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What happens when doctors get sick?

Rachel Carlyle / 02 April 2014 ( 20 October 2016 )

We ask a series of doctors what they do when they suffer from everyday ailments, and what remedies they take.

Doctor holding a stethoscope
Doctors choice - we ask what remedies they take themselves


Breathe deeply (and don’t look at the clock)

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep therapist

For many years I had terrible sleep problems, which at one time made me very ill. I have since learnt how to sleep well, although I still often wake up during the night. This is in fact perfectly normal, as the average human being can wake 10–15 times a night. What isn’t normal is to stay awake worrying.

The key is to avoid checking the time because that brings you back into full consciousness. I try to stay sleepy, and if I have to get up to go to the bathroom I avoid putting the lights on.

Get as comfortable as you can in bed and focus on your breathing. Breathe deeply into your belly and focus on your exhalations.

Say the word ‘out’ as you breathe out and imagine yourself letting go with each out-breath. Then count each breath – this is a slightly more sophisticated version of counting sheep, but it really does work.

Another exercise that I find works for me is to go back through the previous day and to recall every positive thing that happened. They don’t have to be big things – a hot shower, a nice cup of tea, for example. It’s actually a very powerful and effective technique.

Dr Ramlakhan is the author of Tired But Wired (Souvenir Press, £12.99)

Techniques for solving insomnia

Poor memory

Learn the ukulele

Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist

We hear so much about Alzheimer’s that the moment we lose our car keys or forget someone’s name we think we’re in trouble, but everyone has moments like these. Exercising your brain can help to prevent them as it strengthens the neural pathways: crosswords are fine, but if you do the same paper’s one every day you won’t be challenged.

Learning a musical instrument or a new language is fantastic because when you learn something new you create a new neural pathway. I’ve just started learning to play the ukulele, which is considered an easy instrument. But it’s a challenge for me as I’m tone deaf.

Physical exercise will help, too, as it gets the oxygen pumping, as will seeing friends and feeling useful.

Dr Shaw is director of successful ageing at

Five ways to supercharge your memory

Stiff joints

Stand up every hour

Dr William Bird, GP

I used to sit at my desk for eight hours a day, but not any more. I have a fitness-tracking wristband that buzzes every hour, prompting me to get up and walk about.

Sedentary behaviour is incredibly damaging to health, particularly to the joints, and it’s also very ageing. The mitochondria are the batteries that power every cell; if you’re sedentary they charge up and remain unused. Eventually, they release lots of damaging free radicals. But every time you contract the large muscles in your body, anti-inflammatories are released, calming the cells and remaining for an hour or two.

Try to get to some green space in that time: research shows that blood pressure drops within two minutes of entering a park or garden.

Dr Bird is the founder of

10 tips to take care of your joints

Relieving a cold

Geranium root

Dr Sarah Brewer, GP and nutritionist

The first thing I reach for when I feel the symptoms of a cold is pelargonium extract (derived from the root of the South African geranium). It’s an ancient Zulu herbal remedy, and there is good evidence that it works in the treatment of sinusitis and bronchitis. It’s had positive Cochrane reviews (the internationally respected complementary medicines review body), which is rare.

It has antiviral effects and seems to help to cleanse the lungs and increase the activity of the infection-fighting white blood cells. Unlike echinacea, you don’t have to take it before a cold starts. If you wake up with a sore throat and take one pelargonium tablet, you could be feeling fine again by the evening.

Continue taking it for three days after symptoms stop (if you take it for only a couple of days, the cold may return). I find it’s better than anything a medic could prescribe.

Dr Brewer is author of Eat Well, Stay Well (Connections, £12.99) and editor of Pelargonium Cold Relief, £10.45 (, 0800 731 2377)

Eat right to fight that cold

Preventing a cold

Take vitamin D

Professor Ron Eccles, pharmacologist

From September to March, I take a daily vitamin D tablet. I did it last year and didn’t get a cold – although that is not what you would call evidence! According to research, it is a grey area. There is some published work showing support for the idea and some studies that don’t (the last piece of negative research was carried out in one of the sunniest places on the planet; they should have tested it in damp Cardiff).

However, on balance there has been enough evidence to convince me. Vitamin D is important for the immune system and the evidence is definitely there that we are short of it in winter because of the lack of sunshine.

People sometimes assume they need vitamin C to avoid colds, but there’s not as much evidence and most of us aren’t short of it anyway. Our research shows that taking echinacea has some preventive effects, although it does depend on the quality of the tablet or tincture – you need the highest quality you can find.

Washing hands after being in a public place also helps, and you should never touch your eyes or nose in a public place.

Professor Eccles is director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University

Health benefits of vitamin D


Watch your fat intake

Dr Nick Read, gastroenterologist

It’s the fat in food that can cause indigestion: fatty foods get stuck in the stomach and are emptied more slowly, so acid production tends to be quite high. I find fatty foods make me feel sluggish, so I avoid red meat and ready meals.

I have one strong cup of coffee mid-morning, which I find helps digestion – but too many can have the opposite effect. If indigestion does strike, I drink water and even swallow air, then sit upright and lean slightly forward to encourage belching.

Sucking peppermints helps too, as does eating liquorice* (an extract of liquorice, Biogastrone, was once used as a treatment before acid blockers). Too many antacids can make things worse in the long run though: see your doctor if indigestion persists.

Dr Read is adviser to the IBS Network (

Indigestion symptoms, causes and treatments

Foggy brain

Try fasting

Dr Sandrine Thuret, neuroscientist

Diet has a huge effect on memory: a recent German research paper showed that verbal memory in the 50–70 age group improved dramatically when their calories were restricted by 25%. So for someone with a daily intake of 2,000 calories that’s 500 fewer – about the equivalent of one croissant and a chocolate bar. But this kind of denial is hard to maintain, so I – and some of my laboratory colleagues – do intermittent fasting; for two or three days a week I will eat much less – around 600 calories a day.

In animals, this kind of fasting works even more efficiently on their brains than overall calorie restriction. We think it might be because if, one day, there’s no food around, they become more alert in order to find some. We don’t know all the factors at work, but the fasting (as long as it’s only intermittent) seems to push the brain to make more cells, and we need new nerve cells for memory formation; exercise also helps.

Our memories might never be as good as when we were 20, but we can help to combat the decline.

Dr Thuret works at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London

The surprising benefits of fasting

Tooth care

Brush in the afternoon

Dr Nash Pradhan, dentist

Rather than doing my main brush of the day in the evening, when I’m most tired, I tend to do it in the afternoon so I don’t rush it and am at my most thorough. I aim for after lunch – but make sure you rinse your mouth with water after eating and it’s best to wait for 30 minutes after a meal before brushing, to give tooth enamel time to re-harden. I use the morning and evening ones as more ‘social’ cleans.

I find a water-jet flosser is good for between the teeth, which is really important. I also use a baking soda toothpaste, which removes twice as much plaque as a non-baking soda one.

Brushing three times a day is a really great habit to get into and, once you get used to the change in regime, you will find it difficult to revert to brushing only twice.

Dr Pradhan practises at The Dental Surgeons in London

How often should you... brush your teeth?


Remember to stretch

Dr John Tanner, musculoskeletal specialist

Like 70% of the population I suffer from backache – sometimes niggling, sometimes agonising. When it’s niggling, a change of position usually cures it.

Find a neutral, upright position: not stiff as a rod (this is bad for the back because it restricts normal breathing and creates muscle tension) but with the spine S-shaped. Keep moving gently and don’t sit immobile for longer than 45 minutes.

Daily stretching exercises really help to prevent back pain episodes as they increase spine movement and reduce stiffness and pressure on the discs, ligaments and facet joints. Aim for a few minutes once or twice a day. Inhale before each stretch and exhale during the movement.

Try the Standing Back Extension: stand straight with your hands on the small of your back and breathe out while bending backwards arching the back, supporting it with your hands. Do no more than ten at a time.

For the Cat and Camel: kneel on all fours, hands in line with your shoulders, and round your back upwards while pulling in your stomach. Pause, raise your buttocks and curve the spine downwards while lifting your head and looking straight ahead.

Shoulder rotations will also help to increase mobility in your neck.

Dr Tanner is co-author of The BMA Guide to Back Care (DK Publishing, £12.99)

10 back exercises to relive pain

Feeling down

Take up exercise

Dr David Roche, GP

After 30 years in medicine, my view of remedies for minor ailments is that they are a waste of time and money! Most are only psychological in their benefit, in that we would all prefer to treat ourselves with something, rather than nothing at all.

Waiting for it to get better is a lost art: the desire to treat with anything can perhaps be seen as a human failing, though one with a very long history. It is noticeable in pharmacies that those illnesses for which there is no known solution, such as the common cold, have the largest selection of treatments for sale…

But one remedy I do use when I am psychologically challenged due to anxiety, low mood, stress or overwork is exercise. Although it can often be hard to get myself out of the door in these circumstances, I can usually feel the distinct benefits within 15 minutes of starting exercise. Give it a try.

Dr Roche practises in East Sussex

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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