Cancer-Related Fatigue: Nutritional Remedies


Have you been feeling run-down, weak, or tired since getting your cancer diagnosis or starting cancer treatment? This feeling is known as cancer-related fatigue, and is one of the most commonly reported side effects of cancer.  Depending on cancer and treatment type, up to 99% of patients report some fatigue with up to 60% describing it as moderate or severe. Unfortunately, it may persist up to a year after cancer treatment ends.  Wondering what you can do to alleviate this symptom? Read on to learn about nutrition-based remedies to support your care. 


Protein is an essential nutrient, key to preserving muscle mass and keeping your immune system strong.  It is found in animal foods, such as chicken and fish, as well as plant foods like soy, beans, and lentils.  When you are fatigued, you may start skipping meals or eat only small amounts, which can lead to a protein deficit.  If this happens, the body will start to break down the existing muscle, and this may make weakness worse.  Older adults especially need to make sure they are eating adequate protein, as their requirements are higher than younger folks.  Aim for eating 15-30 grams of protein in a sitting to ensure you’re hitting muscle preserving targets.  This is about as much as a piece of chicken the size of a deck of cards, a protein shake, or a cup of black beans.  


Often vilified but key to making sure your body has enough energy, fat is essential to any diet.  There are many types of fats, and the ones that have been shown to protect against inflammation have been shown to reduce fatigue as well.  Omega-3 fats, such as those found in cold water fish or seeds such as flax and chia, are known anti-inflammatory agents. Diets high in omega-3’s and low in saturated fats (the kind found in beef and butter) have been linked to improved fatigue rates. A moderate total fat diet, which is low in saturated fats but high in plant and fish fats, is key to lowering inflammation and therefore lowering fatigue rates.  Try having salmon or mackerel a few times a week and sprinkling chia or ground flaxseeds over oatmeal in the morning. 


Carbs can be broken down into three categories: simple, complex, and non-digestible fiber. Simple carbs, like those found in white bread, soda pop, and sweets, lead to higher amounts of inflammation and blood sugar disruption, overall bad for fatigue.  Complex carbs are found in whole grains, and can lead to steady blood sugar levels and provide consistent energy throughout the day, both of which are beneficial to those battling fatigue.  Higher intakes of fiber, both soluble and insoluble, has been to improve fatigue levels in cancer patients.  Aim for choosing whole grains most of the time. 

Vitamins, Minerals, Antioxidants, and Herbs

Anemias, such as those caused by iron or vitamin B12 deficiency, are common causes of fatigue and should be treated by your doctor.  Vitamin D, a common deficit in American adults and cancer patients, may play a role in muscle quality and function. Levels should be checked by a provider and corrected as needed. Additionally, there is good evidence that shows that a diet rich in antioxidants, like one that has plenty of brightly colored fruits and veggies, will reduce inflammation and possibly improve fatigue.  Taking individual antioxidant supplements has not been proven to improve fatigue.  Emerging evidence shows that ginseng and ginger supplements may increase energy levels, but it is important to speak with your care team before starting any herbs to avoid interactions and make sure the dosage is correct. 

Overall, a Mediterranean diet pattern has been shown to improve inflammation and would likely improve fatigue in cancer patients. Not only this, but there are a host of other beneficial health effects as well such as improved heart health and potential weight loss if needed.  Consider adopting this eating style, as it may be beneficial to you in more ways than one. 

What Else Can I Do to Fight Fatigue?

There are non-nutrition related interventions that have been shown to have positive effects on fatigue, and should be discussed with your care team.  These include regular exercise routines especially yoga, sleep solutions, acupuncture, and some medications.  Having an open conversation with your cancer care team about any side effects of treatment is critical to maintaining good quality of life.  Be sure to check in with your providers as necessary.  

Wondering how to implement some of these nutritional changes to improve your fatigue? Reach out to the Registered Dietitians at OncoPower, they are happy to connect with you.  OncoPower gives you direct access to a range of cancer support services, right in your pocket.

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