The winter months bring cold and flu season, which can take a toll on your health. While flu shots and rest are common advice for prevention, a strong immune system is critical to keeping you healthy all year long. According to Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDE, a Registered Dietitian at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, “Your body’s ability to fight infection and disease depends on your immune system.”
Margaret provides one-on-one nutrition consultations for people with cancer who have a weakened immune system due to the effects of treatment, but she says keeping a healthy immune system is important for everyone. “Boosting your immune system during and after cancer treatment can help you feel better, maintain your strength, avoid treatment delays and speed your recovery. This goes for anyone fighting an illness, or preventing one.”
Margaret offers these important tips to help boost your immune system and keep it running smoothly throughout the year.
Keep a plant-based, heart-healthy menu.
Choose foods first as your source of vitamins and nutrients. Unless your healthcare team directs you to take a vitamin or supplement, you likely do not need one. The best way to include these nutrients is by eating whole foods. Make sure your meals incorporate a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, beans, lean protein and healthy fats.
Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day to stay energized and to ensure your body is getting enough calories, proteins and nutrients. Protein acts as a “builder” and the body uses it to build and repair tissues. Protein is also vital for making hormones and enzymes that promote the body’s daily functions and supports a healthy immune system. In addition, drinking eight to 10 glasses of fluids every day is one of the most effective ways to flush waste from your body and support the health of your immune system.
Power up with phytochemicals.
Fruits, vegetables and other plants contain naturally occurring substances known as phytochemicals. Phytochemicals give fruits and vegetables their color and flavor. Phytochemicals act as soldiers in the immune system to protect the body from damage. Studies show that phytochemicals help support the:
• Immune system
• Creation of healthy cells
• Death of damaged cells (such as cancer cells)
Decrease your risk of malnutrition.
It can be harder for a malnourished body to fight off an illness or infection. Malnutrition results when the body does not receive enough calories and/or nutrients to promote good health and sustain healthy functioning of your body’s systems. When you’re “in the slumps,” it can be easy to avoid eating altogether. Follow these tips to reduce your risk of malnutrition during cancer treatment:
• Choose a variety of foods each week from all the food groups. Talk with your healthcare team before changing your diet. Eat regularly throughout the day, every four to six hours. Even if you do not feel hungry, try to have a snack or mini meal. If you forget to eat, try setting a timer.
• Include a protein source with every meal and most snacks.
Make changes to your lifestyle. And stick to them.
In addition to using nutrition to boost your immune system, you can also make changes to your lifestyle to help support health and immunity. These include:
• Decrease your exposure to bacteria, viruses and germs.
• Aim for 7 hours or more of sleep every night. If your sleep is interrupted, try a 30-minute nap during the day.
• Reduce stress by taking time to do things you enjoy such as spending time with family, spending time outdoors or reading. If your feelings of anxiety or depression make it difficult for you to complete daily tasks, talk to your healthcare team.
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society offers PearlPoint Nutrition Services to all cancer patients and caregivers, providing free nutrition education and consultations. Visit www.LLS.org/nutrition for more information.