After a serious illness like sepsis or septic shock, it takes time for your body to heal and for you to regain your strength. The last thing that may be on your mind post sepsis might be the idea of eating a healthy diet. But it is essential to eat well after a hospital stay. This allows you to provide your body with the nutrients it needs during this period.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection or injury. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment. Sepsis can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
Rebuilding muscle mass post sepsis
People who have been in bed for an extended period lose muscle mass. This is due to several factors, such as:
- Inability to consume calories
- The energy your body takes to fight the illness
- Lack of movement, which is what keeps muscles strong
Your body, including your muscles, is made up of cells. Those muscles need nutrition to rebuild themselves when they break down or refurbish themselves if there’s weight loss or dehydration. Food helps rebuild what we need to build that muscle mass and bring back that lost weight. Good nutrition also helps our brain and our cognitive function. For example, our brain needs 150 grams a day of carbohydrates so that we can think.
Keeping all this in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that the first step in recovery post sepsis is to help rebuild muscle strength and mass. Exercise accomplishes part of this, even if it’s only walking around the house at first, and part is through good nutrition choices. Unfortunately, especially if the survivor lives alone, eating well may not be at the top of the priority list. Survivors may not be able to get out to buy the groceries they need. They may not have the strength to prepare the meals, let alone eat them.
Speaking with a dietitian
Dieticians are the food experts. It would be a good idea for anyone recovering from a serious illness or who has any dietary issues to consult with a dietician. During the first visit, the dietitian would do an interview, asking what you like to eat, how you get and prepare your food, and the difficulties you may have in consuming a healthy diet. You may be asked questions like:
- What health issues do you have? People with diabetes or high blood pressure may be given different advice than someone who has no similar medical history.
- What medications are you currently taking? What about herbs or supplements?
- How much weight have you lost since you first became ill?
- Do you live alone, prepare your own meals?
- What was your diet like before you became ill? For example, what’s a typical breakfast?
- What would you like to see in your diet?
- Does your food taste different, like a metallic or salty taste that shouldn’t be there?
- Are there foods you like that you find you don’t like or can’t tolerate anymore?
When the dietitian has the important information, they can go over the recommendations and provide tips and tricks to help you meet them.
What to do if you’re not hungry post sepsis
Loss of appetite isn’t uncommon post sepsis. First, you’re not as physically active, so you may not be working up an appetite. Foods may taste funny. The idea of eating may make you feel nauseous. Or, you may be too fatigued to want to eat. If this is the case, usually grazing is your best bet, rather than a few large meals. Grazing means picking at healthy foods or having small meals whenever you’re hungry throughout the day. Facing the idea of eating can be difficult. In this case, a smoothie made with fruits and some vegetables can be filling, tasty, and healthy, as can soups and similar meals.
If you’re not tempted to eat because the food doesn’t taste good, experiment with flavors – herbs and mild spices can make a big difference in how something tastes. Pain can also affect your appetite. In this case, try timing your meals for about a half-hour or so after you take your pain reliever. This allows the pain to subside, and hopefully, your appetite will be a bit stronger.
Ensure you have a good combination of nutrients in your food and drink. This is not the time to follow special diets that eliminate carbs or other food groups. Healthy fats, such as those from olives, nuts, fatty fish (like salmon, tuna, mackerel), soy, and tofu, are essential in providing your body with protein, which is a building block for muscle mass. You can get protein by consuming whole eggs, fruit, and even peanut butter.
As much as dietitians want their clients to eat as healthy as possible, moderation is key. If you’re not terribly hungry and you crave food that may not be considered beneficial, a small amount now and then should not hurt. This, of course, is unless you have a medical issue that prevents you from consuming it. If you forbid a whole group of foods, that may worsen the cravings than if you had just enough to satisfy the desire.
Check your insurance
Check to see if your insurance policy allows for dietary consultations. Your doctor’s office may have a dietitian on staff. If you are the caregiver of someone who has survived sepsis, check with the hospital before your loved one is discharged because there may be dietary advising services available to patients while they are still in the hospital.
Other sources for dietary help
If you are looking for menu and diet suggestions, ChooseMyPlate.gov is presented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There, you can find information on healthy eating, as well as recipes and links to other resources. If you have other health issues, like diabetes or heart disease, their foundation or association websites often have nutritional information, which are reliable.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Sepsis and Nutrition (Post Sepsis) was created with the help of Cindy Pratt, RND, Critical care dietitian, Jefferson Health System, Washington Twp., NJ.
Suggested Citation: Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Nutrition (Post Sepsis). 2023. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/nutrition-post-sepsis/
Updated February 7, 2023.