Posted on December 08, 2014 at 15:31 PM
Life serves up surprises when it comes to your health.
I had a big one on November 4th when the back wheel of the bike I was riding downhill seized, ejecting me over the handlebars.
As it was happening, my legs split like a pair of scissors, with the heel of my right leg rising first. I was almost in a complete air-bound handstand as my left leg met the right.
Then, the force of gravity grabbed me.
My right hand hit the pavement first. For what seemed like several seconds, I stared at the asphalt, about 6 inches from my nose, before I heard a loud whack. My elbow had smacked the pavement, collapsing my arm into what felt like a puddle of broken bones.
I remember closing my eyes before I felt the pavement hit the right side of my forehead and slide down my face. When the pavement reached my lip, I could hear my skin tear.
But I was alive.
Dazed and in a hyper state of confusion, two bystanders came to my rescue and called 911. Within minutes, an ambulance arrived and delivered me to the trauma unit at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md.
Twenty-four hours later, an orthopedic surgeon had repaired my fractured olecranon (the bony tip of an elbow), inserting six stainless steel screws and a metal plate to hold it all together. My facial injuries were superficial.
Like most fracture patients, I was given a sling and told to immobilize my arm. No one said anything about nutrition other than to eat a healthy diet. And, what does that mean? Everyone, it seems, has a different take on what it means to eat a healthy diet, and a healthy diet to speed fracture healing is different than how science defines a healthy diet in general.
Unfortunately, nutrition isn’t always integrated in any meaningful way into our prescriptions to get better after a fracture. But the stage we set for healing is of great importance, influencing the speed, comfort and completeness of the bone-renewal process.
The specific nutritional demands to speed fracture healing focus on the creation of new bone, a matrix that is as strong as cast iron and light as wood, composed of about 65 percent mineral, 10 percent collagen and 25 percent water.
Here are some bare-bones (pun intended) facts about how fractures heal, which is quite remarkable because it is swift, natural, spontaneous and requires no human intervention. Guided by a complex intelligence that is not yet fully understood, you might say it just happens, with bone repairing and making itself whole again over time.
Bones go through three stages to do this. Each stage puts more energy demands on your body and requires a higher intake of calories and specific vitamins, proteins and minerals, such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, silicon and zinc. Basically, you want to eat an alkaline diet because alkaline balance is very important to bone health. Better Bones lists foods according to their alkaline content and recommends therapeutic doses of 20 key bone nutrients taken for three months. “[Taking] therapeutic doses of these nutrients really pays off,” says Dr. Susan E. Brown, an expert in bone health and founder of the Better Bones website.
When a bone is fractured, your body is in a painful but necessary state of repair — the inflammation stage, which lasts about 72 hours. It feels the attack of free radicals, those unstable dirty molecular devils that accelerate the damage of healthy cells when the body is under trauma.
In this situation, free radicals multiply rapidly in a chain of chemical reactions to oxygen, creating oxidative stress, which can overwhelm antioxidant reserves, further damaging cells. In the case of a fracture, free radicals rupture and break down collagen strands that run through the mineral phase of bone.
Nutritional Message: Increase your intake of anti-inflammatory nutrients to neutralize free radicals and oxidative stress. Foods that are high in vitamins C and E, lycopene (highest in cooked, not raw, tomatoes), alpha-lipoic acid (walnuts, for one) and omega-3 fatty acids are good sources. Search the National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, maintained by the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for other foods. Choose Nutrient List and sort by Nutrient Content rather than Food Name to find them.
After about two weeks, the repair stage begins, which needs protein to lay a new bone protein matrix. You’ll need to eat foods that contain the building blocks of protein, which are amino acids primarily found in meat, poultry, seafood and soybeans.
The most important amino acids for bone regeneration include lysine, arginine, proline, glycine, cysteine and glutamine. Lysine, for example, increases the amount of calcium that is absorbed into the matrix, while proline helps with the synthesis of collagen (new protein).
Throughout this process, enhance your vitamin intake. Vitamins act as catalysts for many biochemical reactions that are responsible for the creation of new bone, something supplements can’t do. Vitamins C, D, K and B6 play particularly vital roles in fracture healing. A variety of vegetable oils and dark green leafy vegetables (spinach and kale) are high sources of vitamin K. Ultra violet light exposure and fatty fish provide vitamin D, and B6 is most concentrated in meat, especially liver, but is also found in eggs and enriched cereals. While oranges are a good source of vitamin C, red bell peppers have more, and West Indian raw cherries have the most.
Once a fracture heals and a broken limb becomes functional again, it goes through a remodeling stage to reshape and harden the bone. In fact, bones remodel themselves throughout the human life cycle. So, long after a fracture, the dietary changes made in response to it can strengthen the entire skeleton for years to come and reduce the likelihood of future fractures.