Many people – especially those who may have weakened immune systems from diseases like pancreatic cancer or its treatment – are hoping to find ways to boost their immune systems right now. But, there is no single food that can strengthen someone’s immune function, according to Jeannine Mills, MS, RD, CSO, LD.
Mills, a clinical oncology dietitian at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and member of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s (PanCAN) Scientific & Medical Advisory Board, added, “But, lack of calorie intake (and lack of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals) may depress immune function.
“Those who are malnourished may become more susceptible to infections.”
Mills also noted that the internet is full of myths and misconceptions about how food or components of food can impact the immune system. “More recently, sales in supplements (herbal, vitamins, minerals) have increased with COVID-19, although there is no evidence to support the use of supplements,” she said.
So, what can we do? Mills provided the following guidelines:
Incorporate a variety of foods into your diet. This is helpful, because varying nutrients (phytonutrients, natural antioxidants, vitamins and minerals) are available in whole foods.
- These nutrients often work together to provide health benefits, as opposed to taking supplements that only provide a single type of nutrient at a time.
Keep your blood counts up. This is especially important for patients with pancreatic cancer who are currently on treatment, which may lower their white blood count or absolute neutrophil count, which are both important in fighting infections.
- These patients and their caregivers should be particularly diligent (now more than ever) about practicing good hygiene, handwashing and safe food practices.
- Safe food practices may include avoiding raw meat or raw eggs or consuming unpasteurized foods.
- You do not need to avoid fresh fruit and vegetables, but it is advised that they are washed thoroughly – and thrown out if they appear moldy or bruised.
- Some of the B vitamins, like vitamin B12 and folate, can also help with regards to supporting blood cells.
- It’s important that you talk with your healthcare team before you consider starting to take any vitamin or mineral or supplement.
Limit trips to the grocery store. Under current restrictions, it’s best to purchase what you need for a week or two at a time.
- Some foods can be safely frozen, like breads for three to six months, or milk, for up to three months.
- Many frozen vegetables and fruit retain quality comparable to their fresh counterparts. Bananas can be frozen to add to fruit smoothies later.
Take good care of your overall health. General ways to take care of yourself – get good sleep, limit alcohol consumption, make sure to get activity or movement within or outside of the home – can also support immune function.
While there isn’t any one food to eat or behavior to adopt to boost your immune system, good nutritional choices can help keep your body healthy and strong. And during this time of uncertainty and fear, we can all help keep each other safe by following federal and regional regulations and restrictions and staying home when we can.