June 29, 2022
Protecting and boosting your immune system is vital when you are being treated for cancer. In the process of attacking cancer cells, chemotherapy, radiation treatment and immunotherapy may all compromise your immune system to some extent. This can lead to a condition called neutropenia, where the number of infection-fighting white bloods cells called neutrophils in your blood drops dramatically.
Even if you are not neutropenic, having a robust immune system can help you to fend off common infections and viruses, from stomach bugs to colds and flu, that can cause your treatment to be delayed or postponed. If your immune system doesn't have to contend with illnesses and infections, you will have more energy available to help you through your cancer treatment.
Immunity-boosting foods: boost your resilience during cancer
Staying well-nourished is vital as you live with cancer and your treatment pathway. The cancer, but more particularly, treatments including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy, may cause loss of appetite, so you’re simply not taking in enough nourishment to fuel your body at this time.
As a leading nutritionist working alongside oncologists and other medical doctors, I developed Nourish Drinks to help when your body needs more but wants less. It contains all the carbs, protein and healthy fats you need to sustain you as a meal supplement, plus 26 essential vitamins and minerals to support your immune system and wellbeing. You may also find our articles on Treatment for Loss of Appetite and Best Foods When You Have Loss of Appetite useful reading at this time.
Superfoods that make us magically immune to infections, bacteria and viruses don’t exist. But by making healthy choices about what you eat, you can help to give your body the nutrients it needs to support its own incredible immune system, and put you in the best place possible to support your wellbeing during cancer and its treatment. Read our article on food for resilience and recovery for more expert insight.
There are also some foods to avoid while on chemotherapy and during cancer treatments; our blog has more information to help.
Foods to eat during cancer and its treatment
I’ve worked with hundreds of patients undergoing cancer treatment. While every person is individual, these are some of the foods that can help to boost immunity at this time.
Avocados, peanut butter, cheese and cream, or a Nourish Drink, will provide your body with essential energy. Being undernourished and losing too much weight is an issue that’s not talked about enough during cancer treatment but your body needs fuel to fight infections.
You can enrich everyday meals with simple additions – try grating cheese on top of spaghetti bolognese or into an enriched potato mash; make Nourish Porridge by mixing your oats with Vanilla Nourish Drink for a sustaining breakfast; or stir some cream into soup.
Our blog on 10 Best Foods for Energy has more ideas to give you a nourishing boost.
Our microbiome – the trillions of ‘friendly’ bacteria in the gut – is an incredible line of defence against illness and disease. It’s our microbiome and the complex messages it sends to our brain and around our body that mobilises our immune response, helping to fight both short-term infection and the long-term inflammation that causes chronic disease.
Fibre-rich foods such as fruit and vegetables help to feed our microbiome but eating lots of these can upset the gut, especially if cancer treatment or your type of cancer have made it more sensitive. Gently cooking and mashing fruit and vegetables – think about stewed apples or poached blackberries, a bright green pea soup – can help to make the fibre easier to digest.
Beans and pulses are a good source of fibre and can be wonderfully soothing and nourishing. Try an Italian-inspired ribollita soup or a softly spiced and soothing chickpea and sweet potato curry.
Different foods can help if you are suffering with diarrhoea or constipation, so it’s worth adjusting your diet to see if small tweaks can alleviate symptoms.
The bright colours of fruits and vegetables are a clue to their immunity-boosting potential – the colours are created by antioxidants that help to repair and protect cells from damage, and fight off infection. Making your mealtimes as colourful as possible by adding a rainbow of fruits and vegetables to your plate can help ensure that you include as many different antioxidants in your diet as possible.
Frozen produce is a more affordable alternative to fresh fruits and vegetables – my freezer is always stocked with frozen berries to whizz into an easy and affordable smoothie, and peas and sweetcorn to make into soup or add to salads. Our blog Make Veg the Star of your Plate has advice on how to introduce more vegetables into your diet.
Your body needs protein in order to carry out its many processes and to function properly – it’s needed to produce hormones, support the immune system, build muscle and bone, and for brain development. Protein also is essential for energy, so it’s vital to include some at every mealtime – or supplement what you need with a Nourish Drink, which contains protein in its ingredients.
Eggs, fish, meat, beans and pulses are all rich sources of protein, although it’s worth noting that only animal protein contains all the eight essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, you’ll need to eat a range of plant protein sources to ensure you obtain all of the amino acids your body needs. Protein Power for Non-Meat Eaters has tips to ensure you get enough protein in a plant-forward diet.
Fats have been demonised in our diets but research is now showing that there is a big difference between the healthy fats that help our body to thrive, and the ultra-processed fats and oils that cause inflammation and disease.
Healthy fats such as olive and avocado oils are essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, which are essential in building immunity. They provide energy to fuel our body and its processes. And they contain valuable nutrients that promote heart health.
Fat: don’t fear the F word has more insight and reassurance on eating fats – and the best options to choose.
Nausea and a sore mouth can also be common side effects of cancer treatment; our blogs have tips on what to eat and foods to avoid to help you cope.