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Dear Iris: I'm Wiped Out

Dear Iris,

Even though I drink 3 cups of coffee a day, since I started cancer treatment, I have zero energy. I have no energy since starting cancer treatment. Is there something I can eat or drink that can help perk me up?


Dear B,

Cancer and cancer treatment can affect your energy in ways you may not have experienced before. This may feel like more intense exhaustion than being tired because you didn’t sleep well the night before.

There are a few things you can do to lessen this fatigue, including making changes to how and what you eat, hydrating, and moving your body—even though that may sound counterintuitive!

Here are five nutrition-related recommendations you may want to try to improve your energy levels during cancer treatment and recovery.

  1. Eat something within the first hour of waking up, even if you’re not very hungry at that time. Getting something in your system (besides just coffee or tea) is essential to kickstarting your metabolism and helping you have enough energy to get through the day. 

  2. Drink fluids in between meals to maintain hydration. The body is about 60% water, which is another way of saying fluids matter a lot! If you’re not getting enough liquids all the functions related to your organs and cells slow down systemwide. As tempting as it may be to use caffeine to “perk up,” it’s wise to choose mostly non-caffeinated fluids to meet your hydration goals.  

  3. Eat small snacks at well-timed intervals throughout the day. Snacking between meals can prevent blood sugar dropping and sluggishness. Whenever possible pair a protein-rich food (like nuts, hummus, Greek yogurt, or edamame) with a fiber-rich food (like fresh fruits or vegetables or whole grain crackers).  

  4. Finally, choose foods high in certain nutrients that may decrease inflammation in the body and thereby decrease fatigue. A small, but interesting study conducted at The Ohio State University found lower levels of fatigue when people ate:

    • At least one high vitamin C fruit a day (such as an orange or kiwi)

    • One yellow or orange vegetable a day (like carrots or summer/winter squash)

    • One tomato serving a day (including tomato sauce)

    • One leafy green serving a day (such as salad greens, spinach, collard greens or kale)

    • Three servings of whole grains a day (including brown rice, quinoa and farro)

    • Two servings of omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods a day, whether plant or seafood-based (such as salmon, walnuts, hemp hearts)

We know that sometimes when you’re tired you don’t feel like moving, but regular, light exercise like walking or active stretching has also been shown to boost energy levels.  Make a plan to get moving a couple of times during your day.

And, while all of these things are important, remember that resting is essential too. A nap is nothing to feel guilty about. In general, it’s best to keep your daytime naps under 30 minutes. This has proven to be the best way to boost energy while avoiding the post-nap “grogginess” that sometimes shows up after longer naps.

Missed last week? Dear Iris: More Than One Treatment?

Stephanie Meyers, MS, RD, LDN

Senior Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist

Iris Oncology

Stephanie Meyers is a Senior Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist at Iris Oncology with 25 years of experience delivering compassionate and evidence-based nutrition care to those affected by cancer. She’s the former Nutrition Manager at The Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and presents seminars worldwide on mindful eating, family nutrition, and cancer survivorship. Stephanie is also the author of, End the Mealtime Meltdown: Using The Table Talk Method to Free Your Family From Daily Food Struggles and Picky Eating and the founder of Families Eating Well, a nutrition practice helping parents coach healthy eating skills in kids. 

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.