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

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Combat winter blues with aromatherapy

CitrusBy Julie Streeter, RN, NCTMB, Certified Aromatherapist, learning and development specialist

As the days get shorter and the sun becomes less intense, my overall mood seems to diminish. One way I combat the winter blues is through aromatherapy, which uses essential oils from plants to maintain and restore health.

I love the fresh, clean aroma of citrus oils and find that even a quick spritz of a citrus spray can improve my mood and refocus my attention. An added bonus is that the citrus oils can be used for green cleaning too.

Smell is one of our strongest senses. When we breathe in an aroma, scent molecules travel through the nose to the olfactory membrane. The receptors there recognize scent molecules and send messages to the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system holds involuntary emotional responses, and we assign emotions to the aromas we breathe in.

That is why when I smell citrus, I am reminded of words like clean, uplifting and fresh, and I am transported back to summer days sipping lemonade by the lake.

One of my favorite citrus blends includes the essential oils of sweet orange (Citrus sinensis), grapefruit (Citrus paradisi) and lemon (Citrus limon). I make the following citrus spray for a mood enhancer.

Citrus spray: Take a four-ounce spray bottle and fill it with 3.5 ounces of water. Add 12 drops of sweet orange (Citrus sinensis), 12 drops of grapefruit (Citrus paradisi) and 12 drops of lemon (Citrus limon) essential oils. When ready to use the spray, shake the bottle and spritz into the air.

Although the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing clinics in Minneapolis and Fridley sell essential oils, they do not carry these particular ones. You can order citrus oils online from Plant Extracts International, which supplies Allina Health with essential oils.

But wait … it gets even better. The citrus oils not only have wonderful aromas that remind us of summer days, they also have antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties.  Essential oils are made up of many chemical components.  In citrus oils, the main chemical component is d-limonene, which research has shown has disinfectant properties.

During winter months with bacteria and viruses lingering in the air and on surfaces, I use the citrus spray on my countertops and door knobs to fight germs.

When using citrus oils, it is important to note some safety concerns:

  • Citrus oils should not be applied directly to the skin as they can be irritating.
  • If applying to skin, citrus oils should be mixed in a carrier oil (like jojoba or grape seed) or unscented lotion at a 1 percent dilution, or 5-6 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of oil or lotion.
  • Most citrus oils are phototoxic, which means that if the oils are used on the skin and the skin is exposed to sunlight, the ultraviolet rays of the sun are enhanced and sunburn may occur. To be safe, cover up any exposed skin for 24 hours after applying citrus oils when going outside.
  • It is best to use organic or unsprayed citrus oils because they are made from the rind of the fruit. Pesticides have been found in citrus essential oils that are not grown organically.

So, if you are feeling like the winter blues are setting in, try mixing up some citrus spray to improve your mood, and wipe down a few countertops while you are at it.

Julie Streeter, RN, NCTMB, is a Certified Aromatherapist and a learning and development specialist for the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. The Penny George Institute sells essential oils for aromatherapy at its outpatient clinics at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Unity Hospital. The Penny George Institute also offers aromatherapy classes and services.

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What we tell ourselves, and others, matters to our well-being – Speak life!

By Mary Beshara, MSN, APRN

Not a day goes by without me saying these words ― “Speak life!”

What does that mean? To me, speaking life is an attitude of gratefulness and encouragement.  It is choosing words that will build you and others up.

That sounds nice, but what does it have to do with well-being?

It’s simple. While a lot of what we say is neutral, words and thoughts have great power when they are negative or positive. They can build us up or tear us down.

We get stuck in patterns of talking and thinking, and our brain quickly develops paths of processing that become habitual. We start believing these patterns are immovable truths. This automatic processing affects our internal dialogue and our communication with everyone around us.  It affects our moods, our health, our relationships, and ultimately, our joy.

For example, a patient with persistent pain said, “I’m never going to feel better. I’ve always had, and I’m sure I always will have, this pain.”

His words sent a message to his brain and body that were tearing him down. They left no room for hope or healing. He didn’t intend to do this, but he was recycling a destructive message.

So, how can you move from negative to positive thinking? Here are four simple tips:

1. Pay attention to your thoughts and words. Are they tearing you down? When I called my patient’s attention to how his words were hurting him, he sometimes responded, “I’m so stupid. I always do or say the wrong thing.”

Unfortunately that was another “tear down” message. This is evidence that the brain is in a negative automatic response pattern. But our brains can be remodeled with a little effort, time, and mostly, gentleness.

158537833 2. Start rewriting the negative messages to be positive ones. I credit negative self-talk to something I call the “itty-bitty critical committee” ―  a small group of “people” in our heads who repeat criticisms. The illustration to the right puts it into perspective for me. I realize that I can change the thoughts of “committee members” and fill in the word bubbles with messages that build me up. You can try it. Identify the messages of your committee and rewrite them.

3. Create a wall of gratefulness. Take Post-It® notes and write down a couple of simple things for which you are grateful. Stick them somewhere with room to post more. I recommend the back of your bedroom door, or another place where they can be left undisturbed. Keep adding messages of the things in your day, week and life that cause you to be thankful. Nothing is too small to note. Then, on days when you feel particularly low, read the wall. These messages will speak back to you and fill you up.

 4. Compliment others and let them know you appreciate them. Watch their reaction. Did they feel that? Did they respond with gratitude? Often you will get what I call the “backsplash of joy” when you build someone else up. It’s the response that makes that person smile back at you, and often, respond positively. But even if they don’t, it generates a spark in you.

A truth I have learned is that whatever we focus on and speak to ― negative or positive ― will grow. That’s why I encourage myself, my patients and everyone to “Speak life!”

Mary Beshara is a board certified Clinical Nurse Specialist in adult health and pain management who sees patients at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing Abbott Northwestern Outpatient Clinic. She integrates into her practice complementary therapies such as relaxation techniques, integrative imagery, aromatherapy, reflexology, healing touch and breath work.


Tips for embracing winter wellness: Meditation

CandleThis article originally ran in the Healing Journal newsletter of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.

As the pace of daily life heats up during the holiday season and then seems to abruptly come to a halt, finding a sense of calm, relaxation, purpose and energy is critical.

Jayson King, RN, NTTMB, HN-BC, recommends a meditation practice as a way to stay in the moment, be present to yourself and others, and to be in touch with your surroundings.

Although it may seem like a foreign concept to many of us, meditation is a powerful tool and something everyone can incorporate into their life.

“There are many different kinds of meditation, and it is a practice you can bring into many daily activities of your life,” said King. Meditation may include walking meditation, sitting meditation, group meditation, consciousness of breath, and may even be incorporated into daily chores such as washing dishes or hobbies such as painting. “Meditation is a way of calming all of the multi-tasking the brain does on a daily basis. Research has shown that it actually calms your brain and helps your physical state,” he added.

Finding quiet in your mental state helps the mind, body and spirit through balance in the midst of chaos. “Meditation may help your body’s immune system by reducing stress, increasing attentiveness to daily living, and once you start a meditation routine, it becomes like exercise and you will miss it if you skip it.” King notes that taking as little as a few minutes a day to pay attention, find a state of relaxation and breathe, will offer immense benefits of greater relaxation, positivity and centeredness.

Tips on incorporating meditation into your daily life

  • Set a reminder on your calendar to take time out. Even taking a minute or two out of your daily schedule to look outside at nature, focus on your breathing and be gentle with yourself has immense benefits. King encourages people to start by sitting on a chair or on the floor and then focusing on the present moment. If you make meditation a priority, you will find the time even in the busiest of schedules. You will find that your body needs and craves the time, just as you need food, water and exercise.
  • Be gentle with yourself. It’s easy to get distracted during a quiet, reflective meditative state. Always be gentle with yourself while bringing yourself back to your breathing. Adding an affirmation or moment of gratitude can help shift our overthinking minds. Meditation can help you to become aware and to be more present. You may find that you become more effective in your work, your relationships, and other responsibilities and commitments.
  • Calm and clarity. We live in chaotic times. Many of us live constantly connected through the electronic, high-tech world in which we live. Many people are still suffering from the effects of the recession. Meditation helps us remain calm, mindful and brings clarity in uncertain times
  • Meditation takes many forms. Choose a style of meditation that works for you. If meditation in a solitary, sitting state doesn’t fit your lifestyle, try walking meditation, group meditation, or certain meditative exercises such as tai chi, yoga or breathing exercises.
  • Be mindful. During winter months, the monochromatic landscape may seem dull and lifeless. But King says if you look closely, you will notice that even snow comes in different colors and shades. Also, nature is at work in the frozen landscape, preparing for the months ahead and spring.
  • Use meditation for healing. One way to use meditation for healing of the mind, body and spirit, is to use an affirmation. For example, instead of focusing on the pain or illness, focus on the body’s innate ability to heal itself, and to remain calm and centered in the midst of this healing.


Gratitude — not just for Thanksgiving

78650799_webBy Mary Farrell, MS, PCC

Part of me wishes I had written this in March, or perhaps July. Gratitude is such an amazing tool. It is unfortunate that it gets relegated to Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, November is a great time to talk about the power of gratitude.

Why is gratitude important? Gratitude has been called the “metastrategy” for happiness, and research backs that up. In fact, gratitude has been shown to:

  • help in seeing the positive and savoring the good
  • increase self-worth
  • aid in coping with stress and trauma
  • strengthen bonds with others
  • obliterate negative emotions, including greed, anger and fear
  • reduce physical symptoms, such as headache, nausea and colds.

Beyond “counting your blessings,” here are some practical ways to weave gratitude into your life:

  • Keep a daily or weekly gratitude journal. Benefits come both from writing and from revisiting what you’ve written.
  • Try an exercise called, “What went right and why,” with your family. You can do it around the dinner table or anytime your family comes together. You think about someone who made your day or something you did to make your day go right.
  • Write a gratitude letter. Expressing gratitude directly to someone in a letter is extremely effective. You may or may not send it.
  • Write a list for someone you love that includes “10 reasons I love/like you.” This is a surefire way to reinvigorate a relationship.

I can share a personal experience to demonstrate the immediate power of gratitude. About a year ago, I was doing some advanced coach training. One day, our assignment was to list the 10 things we loved about our partner/spouse/best friend. “Hmph,” I thought, “This is a very bad day for this assignment.”

It was one of those days when I couldn’t think of one reason why we were together. However, I was determined to finish the assignment. After 15 minutes, I came up with, “He makes chicken well.” (You know how easy it is to undercook or overcook chicken.) There! One thing I love about him.

After a few minutes, I remembered that he makes dinner quite often and that is very thoughtful of him. Next I remembered that after a hard day, he is really good about welcoming me home with some of my favorite jazz standards — John Coltrane, Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Next I remembered that he always makes me laugh, even if things get ugly. Next I remembered  …. You can see how this went. I ended up texting this list to him, one at a time, minus the chicken.

To this day, he thinks that is the most romantic thing I ever did. You see, it is impossible to be angry, jealous, worried or resentful when you have gratitude in the mix.

I encourage you to pick one of the gratitude techniques and try it on for size. You may also want to get some support. Is there a friend, colleague or family member that you would like to involve in this endeavor?

Whatever you decide, remember these words from Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk known for interfaith dialogues and his work looking at the relationship between science and spirituality,  “It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratitude that makes us happy.”

Mary Farrell, MS, PCC, is an integrative health & wellness coach and an exercise physiologist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center.

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Weighing in on the debate: Are e-cigarettes a healthy tool for quitting or a gateway device to smoking?



By Courtney Baechler, MD

If you’ve taken the time to follow our wellness blog, chances are you’re not a smoker. But perhaps you’ve heard about the heated debate around e-cigarettes, or e-cigs. I wanted to weigh in and offer up some facts.

E-cigarettes, introduced in 2007, offer synthetic, liquid nicotine that is vaporized to promote the sensation of smoking. They deliver nicotine, but don’t expose the user to the dangerous, cancer-causing agents found in the tar of cigarettes.

On the surface, e-cigs can seem like a logical solution to helping people quit smoking. After all, one of the evidenced-based recommendations that doctors turn to in helping people quit is nicotine replacement. So, why not use e-cigs for nicotine replacement? E-cigarettes also have the benefit of letting people maintain their “oral fixation” and smoking habit, which can be hard to break.

So, what is all the fuss about?

The challenge is e-cigarettes make the claim that they are “safer” than traditional cigarettes and should be used as a substitute, but we really don’t know that to be true.  The medical community has never studied what happens to people exposed to large amounts of nicotine overtime.  We know nicotine is highly addictive and the potential for abuse is large. It’s also unclear whether there is harm from “secondhand vapor.”

Another problem is e-cigarettes are a rapidly growing business that isn’t being regulated. You might have noticed e-cigarette shops popping up everywhere. Their owners have a lucrative product and an addicted consumer base that is likely to come back for more. In just a few years, e-cigarettes have grown to a $1.7 billion industry.  Wall Street projects that e-cigs will take over the $90 billion tobacco industry within the next decade.

Unlike the traditional cigarette industry, which is highly regulated, there is no legislation to say where you can and cannot use e-cigs. I saw someone light up an e-cig in a nail salon. A colleague saw someone do the same at a meeting.

For traditional tobacco, we have come a long way with laws like Freedom to Breath. It not only curbs issues around second-hand smoke, but also helps to change cultural norms by sending a message to kids that smoking is not OK. There is the potential to “renormalize” tobacco and subsequently increase in the number of adolescents taking it up. From afar, it’s unclear whether someone is smoking a cigarette or “vaping” an e-cig.

There also are no restrictions around marketing to children and adolescents. The e-cig companies even offer flavored products that appeal to youth.

In fact, experimentation with e-cigarettes doubled  among students in grades six through 12 from 3.3 percent in 2011 to 6.8 percent in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The numbers were even higher among high school students, 10 percent of whom reported trying an e-cigarette in 2012 ― more than double the share over 2011.

The strongest predictor of whether someone becomes a lifelong smoker is how early he or she starts experimenting, and the concern is that experimentation with e-cigarettes could be gateway to tobacco.

From a public health perspective, e-cigarettes raise two questions: How harmful are they? And, regardless, will they lead to smoking cessation or, perversely, reinforce the tobacco smoking habit?

My question for you to consider is why we would ever encourage something that is known to be highly addictive? Is this where we want to move as a society? Something to think about.

Courtney Baechler, MD, is a practicing physician with and the vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. She has a master’s degree in clinical epidemiology from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.