- by Mark W
Mark W: Are there supplements, diet, or other activities that can help or hurt my leukemia and boost my immune system? Please advise. Thanks.
Julie Lanford: Hey everyone, I am Julie Lanford. I am an oncology dietician and author of cancerdietitican.com, and I work for a nonprofit cancer support agency.
And thanks, Mark, for this great question. It’s often a question that people ask me, and I think the term boosting your immune system is a little hard to answer, but I also will tell you there are some things that you can do to support your immune system. We might not always want to boost it too much. We don’t want an overactive immune system. So, I aways use the term immune supportive diet.
So, there are some things you can do. Evidence consistently shows that consuming a nutritious diet supports a healthy immune function. And I always remind people that if you are deficient in a nutrient, you will need a supplement to bring your levels back up to normal range. However, in general, there aren’t any individual foods or nutrients that have a strong effect on how our bodies function. So rather than focusing on any one individual food or one individual nutrient, which is typically what supplements will offer you, the bulk of the scientific evidence suggests that it’s your pattern of eating; do you eat lots of plants? That’s generally what is giving us the nutrients that our bodies need to function at their best. So, I like to focus on those things what you need to eat more of, which is lots of plant foods.
There are some things, of course, we would recommend you eat less of it’s not as fun for me to talk about but mainly that means consuming less of ultra-processed foods like processed meats or refined grains; eating less sugar sweetened beverages, less alcohol. You’ll notice I don’t say “none” because we all have our favorite foods, and you should be able to fit in whatever works for you, in moderation. But when you’re thinking about the things that you want to include as much as possible, lots of plants, moderate portions of meat or dairy products if you choose to eat those.
And then also, if you are at high risk, so if you’re in an immunocompromised state because of your treatment or your counts are low, that is a time where you need to be extra cautious around food safety. It does not mean you have to completely avoid fresh fruits and vegetables, but we do want to make sure that you’re using extra food safety techniques like storing foods at proper temperatures, cooking foods to proper temperatures, maybe staying away from situations where somebody else or a restaurant is cooking for you because you can’t be sure of what they have done, but just being extra cautious in the situations that you’re immune compromised so that you don’t expose yourself at risk for infection.
But, in general, we encourage healthy eating for people facing cancer similarly as we do the general public, and that’s the best way to support our immune systems. Just give it those tools that you can get through good, quality foods in a mostly plant-based diet.