With the season of sniffles and sneezes upon us, it’s integral to ensure your immune system is shored up.
The immune system is a complicated mechanism that defends you from bacteria and viruses, and it’s especially important for many people undergoing treatment for cancer. Many chemotherapies damage the immune system as they attack all fast-growing cells, including the white blood cells that fight infection.
Some people with cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma will need treatment with a stem cell transplant or bone marrow transplant. Because these procedures replace the cells that produce infection fighting white blood cells, there is a period after a transplant when patients are especially vulnerable as the immune system resets.
This is why Dana-Farber offers nutrition services during treatment and survivorship through one-on-one appointments for those looking for tailored nutritional guidance, and group programming and online content through the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living.
Every patient’s needs are different, and you should follow the guidance of your care team. Here are some general tips for boosting immunity from Christina Conte, RD, nutrition coordinator of the Zakim Center.
Maintain a balanced diet
The foundation for a strong immune system is a healthy diet based on whole foods. “This is my top recommendation,” Conte says.
This includes a diet that incorporates vegetables and fruits which have important vitamins and minerals for your immune system. Protein also plays a key role in the immune system because it builds and repairs our cells.
Finally, keeping a balanced plate involves eating whole grains and dairy products which each have their own benefits.
Don’t rely on supplements
Conte stresses that crucial nutrients should come from whole foods rather than supplements. “We know that when we’re eating our food and getting our nutrients that way, our body has an easier time accessing them,” she explains.
There are also concerns about supplement safety: some may do more harm than good. While our bodies have a high threshold for many vitamins and minerals, taking some supplements over the long term or in high doses can lead to toxicity.
Still, supplements might be necessary for those with deficiencies. It’s best to take these supplements with the guidance of a registered dietitian.
“Err on the side of caution,” says Conte. “And only rely on them if you’ve been advised to take them by a physician.”
There are many foods with valuable immune-boosting vitamin C in season this time of year, like:
- winter squash
As an antioxidant, vitamin C neutralizes cell-damaging molecules called free radicals and boosts the growth of white blood cells, which fight infections. It’s a vitamin that our body doesn’t produce naturally and therefore we need to get it from our food.
Vitamin D supports the immune system by boosting immune cells’ production of microbe-fighting proteins while also tempering the damaging inflammatory response of some white blood cells.
Instead of getting vitamin D from food, your body mostly creates it by being out in the sun. Of course, this can be difficult in the cold, dark winter flu and cold season when your immune system is hard at work.
There are some foods that naturally contain vitamin D such as:
- fatty fish (like trout, salmon, and mackerel)
- certain cereals
- orange juice
However, this may be a case where a supplement can be helpful. Your physician can check your vitamin levels with a blood test to determine if you have a deficiency and refer you to a dietitian.
Getting a good night’s rest and staying active
Aside from what you put in your body, what you do with your body can influence your immunity’s strength. Getting regular healthy sleep is crucial to ensuring that your body gets the rest that it needs. While you sleep, your body releases important proteins shoring up your body’s defenses.
Staying active can also be beneficial to your immune system through its ability to lower stress. “We know when the body is stressed the immune system can be harmed,” says Conte. Getting exercise by regularly walking or using the courses in the Zakim Center is a great way to manage stress.
In addition to these tips, there are plenty of ways for you to minimize exposure. One of the most important measures is to wash your hands properly. It’s also crucial to practice food safety by washing produce thoroughly and cooking meat until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, killing all foodborne illness.
You can find more resources including wellness courses, immunity webinars, and cooking demos at the Zakim Center’s site.