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

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Six tips for reducing school year stress

Family eating dinner together

During the school year, commit to one healthy habit like eating dinner together.

By Courtney Baechler, MD

This is one of my favorite times of year ― cool mornings followed by hot, sunny, summer afternoons and the excitement of a new school year.

While some parents feel good about this, others get anxious thinking about the faster pace of the school year ― carpools, deadlines and the possibility of more commitments.

Here are some tips to help keep you and your family healthy and to reduce stress this year:

  1. Choose one thing that your family wants to commit to, such as:
    • eating breakfast at the kitchen table instead of in the car
    • eating dinner together
    • not overcommitting
    • having dedicated family time
    • sticking to a bedtime schedule.
  2. Create your “team” of support. Just as CEOs need a lot of support to do their jobs, you as the “chief wellness officer” of your family do too. Create a list of the team members who help meet your family’s needs, along with their contact information. Keep this list in a central place so that everyone can see how to get a hold of the back-up players. Team members may include:
    • family members
    • neighbors
    • babysitters
    • kids’ club leader
    • back-up babysitters.
  3. Don’t forget about your social needs and connections. Make time for:
    • friends
    • date nights
    • activities that help you thrive, such as book clubs, exercise, and spiritual groups.
  4. Get outside. Nothing is quite as calming as being a part of nature. During the week, simply take a family walk around the block or a trip to the neighborhood park. Add in a few hikes, bike rides or canoeing trips to make the most of the beautiful and calming scenery of autumn.
  5. Say no. It’s OK to do this, and it can actually be empowering. Try to do more by doing less. Commit to and enjoy the things you are interested in doing, but don’t feel the need to do everything. You will find that you get more joy from experiencing a few things in entirety. That holds up for kids’ activities as well. It doesn’t make you a bad parent to have your kids in only a few extracurricular activities. Trust me, their futures don’t depend on being over scheduled.
  6. Limit screen time. Take a family poll and see how much time your family (including you), is spending using technology. Most families admit that these devices can eat up time. Consider setting clear limits for when and how much screen time is allowed. You don’t need to eliminate screen time entirely, but limits can have the benefits of increased movement and improved sleep.
  7. Rejuvinate on the weekends. Crazy concept, huh? Turns out weekends were never really intended for all of our errands and household chores. While I know it’s impossible to stop running errands, designate at least part of the weekend for rest and relaxation. I would argue that one of the greatest skills we can teach our children is how to relax. It turns out that it’s easier to do all the difficult things in life (choosing healthy foods, exercising, and being productive) when we return to work and school on Monday after recharging our batteries.


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.



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Avoiding added sugar and its negative affects

Sugar.157541706By Courtney Baechler, MD

Increasingly, we see reports on the negative affects of sugar. Just last month, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked sugar to increased risks of heart disease.

For years, a variety of experts emphasized that high-fat diets are the strongest culprits of heart disease. Food companies quickly manufactured fat-free foods that were extremely high in sugar – think fat-free cookies, crackers and oversized bagels. This led to a fat-free epidemic, and large increases in the amount of sugar people are eating and the incidence of type 2 diabetes.

What happens when we eat foods with a lot of added sugar?

As we digest these sugars, they are quickly metabolized and tend to spike our blood sugar quickly. The pancreas then quickly releases insulin to decrease our blood sugar levels. Over time, this may lead to decreased insulin production and sensitivity, which in turn can lead to type 2 diabetes.

High levels of sugar also create inflammation in our body. When those high sugar levels hang around, they turn into fat or triglycerides, which are one part of our cholesterol or lipid (fat) profile. This is perfect storm for sticky blood vessels, and leads to increases in both our weight and risk of heart disease.

How can we decrease our sugar intake?

  • Start by getting rid of soda pop. Soda pop contributes to one-third of all the sugar we intake as a nation. You might be surprised, but the average 12-ounce can of pop has nine teaspoons of sugar which on average is more than most grown men and women should have in a day.
  • Keep an eye out for what might be added to your “energy drink.” Often, there is as much sugar added to energy drinks as soda pop.
  • The other big culprits are candies and yogurts. The yogurt is a surprise for most of my patients. I will have many patients tell me that they have a turkey sandwich and a yogurt for lunch. Most think, that sounds alright, right? Think again, many name-brand yogurts have a large amount of added sugar. Many of the “100 calorie-light yogurts” have 26 grams of sugar! Not so healthy after all. Your bread might have a lot of added sugar, too.
  • Start reading food labels. Conveniently, the FDA has moved to make it even easier to read the added sugar content in years to come with the recognition of how important decreasing our sugar content is.
  • Don’t be alarmed or think that you need to stop eating fruit. Fruit has “natural sugars,” which are just fine and also has fiber that helps slow the release of sugar. It’s the added sugars that cause trouble.

On that note, I hope this helps demystify the sugar story some. If you want to learn more, check out our story on KARE 11 news or the original study from JAMA.

Stay well and go light on the added sugar!

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.


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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.

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Fitting nutrition and exercise into the school year

By Courtney Baechler, MD

Mom and son eating apples

As fall begins, those of us with school-age kids may feel more pressed for time. Yet we don’t want to sacrifice the health or nutrition of our families. This can be a challenge as more schools eliminate a daily gym class and when we’re faced with less than ideal school lunch options.

As a mom, I want to share some tips for keeping a family healthy:

  1. Set it up on Sundays. Do some weekly meal planning on Sundays. Usually, if you plan an extra portion or two for dinner, you will have left overs for lunch. Advanced planning also allows you to start cooking right when you get home, which helps you avoid mindless snacking.
  2. Have your child help plan their lunch. Getting children involved in their meal planning is a great way to educate them about the importance of true nourishment. I often tell my daughter that the best way for a kindergartner to learn how to read is to support her mind with healthy foods. She then picks out which veggie, fruit, protein and healthy carbohydrate she wants for her lunch. Favorites are often carrots and sugar-snap peas, whole grain breads with a nut butter spread, and string cheese. Even at age five, she can help pack these items.
  3. Keep healthy snacks on deck. If your kids are anything like mine, they are hungry and ready for refueling after school. Keep nourishing snacks on hand like non-salted nuts, ideally raw (roasted nuts go old faster). Pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and cashews are all great varieties packed with protein and good monosaturated fats for our brains. Our family buys nuts in large amounts to cut costs. A great fall snack is Honeycrisp apples. One way to pack in veggies is to cut up in advance celery, broccoli, cauliflower, red and green peppers, carrots, cucumbers and sugar-snap peas, and serve them with a favorite hummus. You can get fiber, protein and a variety of important vitamins.
  4. Fit in activity. Think about squeezing in a family stroll or bike ride after dinner in the early evening to enjoy a gorgeous fall day. This is a great way to connect with your family and get some energy out before homework or bedtime routines. If the weather doesn’t agree, have a family dance party. It’s a great way for everyone to let loose, especially if you are trapped inside.
  5. Be creative with a crockpot. A slow cooker can come in handy when you grow tired of doing meal preparation. Throw in ingredients in the morning (black beans, quinoa, and veggies are my personal favorites) and spice it up when you get home ― dinner is served.
  6. Stock your cabinets and freezer with healthy reserves. I keep on hand a variety of beans, durum wheat pasta (cooks in four minutes), lots of frozen fruits and veggies, and tomato sauce. With basics like these, you can easily prepare a meal that nourishes your mind, body, and soul.

I invite you to share your favorite healthy, quick recipes in the comments!

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, practices at and is the vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.

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The state of health in the United States

By Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published the latest data on the health of the United States. Unfortunately, compared to our peers in other developed countries, we aren’t doing so hot.

The data looked at 34 countries from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from 1990 to 2010. Although our life expectancy has increased and death rates have decreased, the incidence of disease and chronic disability now account for over half of our health burden in the U.S.

There are a variety of metrics this journal article used to help measure “disease burden.” One was the years of life lost (YLL), which measures premature deaths. The top causes for YLL that are similar to years past include: coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and car accidents. Causes for YLL that are rising include: Alzheimer’s disease, drug use and falls.

Another measure for “disease burden” was diseases with the largest number of years lived with disability (YLD). These remained the same from 1990 to 2010: low back pain, major depressive disorder, other musculoskeletal disorders, neck pain, anxiety disorders, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, drug use disorders and diabetes.

The leading risk factors related to disability-adjusted life years (DALY) were:

  • dietary risks
  • tobacco smoking
  • high body mass index
  • high blood pressure
  • high fasting plasma glucose
  • physical inactivity
  • alcohol use.

An individual’s diet composition accounted for 26% of the deaths and 14% of DALY. Tobacco is now being replaced by diet and obesity as the number one cause of preventable death.

What does all of this tell us? Compared to other wealthy countries, we are less “well.” In the United States, we do a great job of intervening and pouring resources into the last six months of an individual’s life. We continue to enhance our technology and ability to deliver acute care. But our ability to keep people well is weakening. We spend 18 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on health care, which is in the highest bracket of spending for developed countries, yet our health reports fair much worse.

Reports like this cause many in health care to pause and ask if we are using resources in the most effective and efficient manner. It also calls out the importance of political policies and plans that help support the individual and community in making good choices around healthy eating, physical activity, and tobacco and alcohol use.

A report like this emphasizes the important work that the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing is doing to help transform health care. We take a mind, body, and spirit approach to working with these challenging chronic conditions. I’m proud to say we continue to:

  • promote care to keep people healthy
  • produce innovative, holistic programs to help people experiencing stress, anxiety and depression, as well as those dealing with physical pain – these programs complement and are integrated with conventional, Western medical treatments
  • work with insurance companies on new reimbursement plans.

With that … keep eating your veggies, and be well!

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, practices at and is the vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. She was interviewed by TV news station KARE 11 on this topic. View that news segment.

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Success: Are we measuring the right elements?

Courtney Baechler, MD, of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing, recently wrote “Success: Are we measuring the right elements?” for The Blog of The Huffington Post.

Baechler explains the ways we typically measure success – salary, job title and status – don’t necessarily lead to happiness. Instead, well-being ― “the state of being content, happy, healthy and prosperous” ― is found through intangibles like loving relationships and finding a sense of purpose. She also shares her own journey in pursuing a career that supports well-being.

Read: Success: Are we measuring the right elements?

Baechler practices at the Penny George Institute. She offers an integrative medicine, or holistic, approach, for aging well, weight loss, the prevention of heart disease, stress and anxiety reduction, and general women’s wellness. Call 612-863-3333 to learn more or schedule an appointment.

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Learning to forgive

I had an amazing opportunity this morning to meet with another healer, Mary Hayes Grieco, who specializes in helping people learn to forgive.

Many of you appreciate how the mind, body and spirit work together to affect our health. Perhaps you also know that science has proven that certain emotions can change the neurotransmitters our brain produces to influence which hormones and chemicals our body produces. It’s amazing to me to see how resentment, anger, frustration and regret can lead to disease.

The Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s own Greg Plotnikoff, MD, recently wrote, “Trust Your Gut.” The book explains how our mental well-being can influence the flora our gut produces and whether we experience irritable bowel syndrome.

As a cardiologist, I have seen numerous patients who manifest their frustrations at home and work as chest pain.

Unfortunately, no amount of statins, stents, or even transplants, takes away that pain, but forgiveness often does. In fact, there is a lot of research to show that the act of forgiving has countless health benefits. That sounds simple, but the real challenge lies in learning how to forgive.

How many of us harbor resentment towards someone or a situation that we feel wronged us? We may need to learn to forgive a person, a job, a situation, ourselves … who knows? It can be really difficult, and it helps to remember that forgiving doesn’t mean stating there wasn’t wrong doing. Instead, forgiving is letting go of the negativity that continues to ruminate within us and can lead to physical consequences.

When we let go of grudges and stop being bitter, we find room for compassion, kindness, peace and, most importantly, healing. Forgiveness has been shown to:

  • foster healthier relationships
  • increase spiritual and psychological well-being
  • decrease anxiety and stress
  • lower blood pressure
  • improve depression
  • lower the risk of alcohol and substance abuse.

I challenge you to try to let go of something today that has been holding you back! If you feel you want some more support to do that, I suggest checking out one of Mary’s books, “Unconditional Forgiveness: A Simple and Proven Method to Forgive Everyone and Everything,” and “Be A Light: Illumined Essays for Times Like These.”

Recently, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama speak at the “Change Your Mind, Change the World” conference in Madison, Wis.

I leave you with a famous quote from him. When asked what surprised him most about humanity, he said, “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Here’s to the present, forgiveness, and letting go of the past.

Be well,
Dr. Baechler

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My path to practicing holistic health

by Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD

Next week is big for me. I will be transitioning from my cardiology clinic in St. Paul to practice at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing Outpatient Clinic – Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

As part of this, I’ve been asked to introduce myself as a new Penny George Institute practitioner and describe what led me here. To do so, I want to share some defining moments:

  • Age 12: That’s when I knew I wanted to be a doctor to combine my talents for math and science with my love of people.
  • AmeriCorps: In my early twenties, I worked in North Minneapolis as an AmeriCorps volunteer to reduce teen pregnancies. I learned quickly that you can’t just offer education on a topic and make a difference. I had to build one-on-one relationships based on trust with the 17 teen moms I was working with. I had to consider their mind, body and spirit. We exercised together, shopped for healthy and affordable food, prepared and shared meals, and worked on college applications and paper work for free or low-cost child care. My memories are of empowerment, education and trust. This is exactly what I envisioned medicine to be like.
  • Medical School: This is when I became interested in cardiology because you could see patients on the spectrum from prevention to end-stage heart failure and palliative care. I became interested in public health after seeing how many patients were helped in the hospital only to go home without education to change the behaviors that got them there in the first place.
  • Introduction to integrative medicine: I spent time with my husband on a University of Minnesota integrative medicine course in Hawaii. We were exposed first hand to a new world of medicine, and I was fortunate to meet a strong mentor early in my career, Mimi Guaneri , who pioneered integrative cardiology at Scripps Health in California.

These experiences led me to start an integrative cardiology clinic at United Heart and Vascular Clinic in St. Paul. Our patients saw a preventive cardiologist, a holistic nutritionist and an exercise physiologist.  They loved this approach.  I think most were surprised at how open minded and accepting I am of a variety of ways to heal. I always try to empower them and focus on what they believe are their biggest challenges and strengths.

As much as I love cardiology, now I want to further pursue my goals around prevention and wellness. I want to keep people well and work with them before they develop cardiovascular disease.

After spending a year as vice president and medical director of the Penny George Institute, I was sending so many patients to Penny George Institute clinics for services I viewed as essential to their holistic healing, it seemed only natural to start practicing at the Penny George Institute.

Our group has a truly collaborative and integrative approach to health.  I’m thrilled to be working with colleagues who have various expertise and share a similar view of approaching patients from a mind, body, and spirit approach.

I’m excited to start this next journey with this team to help our patients on their path to wellness.

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, will practice at the Penny George Institute starting April 1. She offers an integrative medicine, or holistic, approach, for general women’s wellness, aging well, weight loss, the prevention of heart disease, and stress and anxiety reduction. Call 612-863-3333 to learn more or schedule an appointment.

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The value of living in a healthy community

by Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, MS

We often spend time discussing healthy behaviors and ways to help you heal in our blog.  I want to take a different approach today and focus on the importance of healthy communities.

Although the exact percentage varies a little, studies show that something called “social determinants” account for nearly 80 percent of one’s health risk. Social determinants are group risk factors – such as income distribution, education, influence, and power – rather than individual factors – such as exercise or eating habits – that influence the risk of disease.

Knowing this, it makes me proud to live in the city of Minneapolis where leaders, governmental organizations and nonprofits work together to reduce social barriers to living a healthy life.

Just recently, I had the opportunity to sit among representatives of more than 40 non-profits who partner with the city to improve residents’ health. We celebrated Minneapolis’ accomplishment of being one of six communities across the country to win the Roadmaps to Health prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The award recognized that the Minneapolis health department has worked with partners, like my organization, Allina Health, to put in place programs and policies to address problems that disproportionately affect people with limited incomes and educations. Here are a few examples:

  • Programs that connect clinics and communities to prevent chronic disease.  I had the opportunity to work on this with many others. More than 50 years of research has shown the importance of strong social connections to healthy lives. We know feeling a sense of connection to your community is key. Empowering residents to live healthier lives, not only at their clinics but also in their neighborhoods, left me feeling so rewarded.
  • The Northside Achievement Zone, which gives North Minneapolis children and families the tools they need to move from “cradle to college to career.”  As I mentioned earlier, one of the most important social determinants of health is education.  All the cholesterol medication in the world is not a substitute for the impact education has on one’s health.
  • Biking programs which have led to Minneapolis being recognized as the most bikeable city in the country. This is truly fantastic but, as the mayor pointed out, it’s much more difficult to bike in North Minneapolis than it is around Lake of the Isles, just a few miles away.  Part of this is due to the environment (safe streets) and part of it is due to making bikes affordable and available to those on a fixed budget.  Nice Ride bike share, Midtown Bike Walk Center, and Venture North Bike Walk Coffee Shop have partnered together to help improve biking access in Minneapolis.

I am truly proud to live in Minneapolis and am so thankful for the leadership at the Minneapolis health department, which is helping transform communities.

Live well!

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, MS

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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