Can you boost your immune system?

J. Rob Headrick, M.D., thoracic surgeon, CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center

J. Rob Headrick, M.D., thoracic surgeon, CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center

Walk into any health food store or local retailer, and you’re likely to see many products that claim to support or improve immunity. It’s true that as we age, our immune response decreases, which may contribute to more infections. People are living longer than ever before, and along with that comes the rise in age-related health conditions.

For people who have been diagnosed with cancer, maintaining and supporting a healthy immune system is even more important as your body works extremely hard to fight cancer cells. Cancer treatment affects your body’s ability to fight infection, so being proactive by choosing the right foods and protecting yourself from germs is key.

The Building Blocks of a Healthy Body

Our bodies need a variety of nutrients to function optimally. Macronutrients are the types of food that your body needs in large amounts to help you feel your best. These include carbohydrates, fat and protein.

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Healthy sources include starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets and corn; beans and lentils; fruits like apples, bananas, berries, oranges and pears; and whole grains like brown and white rice and oats.  

Fats are used by our bodies to help absorb some vitamins (A, D, E, and K are fat soluble, meaning they can only be absorbed when fat is available in a person’s diet). They’re also the building blocks of our hormones and protect the body’s nervous system tissues. Getting enough is essential for growth and development, but not all fats are created equal. Healthy sources of fat include seed like chia, flax and pumpkin; nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews; olives and olive oil; avocado; and fatty fish like salmon or trout.

Protein provides the building blocks for cell and muscle structures – including your bones, cartilage, hair, skin and blood. The body uses protein to build and repair tissues and supports a healthy immune system. Good sources of protein include eggs; fish and seafood like crab, oysters, salmon, shrimp, tuna and white fish; poultry; lean pork, beef and lamb; and tofu.

Say “Yes” to Super Foods

Some foods pack an especially powerful nutrient-rich punch. Although we don’t know if they specifically improve your immune system’s response, they are chocked full of the essential nutrients we do know your body needs.

Strawberries – For only 50 calories per cup, this sweet swing treat meets the daily vitamin C needs for most adults, which helps your body repair damaged tissue. One key antioxidant in berries is anthocyanin, which may also reduce the risk for heart attacks in some women.

Oats – A study by the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found a bowl of warm, fiber-rich oatmeal satisfies you more than cold cereal does. The filling fiber, called beta-glucan, may also lower cholesterol.

Chia seeds – Tiny, but mighty, chia seeds contain omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, antioxidants and minerals. When included in a healthful diet, research suggests they may help lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat found in your blood. Sprinkle ground or whole sees on cereal, rice or yogurt.

Asparagus – This versatile veggie may help prevent cancer – each serving dishes up antioxidants that could reduce your risk. It’s also rich in vitamins A and K.

Leafy greens – Spinach, kale, swiss chard, collard greens and mustard greens are a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, and several chemicals produced by plants that positively impact your health. These greens also add fiber, protein and several antioxidants to your diet.

Salmon The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (link source), recommends you eat seafood at least two times a week. This heart-healthy fish includes significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamin B-12 (important of healthy blood and nerve cells), vitamin D, selenium and vitamin B-6 (which has been shown to support nervous and immune systems).

Your immune system’s job is to protect you from infectious agents that exist in our environment. People who are malnourished are at a greater risk of contracting infectious diseases, which can be especially dangerous for people with cancer. Although we don’t fully understand it, there seems to be a connection between nutrition and healthy immunity. If you’re fighting cancer (or love someone who is), proper nourishment is critical in maintaining your health and strength now and in the long term. 

Strengthen Your Immune System with a Healthy Lifestyle

You’ve heard it before, and you’re hear it again – choosing a healthy lifestyle is the best way to keep your body in top condition. At any or stage of life, these healthy living strategies will help you feel better inside and out:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a healthful diet that includes fruit and vegetables at every meal.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Prioritize sleep.
  • Minimize stress where possible.
  • Don’t smoke or stop smoking if you do.
  • Wash hands regularly and cover your mouth when you cough.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation.


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