Keeping a Strong Immune System Through COVID-19

Virginia Cancer Specialists Practice Blog

March 30, 2020
Virginia Cancer Specialists » VCS Practice News » Nutrition » Keeping a Strong Immune System Through COVID-19

As we are mostly confined to our house, it’s difficult to avoid the steady influx of information on COVID-19—what we are learning, what we don’t yet know, and community and medical needs.

Cancer patients are particularly on guard and tuning in during this time, as many commonly-used treatments cause the body’s immune system to be suppressed, making it easier to become infected.  While weakened immune systems are an ongoing concern during cancer treatment, the virulent coronavirus has heightened fears recently due to its rapid spread, lack of treatment, and unknown number of individuals currently infected.

Food for Thought—Steps You Can Start Today!

In addition to good handwashing and social distancing, as recommended by the public health community, here are some steps you can take now to strengthen your immune system and reduce your risk of getting sick!

  1. Focus on the big picture.

It’s understood that a major public health crisis, such as we are experiencing with the coronavirus, can cause wide-spread stress and anxiety. In addition to concerns about our own health, and that of our friends, family, colleagues, and fellow community members, our daily routines have been drastically altered and the lifestyle flexibilities that we are accustomed to are temporarily restricted.  Keeping your immune system strong through the uncertainty will not be a one-size-fits-all prospect.  Nor will it be about doing or not doing a single activity. Rather, it will be important to eat well, get good sleep, be physically active, find acceptable social outlets, and employ stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation.

  1. Eat for health.

Overall, it’s important to make healthy selections from each food group.  Fruits and vegetables are particularly important here—choose a rainbow from green to red to purple to orange.

To minimize your trips to the store, stock up on frozen and canned forms of your favorites and/or choose fresh types that tend to last, such as apples, green bananas, and grapes for fruits and beets, cabbage, carrots, and onions for vegetables.

Cooking with herbs and spices is easy way to incorporate healthy antioxidants into your diet. They can be fresh from your garden or dried.  As with fruits and vegetables, choose a variety.

Certain nutrients found in foods are immunity-boosting all-stars.  These include vitamins C and D and minerals zinc and magnesium. Go for foods rich in these nutrients, versus supplements, as your body prefers it that way!

  • Vitamin C – citrus fruits, kiwi, papaya, broccoli, bell peppers, spinach, tomatoes
  • Vitamin D – fatty fish, sardines, enriched eggs, and fortified foods (e.g., milk, orange juice)
  • Zinc – meat, fish, nuts and seeds, whole grains, legumes, eggs, dairy, and fortified cereals (check the label)
  • Magnesium – leafy greens, whole grains, fish, nuts, seeds, tofu, dark chocolate
  1. Be physically active.

When possible, get out for a walk—just make sure to keep a distance from those not in your household to protect against virus transmission.  If a longer walk makes you tired, try going for two or more short walks per day.  Take it at your own pace.

  1. Listen to your body.

If you are tired, sleep.  If you are hungry, eat (and make sure to choose healthy options).  Self-care and mindfulness will be very important during this time.

  1. Take food safety seriously.

The 4 main tenets of food safety are clean, separate, cook, and chill:

  1. Clean—Wash hands and surfaces often.
  2. Separate—Don’t cross-contaminate (keep raw and cooked foods separate during and after meal prep).
  3. Cook—Use a meat thermometer to determine that proper cooking temps have been reached (whole meats=145°; ground meats=160°; poultry=165°).
  4. Chill—Refrigerate promptly (perishable foods within 2 hours; discard leftovers that have been out for more than 2 hours).

I would add “choose” to that list for cancer patients—meaning, choose foods that are clear of visible mold and blemishes; pay attention to “use-by”/”sell-by” dates; and avoid foods from sources that can be easily infected by others (pre-cut produce, salad bars).

Do Your Best and Be Kind to You

And, I’ve said it before and will say it again—make sure that you are giving yourself grace.  Remember that being as healthy as possible is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not a search for perfection, but rather healthy habits that can be maintained long-term.  Idea—use this time of isolation to focus on you and experiment to determine what works best for your lifestyle!

Virginia Cancer Specialists Nutrition Team

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