Wellness and prevention information from the experts at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing

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The power of sleep

by Molly Ellefson, MS, NCC

iStock_000007134013XSmallWhen I was a child, I fought bed time like a warrior nearly every night.  I have memories of making my sister stay up and play games with me and of reading under the covers with a flashlight. This pattern stayed with me into my college and young adult years. I worked part-time at a bakery, and there were many mornings I went to work without any sleep at all.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I understand the importance of sleep.  When I haven’t had enough, it’s harder for me to focus, and I’m more likely to catch a bug. I even struggle to eat healthfully and exercise.

As a wellness coach, I see my clients struggle with this as well.  They often feel overwhelmed by all the responsibilities in their lives: child rearing, aging parents, work, community obligations and financial strain. Sleep is often the first thing that gets sacrificed to fit in everything else.

What many people don’t understand is that sleep is a necessity, not a luxury.  It isn’t something we can postpone or ignore.  Inadequate sleep has been linked to everything from cancer to strokes.  When we don’t get enough, it stresses our bodies.  Over time, being in this chronic state of stress has serious implications.

So, what can you do to improve your sleep?  Here are six things that help me:

  1. Take 30 to 60 minutes to wind down before going to bed. I use that time to read.
  2. Turn off electronics at least 30 minutes before bed, including cell phones, iPads and laptops.  These electronics emit “blue light,” a light similar to day light, which tells your brain it’s time to be awake.
  3. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.  This can be hard, especially on the weekends.  But you can help your body’s rhythm become more regulated. This makes it easier to fall asleep and wake up.
  4. Invest in a quality bed and bedding.  It can seem daunting to invest a lot of money in this, but we spend nearly a third of our lives sleeping.  Think how much we spend on our cars, where we spend a lot less time.
  5. If you cannot fall asleep in 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something else. Your bed should be a place of calm, not cause anxiety.
  6. Try some integrative health therapies.  Try aromatherapy. Lavender oil is known for its relaxation properties.  Just put a drop on a tissue near your pillow. You can also try deep breathing, guided imagery or another relaxation technique.

I hope you find these tips helpful.  It is good to remember that everyone has trouble sleeping at times.  However, if it happens more often than not and affects your daily activities, it might be time to speak to your physician or inquire about a sleep study.

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Learn how to improve your heart health

BaechlerTips for living a heart healthy lifestyle and sampling heart-helping foods will be featured at store events hosted by Kowalski’s Markets and Allina Health on Feb. 21.

The event, to be held at the Eagan Kowalski’s markets, feature Allina Health cardiologist Courtney Baechler, MD and vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing, and Susan Moores, RD, Kowalski’s nutritionist.

Schedule and cost information

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Three ways to fight cold and flu with aromatherapy

by Mary Ellen Kinney, RN, BA, HN-BC, CCAP, Integrative Health Nurse Clinician

Recently, a friend invited me to a play.  She was so generous that she not only bought my ticket, she also shared her flu virus with me! Three days later, a dry throat, a headache, sneezing and aching muscles started.

I knew this was a possibility. So to boost my immune system, I started aromatherapy ― the use of essential oils from specific plants to maintain and improve health.  Though the dry throat and sneezing continued for a few days, the symptoms stopped there. I’m convinced aromatherapy shut down the flu.

Here are three strategies that worked for me that you can try, too:

  1.  A diffuser – This is a small device used to disperse essential oils so that the scent enters the surrounding air. I used my diffuser for five nights while I slept until the symptoms resolved. My diffuser holds about two cups of distilled water to which I added 10 drops of two oils ― Ravensara (agathophyllum aromatica) and Eucalyptus radiata (eucalyptus radiate). Both contain ingredients with antiviral properties. If you don’t have a diffuser, simply put two drops of each essential oil on a tissue and slide it between your pillow and pillowcase.
  2. Steaming water – Heat up water to almost boiling, pour it in a bowl, add two drops of essential oil, put a towel over your head (which you hold over the bowl), and breathe the steam vapors for about five minutes. It’s important to keep your eyes closed the whole time. Steaming is also effective when your sinuses are congested. You can steam with Eucalyptus Radiata or the stronger Eucalyptus Globulus.
  3. Massage – I massaged an aromatherapy blend of essential oils on the skin of my neck, upper chest, the base of my head and my face (especially under my nose) to keep my immune system strong. I blended two drops each of Lavender (lavandula angustifolia) and Blue Cypress (callitris intratropica) with a teaspoon of jojoba massage oil. Essential oils can be blended into any unscented lotion or massage oil.


You don’t need to go out and buy all these essential oils. Instead, consider which essential oil most interested you, and start with that one. The Penny George Institute for Health and Healing Outpatient Clinics in Minneapolis and Fridley sell a selection of essential oils. If you want to order online, the companies I know to be reputable are Plant Extracts International, Aromatics International, Aromaceuticals and Mountain Rose.

Before you start, here a couple of safety tips:

  • Always dilute essential oils before applying to the skin. A one percent to four percent dilution is best. Less is better than more in aromatherapy. One drop of essential oils in one teaspoon of carrier oil/massage lotion gives you a one percent dilution.
  • If you are pregnant, have medical problems, or are tending to a child under the age of six, it is wise to use essential oils under the guidance of a qualified aromatherapy practitioner.

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The skinny on being fat

by Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, MS

There’s been a lot of media hype about a study showing that people who are overweight or mildly obese have lower mortality rates than people of a normal weight. The news is based on a research article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

I learn about reports like this the minute they hit newsstands because my patients ask me, “Dr. Baechler, did you see?  It says that it’s good to be fat.” Articles like this get a lot of attention because: 1) the research results are contrary to a lot of other evidence, and 2) it’s hard to lose weight, and news like this gives us an excuse to gain weight.

Let me take this opportunity to debunk the hype and say: It’s not advantageous to be overweight or obese. The JAMA study looked at associations between being overweight and dying. It did not examine associations between being overweight and getting ill.

Many studies show that we in the U.S. live longer than residents of other countries. This has nothing to do with our weight. We live longer because of all the medical technology available to us (stents, dialysis, transplants, respirators, etc.). While we can postpone death, we still may be quite sick with chronic disease in the meantime.

In fact, we are much sicker today than we used to be, and many people with chronic diseases start out being overweight or obese.  Then, as they get more sick, they lose weight.  For instance, the average person that gets heart disease is overweight. However if their heart disease progresses to heart failure, they often lose weight as the disease progresses and they near death.

So, when we think about associations like this study does from afar, it looks like being slightly overweight or mildly obese is associated with lower mortality rates. However, that is deceptive because the association is made at one snapshot in time ― right before people die ― when most chronic disease have progressed and people happen to be less overweight.

The other point that this study did not take into account is that people who have anorexia, smoke or abuse alcohol tend to be less overweight and obese, however they are still not “healthy.”

Let me be clear:  There is no advantage to being overweight or obese, and those conditions pose severe risks to your health. As is stated by the World Health Organization, obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death, just after smoking.

The lesson: Anytime you hear health related news reports that defy common sense, you’re most often not hearing the whole truth.

Learn more about healthy weight loss.

Stay well!

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, MS


Use Chinese Medicine to fight cold and flu

by Megan Odell, L.Ac., MS

We’ve all seen the headlines. We’ve heard our doctors, friends and families talking about it – the flu is here and it does indeed appear to be particularly virulent this year.  “We are clearly at a high level of influenza activity in the state,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Edward Ehlinger, MD, said in a recent statement. It is easy to walk through our days with worry, cringing every time someone near us coughs.

And then… the dreaded thing happens: a tickle in your throat. A sneeze.  A sniffle.  And within hours you are in the full-on evil grasp of a cold, or the flu. You are miserable and tempted to throw rational thought out the window, along with your wadded up tissues.

What do you do then? First, stay calm. Seasonal influenza has always been a part of winter, and there are many ways to get well. You certainly can choose to manage the symptoms with a variety of over-the-counter medications, but many of us tire of this approach because it leaves us feeling dried-out, woozy and out of control. So what do you do if you are interested in avoiding pharmaceuticals, or, even better, if you want to find a way to strengthen your immune system and skip the sickness altogether?

According Chinese Medicine, cold and flu are interchangeable; both are caused by a weakening of the body’s defenses and the simultaneous invasion of a pathogen, usually through the nose and skin. Chinese Medicine takes a proactive approach to strengthen the body’s defenses before the virus can take hold. Then, if any pathogens sneak past the body’s defenses, we work to definitively get rid of it.

It bears stating directly: Chinese medicine practitioners do not believe in simply managing the symptoms.

Acupuncture and herbal formulas can do a lot of good for preventing and treating cold and flu, but there is a lot that you can do at home.

Strengthen your body

Chinese Medicine instructs us to tonify the Defensive Qi

  1. Wash your hands. Often.  Dry cracked skin is not a sufficient excuse to avoid hand-washing. Splurge on a high-quality hand cream – whatever it takes to keep you washing your hands.
  2. Get plenty of sleep. Eight- nine uninterrupted hours each night is recommended.
  3. Eat foods that are nourishing and easy to digest. Choose broth-based soups and stews, cooked grains and vegetables, and some organic meat. Try congee (recipe is below). Replace coffee with green tea. Eat slowly, focusing only on the sensuality of your food. Avoid dairy, overly processed foods, sugars/sweets and fried, rich foods.
  4. Manage your stress, meditate and breathe.
  5. Bundle up! Wear your warmest clothes and keep your skin and nose protected from the wind (remember that Asian medicine believes the pathogen enters through these pathways).
  6. Get some acupuncture & Chinese herbs. Here at the Penny George Institute for Healing Outpatient Clinic, we strengthen the defensive Qi by needling specific points and prescribing herbal formulas ― both of which are customized to your body’s unique pattern of harmony and disharmony, balance and imbalance.

Manage the Acute Attack

Chinese medicine instructs us to expel the pathogen

  1. If the symptoms rear their ugly heads, decide whether they are more “hot” or “cold.” In Chinese Medicine, “cold” symptoms include sneezing, runny nose with clear or white phlegm, itchy throat, coughing up clear or white mucus, and an achey body. If you have them, Chinese Medicine says you have “wind-cold.” “Hot” symptoms include sore throat, more fever than chills, thirst, nasal congestion with yellow phlegm, and coughing up yellow sputum. These symptoms mean you have “wind-heat.”  The categorization of symptoms can shift throughout your sickness.This knowledge will help you to know how to proceed with foods and herbs.
  2. Eat and drink to expel the pathogen. Eat plenty of broth-based soups and rice. Drink warm liquids. Then, if your symptoms are more “wind-cold,” add ginger, cinnamon, green onion and garlic to your foods. If your symptoms are more “wind-heat,” drink lots of peppermint tea and eat cooling fruits, like oranges and other citrus fruits. Regardless of the type of pathogen you have, avoid dairy, sugars/sweets, and rich or fried foods.
  3. Get cozy and rest! Keep wearing your warmest clothes and keep your skin and nose protected from the wind. In addition to warding off more pathogens, this will also help the body to sweat – a primary way that the body expels the pathogen. Rest. Sleep. Let the body use most of its energy to fight the pathogen.
  4. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Here in the Penny George Institute outpatient clinic, all treatments are customized to the exact pattern of symptoms that you are experiencing. I am pleased to report that most acupuncturists and herbalists are able to help your body “kick the symptoms” within a few days, especially if we’re able to get at it quickly.
  5. And finally, know when it is time to consult your family doctor. If you have an extremely high fever or if the fever lasts more than three days, if wheezing develops or you are finding it harder and harder to breathe – Go see your doctor (and I don’t mean Dr. Google).

As Health Commissioner Ehlinger said, we are indeed at a high level of influenza activity in Minnesota, but the commissioner finished his statement with a word of caution, “It’s important to keep this year in perspective: What is occurring has happened before.” These words deserve to be heeded. This is indeed serious and warrants taking your health and your family’s health very seriously – but we do not need to indulge any fear fantasies or “what if” scenarios gone mad. This has happened before and it will happen again. The most important thing is to keep yourself and your family healthy, conquer your symptoms as quickly as possible, and then get out there and enjoy your life. You will feel good again.

Immunity Congee

Congee is a rice porridge that is eaten in many Asian countries.  In some countries it is primarily a breakfast food, often mixed with egg, and in others it is eaten anytime.  Because congee is incredibly easy to digest, it is often used as the foundation for dietary therapy, with other ingredients added to boost the specific therapeutic results.  This naturally sweet congee is designed to strengthen the body’s defensive Qi, making it an ideal food for preventing cold and flu — although be warned that eating this after symptoms appear could result in prolonging the life of the symptoms! Also, anyone with an autoimmune condition should avoid the ingredient astragalus.


  • 1-2 strips of astragalus (can be found from herbalists or some co-ops)*
  • 1/2 cup long grain rice
  • 8 cups water or stock
  • 15 small pitted dates, chopped
  • 1-2 carrots sliced
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cardamom

Simmer all ingredients in a large pot for at least two hours, stirring occasionally.  Enjoy!

*Anyone with an autoimmune condition should speak with their health care provider before using astragalus.


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Dangerous Flexibility

By Sheila McNellis Asato

Resolutions_medYears ago, I quit making New Year’s resolutions and decided to just focus on one word for the year. Resolutions felt like a list of chores rather than exciting possibilities for exploration.  It’s no surprise that I often abandoned them as soon as the weather warmed up.  I also noticed that when I made resolutions, each one focused on an area of weakness, such as losing weight or organizing the house, rather than on new possibilities for growth and wholeness.  Once I changed my focus to just one word a year, something shifted and a new kind of creative energy entered the process.  In 2011, my word was STRENGTH; the year before that, the focus was on FLEXIBILTY.  Last year, I concentrated on RESILIENCY.

Choosing just one word has been incredibly freeing–leaving room for improvisation while giving me a sense of purpose and direction throughout the year.  I quickly learned that when I try to articulate every twist and turn in a to-do list, there isn’t enough room for the natural detours that pop up.  By focusing on just one word, I have a clear sense of direction with room for the unexpected.

Last year, the word STRENGTH led me back to the gym.  A sense of curiosity and play came into the gym with me, actually making it fun!  I really wanted to understand first-hand what it meant to cultivate strength in my body as I often suffer from chronic pain.  How would increasing my physical strength affect my relationship with my body?  Is it possible to exercise without creating more pain in the process?  I soon learned that for me, the key to cultivating strength was to work out more frequently, but for shorter periods of time.

During my first Pilates class, I was appalled to discover how weak I had become over the years.  One day, when I stretched much further than I should have and couldn’t get back up, my Pilates instructor warned me that too much flexibility without strength could actually be dangerous.  How counter intuitive!

It was one of those “Ah ha!” moments which made me think about all the other areas of my life in which I am very flexible but not terribly strong at self-care. Where else had I lost core strength while constantly bending to meet the needs of others?  What latent strengths did I have that could be built upon?  These questions led to a renewed interest in studying Japanese, as well as reconnecting with my love of music and Zen.

After focusing on RESILIENCY for an entire year, I also have learned that without flexibility and strength, it is impossible to bounce back from the many challenges of life.  In 2013, I will focus on SUSTAINABILTY.  I wonder where that will take me.  If you could pick only one word for the New Year, what would it be?