A talk originally given to a support group at UCLA


A talk originally given to a support group at UCLA

How nutrition impacts your immune system

The food we choose each day contain protective elements that support our immune system. The immune system is that part of our body that maintains our health and protects us from disease. The following nutrients are essential for optimal immune health. Protein for tissue repair itself and essential fatty acids, particularly the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and in minute quantities of most fruits, vegetables and grains. Vitamin C is well known as an important antioxidant; oranges, lemons and strawberries excellent sources. Vitamin A found in liver and fortified dairy products as well as its precursor plant derived beta carotene and other carotenes found in carrots, cantaloupe and sweet potatoes. The B vitamins are also vital in providing the energy required for the protective actions of our immune system. Vitamin E acts mainly to protect cell walls and other fat soluble areas of the body and central nervous system. Vitamin D and sunlight that activates this hormone like vitamin is part of the calcium regulation and may play an important role in cancer prevention. Minerals that are involved in immune cell function include zinc, selenium, magnesium, boron and silicon. These minerals maintain the structural integrity of the body as well as the actions of the protective white cells and their constituent cytokines such as the interleukins and interferons. In animals a magnesium deficiency can lead to lymphoma. Magnesium is found in whole grains and dark green leafy vegetables.

Lymphomas and Leukemias and Nutrition

Nutrients are vital to the action of the immune system but the intricacies of how it interacts with various cancers is not yet well understood. Clearly those nutrients that are important in health are also needed when recovering from those disorders that affect the immune system. Some may be required in larger quantities and these would likely be the antioxidants as well as the omega-3 fatty acids. Antioxidants occur naturally in nature to protect plants from sunlight, insect and environmental damage. Fruits are particularly rich in antioxidants and botanical factors that are protective. We recommend consuming at least 8 servings of fruits or fruit juices if you have been diagnosed with one of the cancers that affect the immune system. Supplements are also valuable but should be selected carefully and with expert advice. A key concept to remember with these particular cancers is to avoid immune stimulation while providing immune support: herbs like Echinacea should be avoided.

Adjuvant nutrition is the use of nutrition as complementary medicine. This is especially valid with immunotherapies.

Traditional nutritional remedies are those recognized since the time of Hippocrates and include garlic and liver. Herbs that have traditionally been used to support immune function include Golden Seal, Echinacea and Astragalus. Burdock root and rhubarb are also traditional remedies used in some teas including Essiac tea. Green tea contains flavonoids that are anticarcinogenic.

Additional Nutrition Remedies

Digestive enzymes including bromelain from pineapple and papain from papaya have also been used in conjunction with traditional chemotherapies. Bromelain has been shown to have immunostimulatory effects and may induce differentiation in certain cells. Also important is the sulfur amino acid cysteine and its peptide glutathione. Glutathione is important in the recycling of the antioxidant cycle involving Vitamin E and selenium. Aloe vera has been used in the treatment of leukemia and juice extracts that remove any toxicants may be valuable.

A Structured Post-treatment Nutritional Program

Often there is a feeling of "let-down" after traditional chemotherapy regimens are over and you are in the "wait and see" period. This is when nutrition can be particularly valuable. It helps you to replenish lost nutrient stores as well as to feel more participatory in your recovery process. Here are some of the key factors that I use when designing individualized programs for people:

  • 21 days of a predominantly vegetarian diet with supplements to induce liver detoxification enzyme systems, e.g. milk thistle (silymarin) and cysteine (or N-acetyl cysteine).
  • 5 or more servings of fresh fruits daily.
  • 5 or more servings of fresh vegetables daily.
  • addition of at least 3 servings of fish per week (salmon, etc.)
  • gradual incorporation of at least 5 servings of beans per week.
  • addition of digestive enzymes daily.
  • addition of yogurt or other probiotic food/supplement daily
  • addition of 1-2 tablespoons of nuts daily (for magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids).

White blood cells and other immune components are sensitive to malnutrition. Insufficient quantities of good quality protein, zinc and vitamin C can reduce the number and activity of white cells within weeks. It is important to maintain a regular supply of the nutrients needed and when this is difficult, such as when you are going through a treatment and feel nauseous or aren't hungry you need to focus on this soon afterwards with appropriately healthy choices of foods rich in nutrients and supplements to make up the balance.

Some immunotherapies have direct effects on nutrients and I have listed some of the common drug/nutrient interactions and simple remedies to minimize them.

Remember feed your body well and it will thank you!

More information on optimizing nutrition during cancer treatments can be found in
The Cancer Nutrition Handbook, covering recommended supplements and more...