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Nutrition for Immune Support During Chemotherapy

written by: BettyHolt • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 1/5/2011

The actions of chemotherapy can greatly diminish immune system function. Many physicians believe it is important to boost immune support during chemotherapy. Starting with a healthy diet, you can add supplements which target immune function. Some of those are discussed here.

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    Chemotherapy

    The goal of chemotherapy is to shrink tumors, slow their growth and annihilate any cancer cells that may have metastasized to other parts of the body. Unfortunately, chemotherapy attacks all fast-growing cells and kills healthy cells, too. Chemotherapy can produce severe side effects, including damage to the heart muscle and gastrointestinal system, nausea, anemia and extreme suppression of the immune system. While nutrients and hormone therapies can be used to lessen the toxic effects of chemotherapy, there are no long-term survival studies showing whether these nutrients may also protect cancer cells in such a way that they diminish survival. Some supplements can interfere with chemotherapy's effects, so it is best to check with your physician first.

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    Nutritional Immune Support

    According to Life Extension, melatonin has been used for immune support during chemotherapy. By inhibiting free radical production, it mediates some of chemotherapy's toxic effects. A randomized study showed melatonin to lower the incidence of neuropathies, thrombocytopenia, stomatitis, alopecia, lack of strength and vomiting. Chemotherapy reduces blood cell production, which can be restored by taking shark liver oil. Shark liver oil has been shown to enhance the production of blood platelets and enhance the immune system. In combination with vitamins A and E, selenium has been used to lessen the toxicity of chemotherapy drugs, particularly Adriamycin. Vitamin E and selenium act synergistically to enhance the immune system. Patients taking vitamin C during chemotherapy reported improved appetite and less need for painkillers. Astragalus, a Chinese medicinal herb, has been shown in animal studies and preliminary human clinical studies to improve immune system function and boost the effects of conventional immune therapy for some cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.

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    The Block Center's Individualized Cancer Care

    The Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment was founded in 1980 by Drs. Keith and Penny Block. The Center's approach includes an individualized plan of care which involves the patient and a customized nutritional regimen with physical, psychological and emotional interventions. Admitting that conventional care therapies decrease the immune system's white blood cells and leave the patient vulnerable to infection, Dr. Block believes boosting immune support during chemotherapy is an important part of treatment. The nutrients selenium, beta-carotene and zinc increase natural killer cells and increase their cancer-killer activity. In addition he recommends beta-glucans, probiotics and glutamine to support immune health.

    Other supplements Dr. Block recommends are: milk thistle, for protection against chemical toxicity; ginger, which reduces nausea and vomiting and detoxifies the body; Fu Zheng Chinese formulas, which help improve vitality and overcome fatigue; protein and amino acid formulas, which reduce muscle loss and help maintain immune and biological functioning; glutamine, which reduces some side effects of treatment; fish oil, which suppresses inflammation; and green tea, which acts as a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

    The American Cancer Society recommends a cancer-prevention diet of at least five servings of fruits and vegetables, whole grains over refined grains and sugars, and lean cuts of unprocessed meat, emphasizing fish, chicken and beans as protein sources.

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