good supply.
Vitamin C foods are also a must during and to prevent illness. Raw, fresh fruit offer a good supply – choose thick-skinned raw fruits like oranges, lemons, pineapple and melon as they are protected from bacteria and viruses by their skin. Lightly steamed green vegetables also provide vitamin C. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha are among the most nutritious and digestible foods available and are a natural source of good bacteria (probiotics) essential for immune function.
Useful supplements to use during recovery include B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D3, zinc and good quality probiotics. Warm drinks as herbal teas - echinacea, fenugreek, ginger, tulsi (holy basil), chamomile, thyme and green tea are all good tonics for recovery. Medicinal mushrooms such as Chaga, Cordyceps, Shiitake and Reishi may be new to us but are used as immune tonics in Eastern Europe and Asia.
Finally, meals are best served small and appealing to the eye to encourage appetite during an illness. In Victorian times, a patient's meal was beautifully presented on dainty crockery along with a posy of flowers. Psychologically, most of us respond well from feeling loved and cared for during illness, particularly young children and the elderly. If you are caring for someone who is sick, be sure to keep them company while he/she eats. It is often difficult to dine alone, but particularly so when you are not feeling well. Being ill can take its toll on both mental and physical health - but good food, good company and a good giggle may well be the best medicine of all!
Researched & written by Irene Ní Fhlannúra - published in West & Mid Kerry Live, issue 275, Jan 2020
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