Enhancing your immune system through lifestyle changes

Cancer, Family Health
Feb 28, 2023

Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion dietitian addresses common ways you can give a boost to your immune system

Most likely, we could all use a boost to our immune system. That’s especially true for cancer patients.

Individuals with cancer have a higher risk of infection due to changes in the immune system, which control the body’s defense mechanisms. This can make healing quicker a little more difficult.

“These changes could be due to the cancer, effects of certain types of treatment, inadequate nutrition and other pre-existing health conditions,” says Erica Abbarno, outpatient oncology dietitian for the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion in Bluffton. “If your increased risk for infection/decreased immunity is due to your treatment, this is typically temporary. Our bodies are brilliant and are usually able to recover over a period of time.“ LCRP dietitian Erica Abbarno

Abbarno addresses different aspects of our immune system and offers some foods and tips on ways you can boost it, even during your cancer treatment.

How does our body usually protect itself from infections?

We have two main lines of defense:

  1. Innate Immunity (skin, respiratory tract, saliva, sweat, etc.)
  2. Adaptive immunity (cells, tissues, and organs) has specialized mechanisms, which trigger the release of antibodies to target and kill pathogens.

What can I eat in order to enhance my immune system at all stages of treatment (pre/during/post)?

Before your mind jumps to supplementation of all sorts of vitamins and minerals, focus on the foundation we must have first, Abbarno says.

Foundation: Our immune system (cells, tissues and organs) need enough nutrients in order to continue working. This includes a variety of vitamins, minerals, calories and protein from whole foods, Abbarno says. Sources include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, whole grains, lean meats and dairy products.

Vitamins & Minerals:

Try to get a variety of vitamins and minerals in your diet. You may want to pay particular attention to the following:

Antioxidants: These are naturally present within a variety of foods. These are natural chemicals, which reduce inflammation in the body. Good sources include:

  • Vitamin C: Strawberries, oranges, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, leafy greens, tomatoes
  • Vitamin A: Eggs, milk, sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach
  • Vitamin E: Almonds, sunflower seeds, leafy greens, avocado, pine nuts, peanuts, red pepper

Zinc: Shellfish, oysters, legumes, red meat, seeds (hemp, pumpkin, squash, sesame), nuts (pine nuts, cashews, almonds), peanuts, dairy, eggs, whole grains

Vitamin D: Fatty fish, egg yolks, 15-30 minutes in the sun

Vitamin D deficiency is common. Your doctor can check your levels and supplement as needed.

Special attention: Gut health

Seventy to 80 percent of your immune system is located within your gut. A healthy gut relates to a stronger immune system, says Abbarno.

To have stronger gut health, try to get a daily intake of:

  • Prebiotics (“good bacteria promoters”): banana, onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, beans, garlic, whole grains
  • Probiotics (“good bacteria”): yogurt, kefir, aged cheese, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh
  • Soluble fiber: Soluble fiber is broken down by gut bacteria within the colon, forming short-chain fatty acids which then feed the beneficial/good bacteria, protect gut lining and enhance immune function. Good sources include oats, psyllium husk, barley, flaxseeds, chia seeds, amaranth and beans.

Related Article: Fiber: The unsung hero in weight management, digestion and lowering cholesterol


Abbarno recommends that you talk with your provider or a dietitian to determine if supplementing vitamins, minerals, probiotics or prebiotics are right for you.


Even though treatment may not put you in the mood for exercising, any bit of physical activity can be good for you. Exercise is known to decrease stress, reduces inflammation, decrease risk of chronic disease and stimulates immunity at a cellular level.

Incorporate exercise into your daily routine, as tolerated:

  • Walking, jogging, biking, swimming, rowing
  • Resistance training
  • Physical therapy

Related Article: Should I exercise during cancer treatment?


Inadequate sleep can decrease our body’s ability to fight off infections, Abbarno says. Aim for seven to eight hours of good quality sleep each night. You can create better sleep hygiene by:

  • Reducing screen time before bed (one to two hours)
  • Monitoring caffeine intake throughout the day (limit/eliminate intake in the afternoon)
  • Reduce/eliminate intake of alcohol
  • Reduce temperature in bedroom
  • Sleep and wake at similar or at the same time each day

Related Article: Ways to get a better night’s sleep


Short-term stress can be beneficial to immunity, but chronic stress can increase overall inflammation and decrease white blood cells, which help fight off infection. To manage your stress, Abbarno suggests:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Eat & drink responsibly
  • Quit smoking
  • Decrease demands
  • Set boundaries
  • Take time for you

General precautions

Other ways you can help your immune system include:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly (for 20 seconds) and often, particularly after touching different surfaces, your face, eating and drinking, using the restroom, etc.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands
  • Stay away from those who are sick
  • Stay home if you feel that are you not feeling well
  • Call your doctor if your symptoms are not improving 

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