The Alcohol Controversy

Filed Under Huffington Post ·

By Jay Williams, Ph.D. and Katherine Nichols

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Understanding the effects of drinking alcohol on health and longevity is an old topic that constantly earns fresh attention, usually amid new studies that reveal both healthful and harmful effects from enjoying a few beverages.

So what is the healthiest code of conduct related to alcohol?

There is no universal “one size fits all” answer, but there’s enough information to help you make the right choice for yourself. Essentially, it depends on your age, gender, genetic risk for heart disease or cancer, medications you take, addiction tendencies and social support system. The simple message is that while moderate alcohol consumption carries certain health benefits, it would be unwise to ignore the associated risks — including an increased proclivity for cancer. This is especially true for women.

Reasons for some people to avoid alcohol remain blatantly obvious. It is a major source of addiction. Consuming more than seven drinks per week elevates the risk of alcohol use problems in both men and women. It also can lead to other destructive behavior, family violence and an increased number of falls in older adults. Pairing it with pregnancy, some medications or driving can be hazardous and should be avoided.

But you already know that. So if you want to drink responsibly, what constitutes moderation and how can it enhance your health?

Moderation, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. A drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits. It’s important to note that studies claiming positive health benefits from “moderate drinking” included people who adhered to this definition. (It’s a long way from getting hammered!)

We asked longevity guru Dan Buettner for his thoughts on the topic. “Go ahead, have a drink,” said Buettner, author of “Blue Zones,” which examines all factors that contribute to long and healthy living. “In Sardinia, red wine is consumed every day; in Okinawa, it’s a glass of sake with friends. A daily drink can lower the incidence of heart disease and reduce both cholesterol levels and the effects of chronic inflammation. Red wine is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, which may help ward off arteriosclerosis. But the secret is moderation: Drink a glass or two a day at most; more will negate the benefits.”

recent Time Magazine report found that people who drank alcohol moderately lived longer than those who abstained entirely, supporting Buettner’s position. The actual study also said these finding were not experimental, but that other important factors deserved consideration.

In addition to increasing longevity, men 40 and older and women 50 and above can enjoy other health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption. Several recent studies point out that it reduces the risk of heart disease and may protect against dementia and Type 2 Diabetes. In many reviews, beer and spirits contained the same benefits as red wine.

However, there’s one detail that clouds the good news. Despite this positive effect on potential heart disease, alcohol can boost blood pressure in people diagnosed with hypertension. In these cases, abstaining from alcohol is one proactive step that could save your heart, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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There’s more. While heart disease and longevity usually become factors later in life, cancer can strike in the prime years. And the research in this arena is not encouraging.

“We can confidently say that even moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a modestly higher risk for breast and colorectal cancer,” noted Susan Gapstur, Ph.D., of the American Cancer Society.

Cancer epidemiologist and researcher Naomi Allen of the University of Oxford, told WebMD that “there were no minimum levels of alcohol consumption that could be considered without risk.”

Some of the earliest research connecting alcohol and breast cancer came from the 90,000 Nurses’ Health Study, which began in 1980. By 1987, an article in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that women who consumed three to nine drinks each week increased their risk of getting breast cancer by 30 percent. The more they drank, the greater the threat.

Subsequent research arrived at similar conclusions, with slightly different details. In 1998, Harvard scientists published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association pooling the results of six worldwide studies that included more than 320,000 women. The paper determined that one drink a day led to a 10 percent increase in breast cancer risk. Two to five drinks a day escalated that number to 40 percent.

Researchers following the ongoing Million Women Study in the United Kingdom reported that women who drank alcohol increased their risk of cancers of the breast, liver, rectum, mouth, throat and esophagus. The study subjects consumed an average of one serving of alcohol each day. Again, the more they drank, the worse the peril. And for those who want to believe wine is always a safe choice, the analysis found that exclusive wine drinkers suffered the same risk for developing cancer as those who drank beer, spirits or a combination of alcoholic beverages.

In the end, the healthiest approach to drinking depends on your individual circumstances — and your ability to keep your consumption at a modest level. So here’s a toast to good health! And remember, please don’t drink and drive.

Moab, Utah: Rugged, Challenging, and Unexpectedly Romantic

Filed Under Huffington Post ·

By Katherine Nichols

Aside from a bevy of devoted mountain bikers who pay homage to the place every year in the 24-hour Mountain Bike National Championship, Moab, Utah, doesn’t usually hover at the top of most people’s vacation wish lists. That’s a shame, because it’s one of the most uniquely beautiful destinations in the country.

Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park are short drives from the center of Moab. Each one features breathtaking red rock formations that virtually glow in the fading light of sunset. By itself, Arches offers days of exploration via short walks or extensive hikes under and around 2,000 stone arches formed by the imprecise art of natural precipitation. The rugged grandeur of these monuments — each idiosyncratic and constantly changing — is unparalleled.

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Flying into Salt Lake City or even Denver would save time, but lower airfares inspired us to transition from Las Vegas, where David and I rented a car and drove to Moab, covering nearly 1,200 miles on the entire trip. Zion National Park is an easy stop along the way, with myriad hikes (such as the famous Narrows… next on our list), beckoning for much more than a side trip. Instead, we lingered at Bryce Canyon National Park, just a few hours outside of Vegas, for a short hike to investigate the stalagmites — conical mineral deposits that create spectacular rock pinnacles called hoodoos.

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Taking this detour stretched our drive to about 12 hours, but it was well worth the delay, and made me want to return to the explore the maze of trails beneath these eerie red, rust, and white natural towers. In fact, there wasn’t any place I didn’t want to linger. We made a note to return to explore the maze of trails amid the eerie red, rust, and white natural amphitheater — when we weren’t on our way to another destination.

Several hours later, hungry and growing fatigued from trying to anticipate random deer and cows wandering onto the road through the inky blackness, we stumbled across Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah, a tiny town (population 180!) that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere (maybe because it is?). Expecting mediocre food, we were thrilled to discover a restaurant with mouth-watering dishes accented with herbs and vegetables from the restaurant’s organic farm and on-site gardens. They even get their eggs from their own heritage-breed hens. When I explored the log cabin-like interior, I found an article about the eatery from Oprah Winfrey’s magazine framed on the wall, along with dining awards and a piece in theNew York Times travel section. Guess I hadn’t broken the big news after all.

When we finally arrived in Moab at 2 a.m., we settled into our three-bedroom condominium at Moab Springs Ranch, with a full kitchen, two bathrooms and the wild addition of a fire pole exiting the loft. In all, it could sleep eight people comfortably. Moab is casual and fairly economical; our condo was among the nicest accommodations, which sort of peak with the Hampton Inn. Super spacious and comfortable, it came with the one essential component for any mountain bike trip: A washer/dryer unit.

Dining is simple, too. Preparing oatmeal in the kitchen and packing sandwiches before heading out with our mountain bikes and hiking boots suited us fine and saved money. Though a few expensive restaurants have managed to survive, we weren’t impressed. After a long day outdoors, what enticed us most was the Moab Brewery, where a burrito bursting with fresh vegetables and a side of steamy homemade cornbread satiated us for around $10.

Now that traveling with your own bike has become ridiculously expensive, renting makes sense. It seems like there’s a bike shop every block in Moab — it’s a Mecca for off-road enthusiasts — but making reservations in advance is a good idea. For about $60/day at Poison Spider Bicycles, I found top-flight Yeti bikes with 5.75 inches of travel (mountain bike-speak for the range in the suspension), and super helpful mechanics/cyclists who provided helmets and the right pedals (bring your own shoes). They also offered to tune the bikes each day, and suggested routes — there are dozens of highly technical to moderate courses — based on our abilities.

The highlight was undoubtedly Slickrock, the iconic ride of the area. Full of steep climbs and descents reserved for only the most skilled cyclists, precarious drops into canyons, soaring views of the Colorado river, and stunning smooth rock (which has an unexpected and comforting grip on mountain bike tires), it was nothing short of exhilarating. Of course, it took me the usual 60 to 90 minutes to conquer my fear of spending the rest of the trip in the hospital. But when I did, I launched into one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

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And that was just the beginning. Opportunities abound for activities outside the standard biking and hiking. One day, we arranged for a private mountain climbing guide to take us on a six-hour excursion through Pritchett Canyon. We called Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, told them we were reasonably fit, asked for something challenging, and got that and more. After a couple of hours of hiking and climbing (no gear; hands only, but with some intermediate to experienced moves in steep, narrow places), we arrived at our first rappel — about 60 feet and relatively easy against a flat wall. Still, the first time you step off the edge of any cliff in a harness and lower yourself down, it’s terrifying. When trust finally replaced dread, I couldn’t help but shout my enthusiasm, which bounced off the cavernous walls all the way down. The second rappel, completed only if people do the first one without incident (um, obviously), is a 90-foot free fall.

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Several days left us yearning for more. A camping trip under the luminous stars. Mountain biking new routes. Hikes we saw only from the car. National Parks that promised days of escape. With all that we saw, there’s much we missed. So Moab remains at the top of our vacation wish list. And you know what else? All that outdoor adventure, laughter, and teamwork capped with isolated, moonlit evenings made it one of the most romantic getaways we’ve ever shared. Yep, we’re definitely going back.


Follow Katherine Nichols on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@soulfitgirl

Adventure and Luxury on Kauai’s Na Pali Coast

Filed Under Huffington Post ·

By Katherine Nichols

Having two Ironman Triathlon World Championship races in my recent past didn’t mean I could hike all 22 miles of the Na Pali Coast to remote Kalalau Beach and back in one day. People thought it was a little nuts (my ambitious, athletic boyfriend’s idea! I quickly pointed out). My triathlon training partner, an experienced Kauai trekker, offered the most encouragement: I don’t know… you might make it? But I wanted peace, and for me the quest for serenity has never been about sitting still for extended periods. Rather, it revolves around finding and seizing quiet moments amid challenge and adventure.

Lured by the majestic scenery and the lore of the rigorous trail to a beach 11 miles deep into the north shore of Kauai — accessible only by foot or boat — David and I planned carefully. How much daylight did we have? What kind of pace should we maintain? How many calories and ounces of water would we consume? Were our day hike permits in order?

Because the Sierra Club rates the difficulty at 9 out of 10 (and, of course, it’s stunning, so why rush?), people usually stay overnight at Kalalau. However, two factors motivated us to attempt the round trip in one day: A lighter load and therefore a faster pace, and a Prince Junior Suite at the St. Regis Princeville, featuring a marble Jacuzzi tub with glass windows overlooking Hanalei Bay, high thread count linens instead of a tent, and steaks and seafood rather than than protein bars.

David and I each carried about 20 pounds of water (four gallons between us), food, dry socks, headlamps, Leatherman multi-tool, Gore-Tex shell, GPS and topographical map, first-aid kit, and cell phones (which turned out to be useless) when we left the grandeur of the hotel lobby and drove to the trailhead at Ke’e Beach.

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The first light of day sent local roosters strutting and scurrying; an air of excitement hung between us as we lathered on sunscreen and bug repellant, and launched into the popular early miles to Hanakapi’ai Beach. Recent rains had soaked sections, sending me sliding through mud on my rear end at one point, and causing David to slip on a hill and tweak an already tender knee. For a moment, our friends seemed a lot smarter than we were.

Na Pali means “Sea Cliffs” in Hawaiian, and these ridges soar 800 feet above the ocean in places. There are five valleys, and at the base of some, stone wall terraces where ancient Hawaiians cultivated taro plants still exist. The trail — sometimes narrow, treacherous, and exposed — pitched up or down the entire way. Occasionally, we navigated stream crossings under signs that left little to interpretation or attorneys: “Warning: Strong Current. You could be swept away and could drown.”

As we gained and lost altitude at every turn, the terrain shifted from lush rain forest to barren, slippery silt, leading to some frightening areas. On one of these, David trotted ahead, unaware of my psychological meltdown. I fought tears and struggled to regulate my breathing. Look where you want to go, I repeated in my head, unable to pull my gaze from the crumbly, soaring edge that I was sure would leave my children motherless. I wanted to go back and order lunch by the pool. With a big basket of fries. But trails usually serve as apt metaphors for life. And going back, I reasoned, was not really how I wanted to live. So I inched forward, terrified, humbled, euphoric.

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After five and a half hours of moving at a solid clip (aside from my temporary paralysis), we caught our first glimpse of Kalalau Beach. Though my quadriceps quivered from the constant elevation changes, my spirit had found its equilibrium again. The red dust and rocks surrendered to a green, grassy hillside that afforded views of the coastline we had traversed. Crushing waves, a fixture on north shore beaches in winter, warned against entry into the ocean, even at the shallowest depths.

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When we planted ourselves in the unmarred sand, it differed from all of the beaches that have formed the fabric of my life in the ocean. It was empty, save one shirtless fisherman casting into the surf, and his very naked female companion (trust me — it sounds more intriguing than it was), who seemed to wander in and out of his scope of attention. David and I disappeared into our own space. We sat in silence for a few minutes. Facing the water, we spoke of gratitude. Then we shared our goals, one at a time, and celebrated the journey toward them. Impossibly, our surroundings felt like both the edge of the earth and the center of everything in our lives.

Yet it wasn’t perfect. There was also an uncomfortable element embodied in society drop-outs self-medicating in hammocks hidden among the trees, and the subtle feeling that we, as law-abiding, environmentally-aware citizens, were trespassing. However, the tranquility that arose from the landscape, and the endorphins that got us there, overpowered the outsider status. Besides, nobody seemed inclined to bother anybody else.

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On the way back I managed the harrowing area with aplomb, moving through with dry eyes and purpose. We arrived back at Ke’e Beach just in time to see the sun — fiery orange and appearing as though it might set in our laps — dip behind the whitewash blooming on the horizon. After removing our mud-caked shoes, we lowered ourselves into the cool, shallow water with the grace of an elderly, infirm couple, letting the calm wash over us.

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The next morning we awoke immobilized by our aching bodies and the arresting view. Across the 820 square-foot room, past the console where the flat screen TV disappeared, past a full living area with windows that also slid away, reality looked like a photograph. It seemed like we could dip our toes into Hanalei Bay from our bed. Beyond the cerulean water sat the beginning of Na Pali Coast, the source of our filth and physical exhaustion, appreciation for lavish amenities, and lifetime memories.

And those feelings of serenity? They fade, but rise again with every reminiscence and anecdote. That’s the thing about a good adventure. It has a decent shelf life.