Now I happen to believe that we are what we eat. Hardly revolutionary, I know, but I also think that they aren’t many conditions that aren’t improved by good and possibly well targeted nutrition. And that the opposite could well be true; many conditions could be worsened by inadequate and poor nutrition. Certain rules go without saying; try to buy your food as close to its natural state as possible, and eat all of those foods in moderation and again, it goes without saying, in the correct balance. But despite following these rules, there will, however, sometimes be times in our lives when we will need to re examine our approach to our diets, perhaps when our immune system is put under greater stress, or just as we age. I have recently been asked to put my mind to what foods might help at times like this and, in particular, share my thoughts on what foods might help alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, so this post will be a bit different to usual and will try to cover a couple of natural remedies.
If we consider that at the moment, 44% of the U.K’s population will suffer from cancer at some point in their lives, with that figure set to rise to 47% by 2020 (Figures taken from http://www.macmillan.org.uk) it is clear that at some point a large proportion of us will also have to consider just this, as we will have to either undergo some form of cancer treatment or help a friend or relative through it.
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy puts you under incredible stress, both physically and mentally, and requires more than ever that you listen to your body, and indeed the medical practitioners that treat and look after you. At this point I should clarify again that I am not a doctor, and write this piece only intending to support those under going such treatment, not as hard and fast medical rules that all undergoing treatment should observe. Remember: always consult your doctor.
I don’t intend to write a comprehensive guide to nutrition for chemotherapy; there are many potential side effects that I could not cover in one post and the interactions of various food and medicines is something that should be covered by an oncologist, but I can outline some tried and tested methods to help out in three major areas: nausea, fatigue and immune support. I might add that these methods aren’t only for those undergoing chemo, they can be used to help anyone who is suffering with similar problems.
The first priority for anyone undergoing such treatment is probably to control their nausea, which can be so severe that eating anything, or even smelling food can be a real challenge, but the advice also stands for morning sickness and other upset stomach complaints. Several herbs can help to control nausea, the most obvious being ginger. Ginger can be taken in several ways, either sucked in a crystallised form , nibbled on as a biscuit or added into tea. The tea couldn’t be easier to prepare, and just involves grating a small piece (a centimetre or so) into very hot water and allowing to stew for a couple of minutes. If you add a couple of slices of lemon, you’ll also be stimulating your liver to produce extra bile and therefore easing your digestion as well. If you don’t fancy a hot drink, you can let it go cold and drink it over ice throughout the day, perhaps with a couple of mint leaves thrown in to really boost that anti nausea effect. Both peppermint and fennel can also be made into a tea, both being powerful digestive aids and having anti nausea effects. Don’t worry about finding the teabags, a couple of sprigs of either simmered in boiling water will produce a delicious tea, and one that can be kept to be warmed up as needed and sipped on throughout the day. Try these herbs in different mixtures and blends. Remember, what appeals to one person might not sound at all appetising to another. One very good blended recipe that I often use for nausea in children and adults alike can be found here and is well worth a go. Sipping on the teas little and often will also help to ensure that you don’t get dehydrated, and are avoiding all those caffeinated drinks out there.
Another hard to fight side effect is tiredness, or fatigue. The most obvious answer to this one is to ensure that you get enough rest and then enough calories, and calories from nutrient rich foods. In turn, these nutrient dense foods will also boost your immune system. Of course, this is not always possible when nauseous, but there are certain foods that you should try. Tahini, for example, is packed full not only of zinc, copper, selenium and iron; all of which are needed not only to make white blood cells and therefore strengthen your immune system, but also with protein, fibre and omega 3 fats. The first thing we all think of about tahini is usually hummus, (itself full of goodness from the chick peas) but if it is hard to stomach, there are other options. One of my favourites, and good value for money too, is to add it to a homemade a bone broth. Packed full of nutrients, bone broth is also full of healing gelatine, a source of the amino acid glycine which is needed to make one of the most powerful anti-oxidants; glutathione. Stir through a couple of teaspoons of tahini, and chopped fresh herbs and you have a highly nutritious soup, which is easy to digest and easy on the stomach.
Bone Broth Recipe
Ask your butcher for some beef bones (you can also use whatever bones you have, but if they are pork or chicken, I would skip the browning stage)
Put your bones in a roasting tin and brown in a hot oven for around 40 minutes, then put into a large heavy bottomed saucepan and add a couple of diced onions, a diced carrot or two, a stick of celery or so, maybe a clove of garlic and whatever else you have to hand.
Cover with water, bung a bay leaf or two in and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for a long time, at least 2 and a half hours, but up to about 6.
When you are done, strain the soup, and refrigerate until needed. Stir through a couple of teaspoons of tahini, add your chopped fresh herbs and you’re done.
It is worth noting that fatigue can also be caused by low potassium, another possible side effect of chemo, and indeed, other medications. This does need to be checked out though, as some people also suffer with raised potassium levels as a result of treatment, and to go on to eat potassium rich foods in those circumstances would be very unwise. Some foods that are high in potassium are avocado, butternut squash, sweet potatoes and bananas. If you can stomach it, try a homemade guacamole on small pieces of wholemeal toast, or a soup made with butternut squash and/or sweet potato, and turmeric. Turmeric happens to be my favourite of all the spices. It is so hard working, and its benefits range from its anti- inflammatory effects (think nature’s ibuprofen), to a potent liver detoxifier, natural pain reliever and cancer inhibitor. It also boosts the effects of the chemo drug paclitaxel and reduces its side effects, and also help wounds to heal up faster. All good reasons to be trying to include more of it in your diet.
Homemade Easy Guacamole Recipe
Take two ripe avocados, peel them, remove the stone and put the flesh in a bowl with a scant half teaspoon of maldon salt (or other sea salt) and the juice of a lime.
Mash roughly with a fork, then stir through half a finely diced red chilli, half a finely diced red onion and a small bunch of chopped coriander (cilantro).
Serve with small wholemeal toasts.
Butternut Squash Soup Recipe
Cut a butternut squash in half lengthways, remove the seeds then sprinkle with salt and pepper and olive oil. Roast in a hot oven for around 30 minutes until it’s tender. If you are using sweet potatoes you can also roast them in their skins alongside the squash.
Meanwhile, crush a clove of garlic and leave it to one side for the allicin to develop. Sweat a diced onion and a chopped stick of celery in a tablespoon or so of olive oil, over a very low heat with about a tablespoon of chopped sage leaves (thyme is also good if that’s what you have) and a teaspoon full or so of turmeric. When it is translucent, add the garlic and cook for around a minute.
When the squash is tender, scrape out the flesh and add to the pan. Add this point you can either use some of your bone broth to make up the soup or a good quality stock. Add either way, about a 250 ml of liquid and a tin (400g) of coconut milk.
If you have any you can always throw a few handfuls of spinach (or another leafy green veg) in at this point. Spinach and other leafy green veg are full of folate, much needed to help maintain and create new healthy cells so are really good for anyone who is either pregnant or ill or convalescing.
Simmer for around ten minutes to allow the flavour to develop, then blend and enjoy.
Remember, all orange vegetables are also full of betacarotene, which your body will convert to vitamin A, to help to protect you from damaging free radicals and boost your immune system so, when you can manage to, try to include them in your diet. Avocados are an excellent source of the wonder anti- oxidant glutathione, so both of these dishes would provide a good immune boost. Water melon (particularly the red part closest to the rind) and cabbage are also both packed full of glutathione making them good immune boosting and fatigue fighting foods as well that you could also try to eat as often as you can manage. Another would be almonds, an excellent source of protein to help the body repair itself, B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and potassium. If you can’t manage the whole nuts, try almond butter with some carrot sticks to add some beta carotene to the mix.
Finally, I should finish by saying that an excellent immune boost can provided by a range of herbal supplements, including astralagus, echinacea, cat’s claw and turmeric. All of these are available in capsule form and can help anyone suffering with reduced immunity, even those of us just battling the onslaught of winter germs. But again, remember, all foods and herbs can affect medications, so please, check with your doctor before taking them.