THERE’S no escaping the dramatic headlines reminding us how overstretched the NHS is at this time of year.

It’s common to have to wait a week, if not a fortnight, to get a GP appointment, and this is driving many people with non-serious conditions to seek help at accident and emergency departments.

Unfortunately, according to an emergency doctor speaking on the BBC news last week, large numbers of patients are attending A&E without trying over-the-counter remedies and basic painkillers first.

While it’s impossible to avoid every illness, there are plenty of steps we can take to support our health at this time of year and ease the symptoms of common ailments such as colds and flu.

Firstly, think prevention. A large part of your immune system lives within your digestive tract in the form of friendly bacteria. Incorporating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, plain live yoghurt (sugar free), kimchi, and kefir into your diet provides a top up of good bacteria, along with prebiotic fibre to help them grow. Prebiotics feed and nourish the bacteria – onions, garlic, bananas, and asparagus are good sources too.

If you’ve had a stomach bug, or come into close contact with people who have, consider taking a probiotic supplement.

These are available in reputable health stores.

Earlier this month, a leading paediatrician warned parents not to bother giving cough mixtures to children, saying:

“There is absolutely no evidence that cough medicines work as there has been very little research with regards to their use and, potentially, they could actually do children more harm than good. My advice for parents would be to stick to old fashioned honey and lemon.”

His announcement highlighted the risk of toxicity reactions from taking cough mixtures, as many formulas contain paracetamol, anti-histamines, and other drugs. Honey and lemon should be mixed in warm, not boiling water, to preserve the active components of the honey and the vitamin C from the lemon.

Manuka honey contains several different compounds with antibacterial and immune-supporting properties, including hydrogen peroxide and methylglyoxal. These compounds make up the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF); the higher the UMF, the more active compounds the honey contains. When dealing with a specific health condition, go for a honey with a UMF of at least ten.

Raw honey is another good choice, as the cold extraction methods preserve the natural active compounds.

If honey and lemon is not to your taste, consider using echinacea. This powerfully effective herbal remedy is proven to reduce the severity and duration of respiratory tract infections, making it an ideal winter health herb.

Go for an organically grown whole herb preparation, containing both the aerial and root parts of the plant, as this provides a balance of active components. Alfred Vogel, the Swiss naturopath who pioneered the use of echinacea in Europe, took a few drops of the herbal tincture everyday and lived till his late 90s – I’m guessing, cough free!

Sally Duffin is a York nutritionist. Find out more at: