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


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Breaking away from unhealthy American ways

AmericanWays.57300728By Megan Odell, LAc, MS

My professor was new to our school and the United States, having only recently left China. I had the privilege of observing this brilliant acupuncturist as he assessed patients’ concerns and composed treatments.

As he worked on a patient chart one day, he paused and with a big sigh asked, “Why does everyone here have this pattern?”

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the word “pattern” is used instead of “diagnosis.” Where conventional Western medicine works to whittle an illness down to a single cause, TCM instead looks at the whole body-mind ecosystem and attempts to find a pattern to what is happening. A treatment plan is created to restore balance and health.

My professor had noticed that Americans appeared in our clinic with one predominant pattern―Liver-Spleen disharmony. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean there is anything structurally wrong with a patient’s liver and spleen. The issue lies in the functions that the Chinese medical system attributes to those organs.

Patients with Liver-Spleen disharmony might express concerns such as headaches, high stress, digestive difficulties, menstrual pain, irritability, fibromyalgia, or a host of other symptoms.

So, if my professor’s observation was right, what is it about living in the United States (or perhaps an urban area of the Upper Midwest) that makes it so common? In my experience, this pattern is all about four things:

  • Stress: According to TCM, the liver is in charge of the free flow of Qi.  Qi is energy that moves through your body along channels. When you are healthy, the Qi moves freely. When you are in pain, sick or emotionally upset, the Qi can become stuck. When you are in a state of stress, the qi often stagnates (which you might express by clenching your jaw, stopping breathing or tensing your shoulders).
  • Emotions: In TCM, we believe that emotions come and go like water in a stream. If we let them come and express them, everything should be fine. However, sometimes we deny or “stuff” emotions, such as anger, sadness, grief or jealousy. I often speak to people who have semi-successfully hid from emotions for months or years with unintended physical results.
  • Exercise: If we aren’t physically moving, Qi is less likely to move.
  • Food:  In TCM, the spleen is largely attributed with the transformation of food into energy. Some foods, such as soup and lightly cooked vegetables, are easy to transform. Other foods, such as dairy, sugars, and fried foods, are difficult to transform. Eating too much of the latter can bog down the digestive system. And if we do other things while eating (working, reading, driving), the body’s ability to focus energy on digestion is hindered.

Does any of that look familiar? Do you see it in your life or our culture? I would offer that the “American way” often encourages stress, overworking, emotion-stuffing, screen-watching, and food-as-stomach-filler. Even when we try to avoid these things, it is easy to feel pulled in a number of directions in our daily lives. And usually our self-care is the first to go.

So what do we do? TCM offers solutions like acupuncture and Chinese herbs that can help. But improvements from those therapies will only be sustained if lifestyle changes are made, too.

  • Meditate or find another way to manage your stress. Biofeedback and Mindfulness Training are available at the Penny George Institute and offer excellent approaches to handling stress.
  • Feel. Know that your feelings are right, and they are temporary. If you feel you need help processing your emotions, please consider seeing a therapist to help you.
  • Move. It doesn’t have to be high-intensity interval training. Any time you move your body in a way that you enjoy, that is good.
  • Savor. Experience and enjoy your food. Experiment. Slow down. Smell it. Taste it. Eat only enough to feel 70 percent full.

Good luck – together we can work to change the American pattern to one of balance and harmony.

Megan Odell, LAc, MS, is a licensed acupuncturist and offers services at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing – Abbott Northwestern.


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Exercise tips for sleeping well

SleepPhoto.StockImage.pngThis article originally ran in the LiveWell newsletter of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.

According to Sue Masemer, MS, sleep is usually not the primary reason that leads people to seek out exercise programs at the LiveWell Fitness Center, but that doesn’t mean that sleep isn’t related to overall fitness.

“Our clients often aren’t aware of the significant connection between quality sleep and exercise, and how great of an impact poor sleep may be playing in derailing their fitness efforts,” said Masemer.

Although the science of how exercise helps you sleep better is not fully understood, researchers do believe that it may have to do with temperature changes in the body that occur during and following exercise. The body’s temperature normally increases slightly as the day progresses and starts to decreases in the evening. It is assumed that this decrease in temperature may signal the body that it is time to sleep.

“The idea of exercising to gain more energy is somewhat counter-intuitive to people,” said Masemer. “After becoming more active, people often find that they have more energy throughout the day and actually feel more sluggish when they aren’t physically active. Consistent exercise has been shown to lengthen, deepen and improve the overall quality of sleep.”

Tips on how to incorporate exercise into your day to achieve a better night’s sleep

  • Figure out what suits your body best. As a general rule, people are usually encouraged to avoid high-intensity exercise within two to four hours of going to bed. This may make it more difficult to sleep as well as not allow the body enough time to cool itself down. Research suggests that for most people exercise in the late afternoon or early evening may work best for sleep enhancement. The key is to remember that exercise at any time is better than not exercising at all and you need to determine what works best for you with your sleep schedule.
  • Give yourself time. For people with significant sleep issues, it may take months to establish a quality sleep pattern. The benefits of exercise may not be seen right away, but they are there. Work with an exercise professional to determine the type and intensity level of an exercise program that works best for you.
  • If you can’t sleep, try gentle movement. If you suffer from insomnia and restlessness, you can try getting up and doing some light stretches, gentle yoga, or movement such as tai chi or qigong. Try this in a dimly lit place so that you don’t over stimulate your body.
  • Winter months are difficult for many. Really listen to your body. Try to think in terms of 10- to 20-minute blocks of exercise instead of half-hour or hour-long timeframes. Know that the benefits of exercise are cumulative. Research has shown that three, 10-minute activity sessions spread throughout your day are as effective as one 30-minute session.
  • Discover the hidden benefits of exercise through a fitness profile. At the LiveWell Fitness Center, a fitness profile includes a health history including complete muscular strength, flexibility, body fat and muscular endurance tests, along with a cardiovascular fitness assessment to establish ideal exercise levels and heart rate. The power of exercise is evident even during the assessment, as many people will discover that it is much easier to meet their goals and health needs when it is approached safely and is customized to meet your lifestyle. The results from a fitness profile are helpful to determine the best fitness plan for you, which may help you with sleep issues.

Sue Masemer, MS, is an exercise physiologist and manager of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center. To make an appointment or learn more about the programs and services offered by the LiveWell Fitness Center, call 612-863-5178.


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Tips for embracing winter wellness: Exercise

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

During winter months, your exercise routine may change, and according to exercise physiologist Marc Arndt, MA that’s okay. “With the shorter days and darkness, it may not be possible to take a walk or run outdoors after work, but it may be the ideal time to focus more on an indoor strength training routine.”

Arndt suggests that people think differently about fitness during the winter and take small steps to incorporate exercise into your daily routines. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or if the weather is nicer, park your car further from the entrance to your office or the grocery store.

At the Penny George Institute – Unity Hospital in Fridley, Arndt works with people of all fitness levels, from those with no previous exercise experience to competitive athletes. He helps some through one-on-one personal training and others to simply develop a fitness routine. In as little as a one-hour fitness consult, he is able to identify goals and put together a routine to follow at home with minimal equipment.

Tips on how to incorporate exercise into the winter months

  • Try some new winter outdoor activities that offer great exercise. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, winter hiking and downhill skiing are great options. Be sure to dress for the weather with layered clothing designed to keep moisture away from skin such as wool socks and a Merino wool base layer. Snowshoeing, for example, is an exercise that just about anyone can participate in. Arndt notes that the energy expended during 15 minutes of snowshoeing is equal to that expended during 30 minutes of treadmill walking. It is also good for developing balance skills.
  • Develop a home routine. You don’t need expensive equipment or machines to start an effective home exercise routine. For strength training, a simple set of weights or resistance bands will suffice. If you do a high number of repetitions and multiple sets, you can gain as much cardiac benefit from strength training as you could on a treadmill for 30 minutes.
  • Remember that exercise helps change your mood  for the better. Even a short break in your day to incorporate physical activity will help change your hormone levels to elevate your mood. During the winter, it’s natural to feel more lethargic and a little exercise will make a world of difference. Ideally, Arndt recommends 20 to 30 minutes a day, but if that isn’t possible with your work or personal schedule, try to get in as many 10 minute periods of physical activity as possible, whether it’s taking stairs, walking indoors at your work place or taking a break for strength training.
  • Hydrate. During cold weather, you still need to hydrate. Make sure you take in as much water as you would during exercise in warm weather.
  • Window shop. In the coldest days of winter, the best exercise is walking through your local mall or shopping center. Many of the malls in the area have walking programs, with early morning or late evening hours designated especially for those seeking a warm, safe place to walk. Community sports centers may also have an inside track available for those seeking a costeffective, reliable spot to get some exercise.

Marc Arndt, MA, is an exercise physiologist at Penny George Institute for Health and Healing – Unity Hospital. To make an appointment with Arndt, call 763-236-5601.


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Embracing winter wellness

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

If you have a strong opinion about winter, you are not alone.

Love it or hate it, a Minnesota winter is always there to remind us of its presence. Many of us struggle with the season’s shorter days and the challenges of plunging temperatures, snow or ice.

For some, staying healthy seems more difficult in the winter months. The annual ritual of a flu shot reminds of us what’s next: more time indoors and more chances to catch the latest cold, cough or flu. Others struggle with the darkness and expectations of the holidays. For some, seasonal affective disorder brings a constant struggle of more than just the winter blues.

“Around the holiday season many of us set high expectations for what we think we should and need to do,” said Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, a cardiologist and vice president of Allina Health’s Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. “These expectations are challenging for many of us, but there are ways to remain active and embrace the winter season. There is beauty in the change of seasons, and winter is a time for us to reflect upon and creatively enjoy what is beautiful about our region.”

Eight ideas to help you embrace winter

1. Head outdoors. Embrace the change of seasons. If you dress appropriately, the cold shouldn’t stop you from enjoying time outside in the crisp, cool air. As a physician scientist with the National Institutes of Health, Baechler spent time studying preventive health initiatives in Finland – a country with long, cold and snowy winters. She observed people fully embracing the outdoors during the winter, bundled up and running, walking, socializing and even biking year-round.

2. Make activity part of your holiday rituals. Spend time after a traditional holiday meal doing something active as a group. Going for a short walk or spending time outdoors playing a game is a great way to embrace the change of seasons and create a new tradition.

3. Be mindful. Winter gives us an opportunity to reflect, listen to our bodies and slow down. Be mindful that if you are moving less during the season, you should eat a little less.

4. Think like a kid. Most kids are excited by the first snowfall. Part of the mind, body and spirit approach to enjoying what is beautiful about winter is to enjoy and appreciate the changing landscape.

5. Think small rewards. If you get outdoors and enjoy a winter activity such as walking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or ice skating, take some time to reward yourself with a cup of hot tea or some time in front of a fireplace. Taking time for reflection is also a great personal gift.

6. Get creative. There are many options for staying active and fit during the winter. Find an indoor place to walk such as a local mall or sports center. Many schools or community recreation centers offer indoor swimming. Or, try something new such as warm yoga or a community education class.

7. Back to the basics. After the hustle and bustle of the holidays what people remember most is the time spent with others. Most people put too much pressure on themselves to find the perfect gift, to prepare the perfect meal, when what matters most is time spent with others.

8. Think three. Remind yourself of three things you are grateful for each day. Gratitude helps you stay in the moment and be present.

Courtney Baechler, MD, is a practicing physician with and the vice president of the Penny George Institute. Make an appointment with her by calling 612-863-3333, or learn about classes offered by the Penny George Institute


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A look at declining fitness for kids around the world

BaechlerChildren are now slower runners than their parents were, according to new data from the American Heart Association.

The study showed that around the world, children are 15 percent less fit than their parents were during childhood. In the United States, childhood cardiovascular performance declined between 1970 and 2000.

Courtney Baechler, MD, a cardiologist and vice president of the Penny George™ Institute for Health and Healing, discussed these finding on Minnesota Public Radio’s The Daily Circuit. Listen to the segment.


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Nutrition: The benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

 Man enjoying the Mediterranean dietThis article originally ran in the Healing Journal newsletter of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year found that about 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart attack could be prevented in people if they switch to a Mediterranean style diet. The results of the study were so overwhelmingly clear that the study was stopped early.

“The Mediterranean diet is not a specific diet plan or program,” said Jeannie Paris, RD, LD, integrative nutritionist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. “Rather, it is a collection of eating habits followed by people in the Mediterranean region including Greece, southern Italy and Spain.”

According to Paris, the diet is characterized by abundant plant foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil and a moderate amount of fatty fish or lean poultry. Some people following the eating style may consume a small amount of red wine with meals. The lifestyle in the Mediterranean region also places an emphasis on being physically active and enjoying meals with family and loved ones. The Mediterranean diet is also known for what it does not include: very little or no
red meat, trans fatty acids from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, foods high in sugar or processed foods.

“Along with reducing the risk for heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular diseases, the Mediterranean diet may be helpful in reducing the risk of cancer, obesity, type II diabetes and other chronic illnesses,” said Paris. “The premise is that certain types of foods cause inflammation, including foods high in refined sugars or flours and foods that contain trans fatty acids, which are prevalent in the typical Western modern diet.”

Tips for incorporating a Mediterranean-style diet into daily life:

  • Emphasize plant proteins. Nuts, small seeds and legumes provide healthy protein and fiber. Experiment with new options, such as chia seeds, which are easily added to Greek yogurt or oatmeal.
  • Keep moving. Try to move more throughout the day. It doesn’t need to be an hour at the gym. Short walks spread in five to 10-minute increments throughout the day offer great benefits. Try to aim for 10,000 steps, which you are able to monitor through a pedometer or another tool, such as a Fitbit.
  • Make fruits and vegetables the center of your meals. One of the most important things to do to improve your diet is to shift your thinking from making meat the center of a meal to making plants the center of your meals.
  • Plan your meals around the fruits and vegetables. Aim for a variety of colors. The goal should be seven to nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables, but even five servings a day would make a big difference in improving most people’s diets.
  • Fish and poultry are healthier than red meat. If you include animal proteins in your diet, emphasize fish or poultry over red meat. Red meat is high in saturated fat. Cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and swordfish, are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Use fruit as a dessert. In the Mediterranean diet, whole fruit is often served as a dessert. This is a much healthier option than our typical desserts, which are high in refined
    sugars. The key is to shop for fruit in season, when it naturally tastes its best.
  • If something is good for you, more is not necessarily better. In the study, participants were not limited on the amount of olive oil they could use and were actually instructed to use at least four tablespoons a day. They were told  to avoid all commercially made cookies, cakes and pastries and to limit dairy and meat. Olive oil, nuts and avocados are rich sources of monosaturated fat, but do provide a high amount of calories in rather small servings. Olive oil contains about 120 calories per tablespoon. To prevent weight gain, it’s important to limit unhealthier food choices when healthier monounsaturated fat sources are added in one’s diet. For olive oil, Paris recommends pouring extra virgin olive oil into a spritzer bottle and then spray your fish or vegetables before cooking instead of pouring the olive oil directly into the pan.
  • Seek expert help. Paris works with clients and offers one-on-one integrative nutrition counseling and metabolism testing.

Olive Oil Dressing

Olive Oil Salad Dressing
A very easy, flavor-filled dressing that goes with any kind of salad.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam (could use no sugar added jam or fresh raspberries in season)

Combine the three ingredients in a blender or shaker and process until smooth. Store in a jar in the refrigerator. Ingredient amounts can be adjusted for desired batch size and also to individual liking.

Delicious over a bed of spinach or mixed greens with strawberries, blueberries and a sprinkle of sliced almonds, walnut pieces or chia seeds.

To make an appointment with Paris, call the LiveWell Fitness Center at Abbott Northwestern Hospital at 612-863-5178 or the Penny George Institute – Unity Hospital at 763-236-5656.


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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.