Are you in the middle of cancer treatment…or about to start? Or is someone you love? If so, then today’s post is for you!
If this isn’t you but you know someone who could benefit, please feel free to share this with them.
Previously I talked about how to Nourish Your Immune System with my 10 favorite immune boosting foods, targeted supplements, and lifestyle practices.
All of these tips absolutely apply to you as you move through cancer treatment and they can go a long way to keeping your immune system supported as treatment often depletes your immunity.
But today I want to be more specific and talk about what happens when your blood counts start to drop and what you can do about it.
This is the most common complication from chemotherapy, & from certain radiation sites, and could be the primary reason you are unable to continue with treatment or need to delay treatment. It also puts you at a very high risk for life-threatening infections.
But here’s the thing…as with everything I teach…you CAN do something about this.
First, let’s make sure you know what I’m talking about. When I say “low blood counts” this refers to your White Blood Cells, Red Blood Cells, & Platelets.
- White Blood Cells (WBC) help your body fight infection. When numbers drop < 1000 this means your body may not be able to fight off an infection if you were exposed.
- Red Blood Cells (RBC) carry oxygen throughout your body. Your RBCs ability to carry oxygen is measured by the level of Hemoglobin in your blood. When Hemoglobin levels drop < 8 your body has to work really hard to get oxygen to all of your tissues; this will lead to extreme fatigue and shortness of breath.
- Platelets help your blood clot. When numbers drop < 20,000 this means your body may not be able to stop itself from bleeding.
You are likely having these numbers checked, in addition to other lab values, before each treatment. If these numbers drop too low, treatment will be held, your dose of treatment may be reduced, and it will often be recommended that you add in one of the following:
- Blood Transfusion: helpful if your RBC &/or Platelet count is too low
- Bone Marrow Growth Factors: helpful if your WBC count is too low
These definitely help but come with their own set of risks and side effects. Regardless of what medications or procedures your oncology team may prescribe, there are steps you can take with your diet, supplements, & lifestyle that will also help.
First and foremost you need to start with your diet. The foods you’re eating on a daily basis will ultimately have the biggest impact on your immune system and blood cell count.
Your protein needs are higher during treatment. Protein is an essential nutrient to your immunity and also for the repair & healing of tissues. Unfortunately if you’re dealing with taste changes and appetite suppression, protein rich foods are often the first to fall off. And yet these are arguably the most important right now.
Make a commitment to have a protein-rich food at every meal or snack and to eat it first before you fill up. I have a list of quick & easy protein foods to keep on hand here: 5 Tips To Lessen The Side Effects of Treatment.
In addition to this, especially if your counts have already dropped, I suggest adding in a protein powder. Ideally organic, grass-fed, whey protein powder if you don’t have a casein allergy. Whey will provide your body with all the essential amino acids in an easy to digest & highly absorbable form.
You can take it on it’s own mixed with water or an unsweetened nut milk, you can add it to a daily smoothie, or you can even mix it into whatever foods do sound good to you (like applesauce, oatmeal, or yogurt).
Immune Boosting Foods
Once you’ve boosted your intake of protein, I then suggest focusing in on immune boosting foods. Ideally include at least one item from this list at every meal. In between meals try to include an immune boosting beverage like mineral rich bone broth or green tea.
Garlic / Mushrooms / Fermented Foods / Vitamin C-Rich Foods / Omega-3 Rich Foods / Coconut Oil / Herbs & Spices / Colorful Veggies & Fruits
Blood Building Foods
There are also foods which can help to boost blood production. Foods rich in Iron, B vitamins, and other co-factors that help your body make blood cells. Again, these are foods that often fall off the radar when you’re not feeling well or eating as much. Try to include foods from this list at least once or twice a day and, if you’re not vegetarian, then try to get at least 1 serving of organic, grass-fed red meat every week.
Meat / Organ Meats / Egg Yolk / Poultry / Fish / Dark Leafy Greens / Beans / Lentils
There is quite a bit of confusion still around what is allowed on a “Neutropenic Diet”. You may hear this terminology from your oncology team if your numbers have dropped below the recommended levels.
Essentially, it just means a diet that is extra mindful of food safety. It should still be balanced with protein, healthy fats, and colorful plants.
It DOES NOT mean that you have to avoid all raw fruits & veggies. There is NO evidence that omitting raw fruits & veggies decreases rates of infection. You do want to wash all your raw fruits & veggies before eating them but you can still have a salad or fresh berries in your smoothie.
Here’s what you do want to do:
- Avoid raw meat, fish, eggs, & dairy products…yes that does mean no sushi. 😞
- Avoid unpasteurized beverages
- Avoid salad bars, buffets, and deli meats
- Avoid outdated or moldy foods
- Refrigerate leftovers immediately…don’t eat food that’s been left out for more than an hour or two
- Wash your hands well before and after handling food and make extra care that all food prep surfaces are clean and without risk for cross contamination
Once the dietary pieces are in order, then you can consider adding in supplements to further boost your immune system and blood counts.
Probiotics & Prebiotics
Chemotherapy or radiation to the abdomen will disrupt the microbiome. As you know from former posts, the gut is an essential component of your immune system. It actually houses 70% of your immune cells. So taking steps to support the microbiome during treatment can definitely help keep WBC counts up.
In addition to eating fermented foods, I suggest adding in a multi-strain probiotic plus prebiotic fiber. There is some research to suggest that a specific prebiotic fiber, arabinogalactan, may also boost WBC counts and activity both locally in the gut and throughout the body.
All mushrooms have immune boosting properties thanks to the beta-glucan polysaccharides found in mushrooms. These compounds are even more concentrated in medicinal mushrooms, like shiitake, reishi, maitake, & turkey tail.
In addition to eating mushrooms, I suggest adding a Mushroom Supplement. I especially like Host Defense’s Stamets7, Mycommunity, & Turkey Tail formulas. If blood counts start to drop then I often encourage clients to double their dose.
In addition to eating Vitamin-C rich foods, adding in a Vitamin C supplement, can further help to boost the immune system when counts begin to drop, specifically by increasing the production of WBCs & helping to protect them from damage. Vitamin C will also improve iron absorption; which can help raise RBC levels too.
Vitamin C is water soluble, which means it won’t accumulate in the body. However everyone will react to Vitamin C differently. For some people, taking high doses, can cause digestive distress, kidney stones, or iron overload. In people who are sensitive, these symptoms seem to appear at doses greater than 2000 mg per day. I generally recommend clients start between 1000-2000 mg per day.
I’ve talked at length about the benefits of Vitamin D in other posts. It is a very important nutrient for the immune system, so much so, that immune cells actually have receptors for Vitamin D.
If your levels are low it would definitely be beneficial to add a supplement. The dosing will vary based on your current level. I generally recommend clients start at 2000 IU per day and then we adjust it based on their blood level.
You can read much more about the benefits of Vitamin D plus what levels to be aiming for here: The Sunshine Vitamin.
Blood Building Supplements
If your RBC & Platelet counts are low then I would also suggest adding in supplements that can help encourage the body to produce more red blood cells. Adding in a high quality Multivitamin/mineral OR Methylated B Vitamins OR even an herbal formula like Floradix, could all be helpful.
Finally, we are holistic beings, and although your diet & supplements are essential in your ability to keep your blood counts up, there are lifestyle factors that also must be considered.
Exercise is a powerful tool to boosting both your immune system and your blood counts. You can read much more about the benefits of exercise here: Exercise: An Important Pillar In Your Healing Plan.
Make it a goal to get at least 30 minutes of activity every day, even if you don’t feel like it. Adjust the type or intensity depending on how you’re feeling but don’t miss an opportunity to move.
Devoting enough time to rest and recovery is just as important as getting your 30 minutes of exercise each day. When you sleep your body can repair and heal. And when you’re moving through cancer treatment there is a lot of repairing and healing happening, which means you’ll need even more sleep than usual.
Try to keep your evenings free and don’t schedule appointments early morning so you can take the time to get as much sleep as possible. And when you’re having a particularly exhausting day you might even want to carve out some time for a nap or to just lay down and relax.
This is sometimes easier said than done but when your blood counts are low you are at an increased risk for bleeding and infection. Go slow and stay mindful. That’s the best way to prevent injuries.
Here are some other things you can do:
- Use an electric shaver rather than a razor.
- Be gentle when brushing your teeth.
- Try not to touch, itch, or scrape insect bites, pimples, or rashes.
- Wear protective gloves when cooking, cleaning, or gardening.
- Wear shoes outside & inside the house.
Minimize Germ Exposures
This is also often easier said than done, especially if you live with school-aged children. But obviously important in making sure you minimize your risk for infection.
Here are some ways to help with that:
- Wash your hands frequently. Ask the people you live with to wash their hands frequently.
- Avoid people who are sick & stay away from crowds.
- Ask someone else to help clean the litter box, fish tank, or bird cage.
- Avoid getting in to public pools, hot tubs, or water parks along with lakes & ponds.
- Clean frequently touched items at home & at work; door handles, phone receivers, keyboards, etc.
Add Traditional Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture
Lastly, I always suggest bringing in integrative strategies to help support healing. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture have both been shown to boost the immune system, in addition to many other benefits. Take advantage of any local integrative providers you have access to.
Start With Your Diet
The easiest and most impactful place to start is with your diet. If you haven’t already, make sure you remove the foods that will deplete immunity and sabotage your goals of healing. You can review the list of those most toxic foods HERE.
Then, make sure you’re bringing in enough protein, including protein powder if needed.
From there you can add in more of the immune boosting & blood building foods I mention above plus some targeted supplements.
Round out your plan by including enough exercise & sleep plus mindfulness around your germ exposure & risk for injuries.
Here’s the thing…you may still need the blood transfusion &/or WBC growth factors and that’s okay. Please don’t feel like you failed.
All the steps above will prevent your counts from dropping even lower and minimize the need for those interventions over and over throughout the course of your treatment. It could be the difference between needing those extra procedures after your first treatment versus towards the end of your treatment. It also may very well be the reason you are able to continue the entire treatment plan and move towards a full cancer recovery.
Always stay focused on what you have control over and remain optimistic that your body has what it needs to heal.