From surgery to bracing to a combined surgical repair-reconstruction, there are many ways to approach rehabilitation following an ACL injury, depending upon its severity. (See The Athlete’s Guide to the ACL.) But regardless of the rehab route you and your doctors choose, proper nutrition will optimize it.
With any ACL injury, an athlete’s body goes through three stages: inflammation, proliferation and remodeling. Here’s how you should adjust your eating habits during each stage to regain health as fast as possible.
Post-injury, you’ll notice painful swelling around the affected area. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends ingesting omega-3 fatty acids. You can get them from fish, but also from whole food sources like algae, flax, hemp and flower and seed oils. Fats, garlic, turmeric, green tea and pineapples also contain nutrients helpful for combatting inflammation. (See 6 Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Relieve Muscle Soreness and Battle Soreness With NY Giants LB Mark Herzlich’s Fish Taco Recipe.)
Also during this stage, it’s necessary to boost your calorie intake. Don’t go overboard, but an additional 300 calories per day from protein, dietary fats and complex carbohydrates can help.
Once inflammation subsides and the damaged tissue has been removed, the body makes space for new tissue to begin forming. This is called scar tissue, which lays the foundation for new muscle cells, making your ACL regenerate specifically how you rehab it. Though it is not absolutely necessary to wear a brace at this point in recovery, it is advised since the brace allows you to keep your knee joint stabilized, ensuring a proper alignment for new ACL tissue formation.
After ACL surgery, pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines provoke muscle atrophy. To give your body better control over this molecular activity, include the antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E in your diet. Research from the Linus Pauling Institute suggests leg strength is associated with antioxidants in the bloodstream, so consuming them may promote strength. Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit contain vitamin C, and wheat germ and grains have large amounts of vitamin E.
Scar tissue will eventually be replaced by stronger tissue, although it will not be as strong as your pre-injured ACL. As soon as you are cleared by your physician or therapist, engage in light knee rehab work so that your new tissue isn’t too taut. It may be intimidating to work on the same area that you injured, but your body will help by delivering blood supply and nutrients to areas that need them. Since your rehab will now focus on strength training, consuming protein becomes especially important. Your ligaments contain several strands of strong, structural proteins for strength and resilience, and your body needs protein to provide amino acids to assemble into new tissue. In general, you should consume two or three servings of protein per day.
Always consult with your doctor for a more individualized approach to rehab and diet. Depending upon your injury, your nutrition needs in certain areas may be greater.