Travel Smarter 2012: Travel tips for health and wellness

Films like “Contagion” (which I very much enjoyed, and not just because Gwyneth Paltrow bites it within the first 10 minutes) instill a paranoia in the public consciousness about the hazards of air travel. It’s true, however, that most public transportation is the equivalent of a mobile petri dish; one can’t deny the inherent germiness lurking within. Subsequently, antibacterial hand gel is my new best friend.

There are other quasi-self-inflicted, travel-related maladies: neck and back pain, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), infectious disease, foodborne illness, stress–all of which kind of make you wonder why we travel in the name of relaxation, but I digress.

For many, myself included, part of the thrill of recreational travel is the element of risk involved, even if said danger involves nothing more than scarfing down a few street tacos. Regardless of why you travel, there are always new products on the market designed to make your trip more comfortable, or minimize your chances of getting sick. New research on the hazards and benefits of travel also keep us informed about what we can do to stay healthier on the road.

Below are my picks for making travel in 2012 a little less treacherous:

1. Reduce your risk of DVT
New studies show that choosing the window seat on a long flight can increase your chances of developing DVT. A theoretical DVT risk known as “economy class syndrome” (how’s that for an “f-you” to airlines?) has been debated for years, and attributed to the lack of legroom in coach.

Now, however, the American College of Chest Physicians have determined that the real issue is that window-seat fliers have limited opportunities to walk and stretch their legs during lengthy flights, which can lead to potentially fatal blood clots that may travel to the lungs (pulmonary embolism). There are a number of factors that contribute to one’s risk of DVT including age, preexisting health conditions, certain medications, and recent surgery, but even if you don’t fit these criteria, you should always try to get out of your seat and/or do some stretching exercises and leg movements once an hour during long flights. In other words, consider the aisle the path to clot-free veins.

2. Time-release DEET
Some people have no problem dousing themselves in insecticide, personal health and environmental side effects be damned. I used to silently sneer at those people while I sat around the campfire, my unprotected skin providing nutrients to legions of winged, blood-sucking creatures. What were a few bites (Note: it was never just a few bites; try dozens) compared to not getting cancer or maintaining the purity of the local watershed?

Then I got sick as a result of deadly bacteria-harboring sandflies, and now I’m one of those people who understand why DEET exists. I still don’t like it–it’s definitely not something I, nor the CDC, recommend using with abandon–but it’s critical for protecting yourself from mosquitoes, sandflies, ticks, and other potentially harmful insects, in conjunction with protective attire such as long socks, long-sleeved shirts, and pants (you can also purchase insect-repellent clothing). Note that I’m not taking into account malarial conditions, in which case you should be supplementing your DEET applications with a doctor-prescribed anti-malarial drug.

I was thrilled when I recently discovered controlled release DEET at my neighborhood travel store. Sawyer® Premium Controlled Release Insect Repellent is designed to “reduce the rate of DEET absorption” by 67% per application, and “extend the duration of its effectiveness.” This 20% DEET lotion is also odorless, so you don’t have to huff noticeably toxic fumes all day.

3. Hummingbird Lumbar Pillow
If you have existing back problems or an epic backpacking adventure planned, this little baby from innovative gear company Hummingbird is the bomb. Measuring 7″ x 14″, it weighs just 3.5 ounces, rolls or packs flat, and will keep your lower back happy while camping, or riding a Third World bus sans shock absorbers on a rutted highway with potholes large enough to swallow a Mini Cooper.

4. Simply Being Guided Meditation app
I’m way too ADD to meditate, but this suggestion came to me from my Gadling colleague, and fellow meditation-phobe, McLean Robbins. She loves this app, which runs through a brief series of relaxation exercises. As McLean says, “Perfect for shutting out the world on a terrible plane ride or easing into sleep in an unfamiliar hotel bed.” The app is available for iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, and Android.

5. Maqui berry
Move over, açaí, there’s a new free-radical fighter in town. Chilean maqui berry, which is FDA-approved and contains the highest ORAC (a system of measure for antioxidants) level in the world, has hit the U.S. Only a few companies manufacture it, but I recommend Isla Natura brand (Full disclosure: the company is owned by a friend of mine, which–in addition to maqui’s health benefits–is why I feel comfortable touting this product). Maqui (Aristotelia chilensis) is indigenous to southern Chile and was traditionally used by the Mapuche Indians as a medicinal aid.

Isla Natura’s USDA and EU-certified organic (Fair Trade certification pending) wild fruits are harvested by hand, dried, ground, and sold in eight-ounce packets. Use one tablespoon in smoothies or on top of yogurt or oatmeal as a daily dietary supplement, but also consider it an immune booster for when you’re traveling.

Bonus: you’ll avoid the high sugar content of Emergen-C, and the “licking a dirt floor” flavor of açaí, and Isla Natura provides employment to local indigenous families at its small Chiloe processing plant. Travel-friendly capsules will be available in April; go to the company’s website for information on scientific studies. To order, click here.

[flickr image via viajar24h.com]

Seattle’s best spots for hot chocolate

Seattle best hot chocolateBaby, it’s cold outside here in Seattle, and that makes me want to drink. No, not coffee or craft beer, despite Seattle’s status where those beverages are concerned. I’m talking about chocolate. Hot chocolate. It’s a national obsession these days, along with its more solid counterpart. There are chocolate boutiques, chocolate tastings, chocolate cafes, chocolate factory tours. Whether you love a single varietal 72% Madagascar from the Sambirano Valley, or a bar of Hershey’s, one of the many great things about chocolate is that it caters to all tastes and budgets.

While I loathe the culinary pretentiousness that frequently goes hand-in-hand with fine food and drink, I’ll be the first to admit that there is a vast difference in quality (and sustainable growing and harvesting practices) when it comes to chocolate. That same quality variation extends to hot chocolate, which these days also goes by such nom de plume’s as drinking chocolate, sipping chocolate, or chocolate chaud. There are even health benefits to ponying up for a quality cup if it’s within your means.

Generally speaking, the above terms are interchangeable, although it’s implied they contain bittersweet (dark) chocolate, rather than cocoa powder. Dark chocolate (65% cacao or more) is loaded with antioxidants; a quarter ounce per day is has significant health benefits, and also acts as a natural antidepressant. Researchers believe that the endorphins and opioids in chocolate elevate mood and reduce anxiety.

So, because it’s delicious, heart-healthy, cancer-preventing, mood-enhancing, and mojo-making (just in time for Valentine’s Day!), here are my picks on where to find Seattle’s best hot chocolate. If a trip to the Pacific Northwest isn’t on your itinerary, I’ve provided online sources so you can make your own cup of chocolatey goodness.

Fran’s Chocolates
Seattle’s own Fran’s is my top pick, thanks to a rich blend of 65% Venezuelan single-origin chocolate, and half two-percent/half whole milk topped with a healthy dollop of unsweetened whipped cream. Three locations in Seattle and nearby Bellevue. You can order Fran’s Dark Hot Chocolate pistoles (pellets designed for melting) here.Seattle best hot chocolateTrophy Cupcakes
Topped with unsweetened whipped cream or a housemade marshmallow, this European-style hot chocolate made with heavy cream is the beverage equivalent to fuzzy bunny slippers. Three locations in Seattle and Bellevue.

Theo’s Chocolates
This hometown company in trendy Fremont was the first organic/fair trade chocolate factory in the U.S.. Today, Theo’s delectable chocolates are available nationwide. The factory also has tours and a retail store/cafe counter, where cups of sipping chocolate are available (depending upon the day; call ahead). The Dark contains a 70% blend and whole milk, making for an intensely chocolately cuppa; Chipotle Spice has the mouth-tingling additon of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and smoked and ground ancho chile. You can also order cans of ground sipping chocolate online.

Café Presse
A heady blend of bittersweet and unsweetened chocolates, cocoa powder, cream, and milk make for one of the most well-balanced cups in town at this charming Capitol Hill spot. You’ll find more of the same at downtown sister cafe Le Pichet. P.S. It’s worth the extra cash to slip some Armagnac in your cup.