Speedy recovery from surgery depends on having enough of the right nutrients for healing. Healthy adults who ate a balanced diet before surgery don't necessarily need vitamins after surgery, unless their doctor recommends it. A preexisting deficiency requires physician-guided correction. Otherwise, a multivitamin will safely give you the daily recommendation of the best supplements for healing after surgery — vitamins C, E, A, D and the B vitamins. Eating a healthy diet after surgery will also help you get enough of these essential nutrients.
Vitamin C for Collagen Production
After major surgery, collagen accumulation at the wound site is necessary for optimal healing, according to a 1996 study in the British Journal of Surgery. Vitamin C is required for the synthesis of collagen and for repairing connective tissues, so it plays a critical role in wound healing. Vitamin C also plays a key role in the health of your immune system.
The daily value — an estimate of how much of a nutrient healthy adults need daily — for vitamin C is 60 mg. Most multivitamin supplements have at least 100 percent of the DV, but many have several times that. While it's not necessary to take more than the DV of vitamin C after surgery, a short-term intake of a higher amount won't hurt you. Vitamin C is water-soluble and excess is excreted in your urine, so there's little risk of toxicity. However, long-term intakes above the tolerable upper intake level (UL) of 2,000 mg daily may cause problems.
Vitamin A for Skin Healing
Vitamin A is also involved in collagen production, and it supports cell growth and differentiation. Additionally, it's required for the formation of the epithelial tissue that lines the surfaces of organs and blood vessels. The DV for vitamin A is 5,000 IU, and supplements typically provide 50 to 100 percent of that amount.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient, meaning it's stored in the body's fat cells. This means there's an increased risk of side effects from excessive intake. This is especially true for preformed vitamin A, a synthetic form of the nutrient found in some supplements. The UL for vitamin A from all sources is 10,000 IU daily.
Vitamin E to Fight Infection
Even with all the precautions hospitals and surgeons take to ensure a sterile surgical environment, post-surgical infection is fairly common. The fat-soluble nutrient vitamin E is an important antioxidant vitamin that controls immune function. A main symptom of vitamin E deficiency is poor immune response, frequent sickness and increased risk of infection. Vitamin E also acts as an anti-inflammatory that can help reduce inflammation and swelling post-surgery.
Most multivitamin supplements provide at least 100 percent of the DV, which is 30 IU. It's important not to exceed the UL of 1,500 mg per day as high doses can prohibit blood coagulation and have potential hemorrhagic effects.
Vitamin D for Immune Function
In addition to its role in bone formation and maintenance, vitamin D also plays an important role in immune function. This nutrient, produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight, has modulatory effects on both innate and adaptive immune responses. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to increase risk of infection, according to a 2012 article in the Journal of Investigative Medicine.
To protect against deficiency, adults should be sure to get at least the DV of 400 IU. Typical supplements will include more than this amount, with some providing many more times the DV. Regularly taking more than the UL can result in toxicity symptoms that can affect your recovery.
B Complex for Cellular Regeneration
The B-complex vitamins include thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, B6, biotin, B12 and folic acid. As a group, these vitamins are crucial for energy production and the formation of red blood cells, both of which can aid post-surgical recovery. Individually, they may perform separate functions that can speed healing and recovery. For example, vitamin B6 plays a role in key biochemical reactions for immune function, and folic acid helps the body make new cells.
The DVs for the B vitamins are:
- Thiamin: 1.5 mg
- Niacin: 20 mg
- Riboflavin: 1.7 mg
- Pantothenic acid: 10 mg
- B6: 2 mg
- Biotin: 300 mcg
- B12: 6 mcg
- Folic acid: 400 mcg
The amounts of each of these vitamins in multivitamin supplements varies greatly from 10 to over 3,000 percent of the DV. Ask your doctor what amounts you should take based on your blood levels of each nutrient.
The B vitamins are water-soluble, and negative effects from excess intake are rare. As such, there are no established ULs for B12, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and biotin. Niacin, B6 and folate may have negative health effects if taken above the UL, which is 35 mg for niacin, 100 mg for B6 and 1,000 mcg for folate.
Help From Your Diet
The best supplements for healing after surgery can't compete with a healthy diet. However, depending on the type of surgery and your post-surgery health, you may not have much appetite or be able to eat certain foods. Once you're able to resume a balanced diet, you can meet your needs for vitamins A,C, D, E and B complex by eating a variety of foods rich in each nutrient, including:
- Vitamin C: Fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, red bell peppers, kiwi, broccoli, spinach and tomatoes.
- Vitamin A: Carrots, sweet potatoes, liver, spinach and broccoli
- Vitamin E: Wheat germ oil, sunflowers, almonds and broccoli
- Vitamin D: Salmon, tuna, sardines and fortified dairy products
- B vitamins: Milk, eggs, whole grains, fortified cereals, meat and fish
- British Journal of Surgery: Reduced collagen accumulation after major surgery
- NIH: Vitamin C
- Colorado State University: Water-Soluble Vitamins: B-Complex and Vitamin C – 9.312
- Netrition.com: Reference Values for Nutrition Labeling
- GNC: GNC Women's Ultra Mega® 50 Plus
- Centrum: Centrum Adults
- NIH: Vitamin A
- Journal of Research in Medical Sciences: The effect of vitamin A and vitamin C on postoperative adhesion formation: A rat model study
- Health University of Utah: How to Identify and Treat Post-Surgery Infections
- NIH: Vitamin E
- NIH: Vitamin D
- Journal of Investigative Medicine: Vitamin D and the Immune System
- MedlinePlus: B Vitamins
- NIH: Vitamin B6
- MedlinePlus: Folic Acid
- Consumerlab.com: Recommended Daily Intakes and Upper Limits for Vitamins and Minerals