Nutrition: Low immunity

Friday 04 May 2018

I have decided to stay on the subject of the immune system as it is something I am asked about time and time again. I understand the importance of supporting your immune system, especially if you are undergoing treatment for cancer and hope you find information helpful

The immune system and cancer

It is safe to say that your immune system takes quite a hit when you have cancer; Not only does treatment lower your white blood cell count, but cancer itself can also weaken the immune system.   Our white blood cells are vital to protect us from infection which is why during cancer it is important to try and maintain a healthy diet as the immune cells rely on good nutrition to function well. Some of you may have been warned that you may become neutropenic a result of treatment, this means that your white blood cell count becomes very low and as a result you have a very weak immune system. it is important to contact your medical team if you have any symptoms of infection. I am sure that they will talk to you about this.

So what can you do to help yourself?
One of the first things to look at is something I have already discussed before – protein!

Protein:Protein foods are important to try and include in your diet regularly, because protein is necessary for the manufacture of antibodies, an important part of our defence mechanism.

Enzymes and hormones are also made from protein and these are vital for good cell communication. Without this systems would not work.  You may remember from an earlier blog that sufficient protein is important to help to maintain weight and give strength, for the rebuilding of tissues, to help fight infection and help guard against fatigue.

Good protein sources would come from fish, eggs, lean meat, pulses, nuts and seeds and also of course protein powders which can be used added to smoothies or soups when appetite may be poor.  (see blog 5 which I posted on May 1st which gives lots of detail about the use of various types of protein powders).

Fresh fruit and veg As I have mentioned in the previous 2 blogs that fresh fruits and vegetables are also vital for the immune system as these give us the vitamins and minerals and phyto chemicals which are the catalysts for so many important actions and reactions in the body.

I know that sometimes it is difficult to maintain a good eating programme while having treatment as tastes change, appetite can become poor and problems with nausea and diarrhoea can arise. We will look at some of these in our next blog. However eat as well as you can when you can, on good days make the most of the nourishing foods available.

Some foods to avoid when immunity is low

It would be a good idea, particularly at times of low immunity to try and avoid foods that have been shown to deplete the immune system.

Sugar is one of these such foods I am afraid, which is not good news because when we are feeling tired and perhaps a bit low we want the sweet comfort foods.

That aside sugar itself has no nutritional value at all but in order for it to be metabolised it uses up valuable nutrient stores that we have and unless these stores are replenished it could be easy to become depleted.

Research tells us that Sugar has been shown to directly reduce white cell activity (which will lower immunity) and according to some research by as much as 40% which is quite dramatic.

According to the Environmental Law Centre of the UK sugar may affect the immune system within 30minutes of eating and the effect may last up to 5 hours which is a bit sobering. It has also been reported that it can indirectly reduce vitamin C absorption by the cells and vitamin C is vital for good immune function. Alcohol of course would come under the sugar umbrella and affect the immune system in much the same way.

If life becomes too difficult without something sweet, then try some of the sugar alternatives that are available namely Agave syrup, xyitol and acacia honey as mentioned in blog 7. These are all available from major supermarkets, have a sweet taste without any negative effects on the immune system. Now if you do succumb to sweet foods then do not worry too much, try to have them after other food which will minimize the impact on blood sugar and try to keep them to a minimum.

Processed foods Heavily processed foods with lots of additives added will also be detrimental to the immune system as these additives are not natural and our body has to work hard to try and process them. They can interfere with normal cell function including those cells of the immune system. These foods usually also contain damaged fats which again affect the normal functioning of all cells. We did an extensive blog on fats on on 29th May blog number 9. This shows clearly which fats are best avoided if possible and which ones have health promoting properties and will not affect proper cell function or the immune system.

Eating to avoid infection

The other side of the coin would be to look carefully at what you eat  to avoid infection or contamination. Some foods may themselves carry bacteria. Foods using raw eggs like mayonnaise, soufflés and other uncooked dressings. Fruits and vegetables should be washed and it may be a good idea to peel them before eating. Soft cream cheeses may carry bacteria as will raw or undercooked meat.  Always use clean utensils and chopping board when preparing foods and store left over food at a low temperature and if they are to be reheated make sure that they are piping hot right into the centre.

Carrot Muffins
These will give a sweet fix and a bit of comfort without upsetting the immune system. They will also freeze well .

10oz/250g wholemeal SR flour.
1 level tsp baking powder.
6oz/200mls of agave syrup.
3 eggs
6oz/150mls rapeseed oil.
1 tsp cinnamon.
8oz/200g grated carrots.

  1. Light oven gas 4/elec 160’C. Put muffin cases into cake tins.
  2. Put all the ingredients except the carrots in a bowl and mix really well till smooth and well blended.
  3. Stir in the carrots.
  4. Spoon the mixture (which will be quite runny) equally between 12 muffin cases and bake for approx 20min till risen and firm to the touch
  5. Cool in tins for 10min before cooling on a cooling rack.


Blog originally written by Caroline July 2012

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