Loosen all those tightness at COMO Shambhala.
(COMO SHAMBHALA)

Here is a reminder: It’s 2024 and there is absolutely no reason why a regular self-care day isn’t already a part of your routine. It’s so easy to get caught up in the constant chase for success that we sometimes forget that our bodies, minds and spirits need to be rejuvenated every so often. As much as we feel like well-oiled machines after years of stress-inducing hard work to get to where we are now, let’s face it: the stress never ends. Self-care is a necessity.

Much like how one’s idea of success is personal and varied, the choice of self-care is individual and multifarious. Getting my body pummelled and cracked into submission by a professional makes for the perfect therapy for me. It’s the reason I go for an osteopathy session almost monthly. It’s a way of preventing muscle injury from running, as well as loosening up the accumulated tension in my neck and back. I leave feeling like a new person after every session. My entire posture feels more open, and everything feels lighter. And such results are typically what I look for when trying out new massage experiences. Granted that osteopathy and massage therapies aren’t the same, there still ought to be a noticeable change in how one feels after going for either one. They aren’t effects you’d only be able to notice after multiple sessions; they are not facial treatments.

I have heard glowing reviews of the COMO Shambhala Signature Massage from several lifestyle editors who’ve tried it. And so when COMO Shambhala Singapore offered one as part of a tour of its new flagship, I jumped at the opportunity. Scheduled for the third day of 2024, sandwiched between a couple of nights of New Year’s Eve shenanigans and a two-week sojourn in Milan and Paris for Fashion Week Men’s, the timing couldn’t be better. Yeah, I definitely needed a good massage.

The new COMO Shambhala Singapore flagship is located on the fourth level of COMO Orchard, which is a self-care hub in itself, with Cédric Grolet’s Singapore outpost located on the ground floor, next to multi-label boutique Club 21, and COMO Cuisine on the second level. Stepping out of the elevators and into COMO Shambhala Singapore, however, one gets a sense of how it has been consciously and intently designed to be a wellness oasis despite being at the centre of one of the busiest spots in the city.

Wes Anderson immediately came to mind as I am greeted by tiles in a familiar shade of calming blue. The interiors were however designed by Milan-based designer and architect Paola Navone of OTTO Studio (she’s also behind the designs of other COMO projects), with the colour choice meant to reflect healing waters. The pastel hue is complemented by the use of greys and everything appears to be symmetrically aligned.

The pilates studio at COMO Shambhala Singapore. (COMO SHAMBHALA)
COMO Shambhala's well-equipped gym. (COMO SHAMBHALA)

COMO Shambhala Singapore takes up an entire floor, spanning 9,000 square feet, with 1,500 square feet dedicated to a well-equipped gym to the right of the lounge and retail space. I was ushered into a private room towards the left, a small flight of stairs up past the yoga and pilates studios. The facial and massage rooms are all located down this corridor, including rooms designed for couples to enjoy treatments together.

I was informed that Master Song, the lead therapist and trainer, has been with COMO Shambhala for about five years. Before that, he had been practising traditional Thai massage since the late ‘90s. I was assured I would be in the best hands. I settled facedown under the covers—the bed was very plush and comfortable—and Master Song got to work.

I have noticed that the kinds of massages that leave me in unexplored states of bliss tend to be the ones that are specifically targeted. Sure, the strength of pressure applied counts, but getting them applied to spots that would do nothing but inflict pain seems counterintuitive. That was certainly not the case with Master Song. I was asked if I had any specific areas that I would like to work on. “Neck, shoulders and legs, please,” I responded, enumerating the three areas I struggle with the most.

Master Song’s expertise came into play from the very first touch. He knew the right points to concentrate on—which is surprising given that this was our first session together—and had me melting into the bed within a minute. He checked in after a few minutes of me stifling any guttural moans (it was that good), asking if the pressure was sufficient. I could only muster out an “uh-huh” as he continued to work on my neck. It was at this point that I felt certain I astral projected out of my body for a good 30 seconds. I’m not even embarrassed to say that I might have teared up a bit at the release of tension in my neck.

Every move was precisely targeted. For someone who is used to hard-pressure massages (at my request) this felt even more satisfying because I left the session without any aching from over-exertion on unnecessary spots. I didn’t want the hour-long session to end.

A wellness oasis right along one of Singapore's busiest streets.
(COMO SHAMBHALA)

Given the level of expertise as well as the facilities—the changing rooms where the washrooms are located are immaculate—the COMO Shambhala Singapore experience is a luxury that’s reflected in its price point. A 60-minute COMO Shambhala Massage costs SGD220 and SGD330 for a 90-minute session. But if luxury is what you need and deserve to rejuvenate, there aren’t many out there that’ll be as life-changing as what you’ll experience at COMO Shambhala Singapore. Like I said, self-care is necessary.

(APPLE)

It used to be that a watch was used to tell time. Sure, there were the occasional chronographic trimmings, but mostly, it was supposed to inform the user of the hour, the date. Then, companies added more bells and whistles to the wrist implement. They made it able to count your steps; help you navigate; track your heartbeat... the list goes on. And now the watch has grown beyond the initial scope of a timepiece. 

These days, we refer to it as a smartwatch and it’s changing the way we monitor our health. Because it’s unobtrusive and in contact with our skin for most of our day, it can collate a host of information about our bodies that we have no idea that it’s giving out. For example, when a feature was able to track one’s heart rate, I didn’t quite understand how it worked. Does the smartwatch pick up the slight throbs from the wrist? It was a year later that I found out that it measures heart rate using the flashing green LED light emitted on the rear of the smartwatch. It’s called photoplethysmography and it gets a reading of the heart rate by how much green light is absorbed by the red blood cells as the blood vessels expand and contract. Expanded blood vessels takes in more green light; contracted blood vessels absorb less. #nowyouknow. 

Another feature that seems almost like magic (props to Arthur C Clarke) is sleep tracking. Usually, in a sleep study, you’re hooked up to a polysomnograph via electrodes to record your EEG (electroencephalogram), ECG (electrocardiogram), EOG (electrooculography) and EMG (electromyography) readings. A smartwatch doesn’t have electrodes so, instead, it relies on the watch’s accelerometers to measure how many movements you make during sleep.

These are the big two features that all smartwatch users are familiar with but they are just the tip of the iceberg, especially when it comes to the Apple Watch, which has a slew more attributes that the majority tend to overlook. While records of your heart rate and your sleep patterns are fine, the more information that the Apple Watch collates (balance; oxygen in the blood; mental state), the clearer the picture of your state of health that comes to the fore. 

We discovered more things that the Apple Watch Series 8 and Series 9 can do at the recent Apple Health Summit. 


Apples Watches in a Pink Sports Loop strap and a Pacific Blue Magnetic Link strap.
(APPLE)

HEALTH SHARING 

Any data that the Apple Watch collects is not shared with Apple or any third party, that was stressed no less than three times during our session with Apple. Tim Cook was adamant about Apple’s stance on privacy, which it believes is a “fundamental human right”. But if you want to, you can share your crucial health data with your family members or caregivers who are also Apple users. Info like high heart rate alerts, irregular rhythm notifications will keep your inner circle in the know so that they can check in on you. 

MOBILITY METRICS 

When it comes to longevity in health, mobility ranks high on the list. Think about it: when you start to feel painand strain from even the most basic task like walking, your quality of life dips. In fact, the act of walking can be a key indicator of any injury, it is also the representation of one’s ability to age with independence. The Mobility Metrics measures your walking performance—the speed; step length; asymmetry—from the results you can ascertain where you place mobility-wise.

While the accelerator on the smartwatch alone is enough to measure your strides, the Mobility Metrics work better when you also have your Apple iPhone holstered at your waist. With a secondary accelerometer, you’ll get a more accurate reading of your walking state. 

(APPLE)

VISION HEALTH 

When our smartphones become more ubiquitous, it’s inevitable that the majority of our lives will be spent in front of screens. Excessive screen time strains the eyes and leaves them dry. Worst-case scenario: you’ll get retina damage and blurred vision. Myopia is another leading cause of vision impairment, especially for children since the risk of myopia rises when they don’t spend time outdoors and the distance between their peepers and screen are not at a respectable distance away from each other. 

Here’s where Apple safeguards your vision health. You can view the amount of time spent in daylight thanks to your Apple Watch, which measures time spent in daylight using an ambient light sensor. Going out to bathe in the sun rays is encouraged as it boosts immunity; hones your circadian rhythm so that you can sleep better; fights off depression, among a host of benefits. 

You can also program your iPhone to switch on the Screen Distance feature. It uses the TrueDepth camera and alerts you if it senses that your face is too close. 

MENTAL WELL-BEING 

Your physical appearance may be up to par but what’s on the inside counts, especially, inside your head. We’re not talking about therapy; that requires finesse... hell, even a human touch. No, when it comes to your mental well-being, the Apple Watch is forcing you to slow down. 

Now this was the hardest feature to adopt. Having lived out most of my adult life in the rat race, I’m encouraged to stop and smell the roses. The Mindfulness app in watchOS 10 engages you to catalogue how you feel at the moment. It sounds like blogging but the Mindfulness nudges you into identifying what led you to your current state. With these insights, you can better manage your overall mental health, which is much needed in today’s fast-paced world.

(GETTY IMAGES)

For a long time, I was a slave to the gym. I did four or five sessions a week, so it wasn’t excessive, but it still felt like I was always there. Factoring in travel, washing and the workout itself—which adds up to about seven hours a week—the gym process took up a huge chunk of my leisure schedule. And that’s before we even get into diet. 

Conscious to supplement (and not undo) all my hard work, I was on and off on a strict plan. Protein shakes and chicken salads without the dressing were my staples, and I was terrified of carbs. Of course, carbs are hard to avoid, especially if you’re social. After celebrations involving birthday cake, or pizza at a festival, I would punish myself. The following day would require a double session, and I’d go on a liquid “detox” for a couple of days. Soup, lemon water, cold-pressed juice... anything that’d run through me as quickly as possible without lingering over my stomach. 

Obsessing with my body was miserable, but I never admitted it. Everybody else around me was doing the same, and we revelled in the camaraderie. If someone in the office brought back a Burger King lunch, they were ridiculed. But we were salivating long after our raw veg bowl was done, the aroma of their onion rings killing us inside. 

When I moved into a career in travel, my health routine became less rigid, and my obsession with weight and tone calmed down. I mixed hotel gym workouts with running outside and signed up for things like surfing or scuba. I wanted to taste the world’s bounty, so I ate more freely too. My six-pack disappeared quickly, as it did any time I paused the vigorous abs crunches and ate regular foods, but guess what? I didn’t balloon in size. I remained the same weight and my energy levels were still pretty high. Being active every day was burning plenty of calories without me realising it. 

A century ago, 10 per cent of us led sedentary lives, but now that figure in developed cities is more like 90 per cent. On top of that, we’re ordering our groceries online, and taking rideshares door to door. 

The thing that is making us unhealthy is less our carbs and ketchup, but all the sitting. Surely exerting energy naturally or socially is more fun and sustainable than staring at a treadmill screen or a mat-side mirror? Gyms are boring. That’s why half of people who sign up for them in January end up quitting. 

I recently went to Zurich, Switzerland, and the Lindt Home of Chocolate Museum is the country’s number one attraction. Chocoholic or not, I had to visit and do it properly. If this were during my gym-addict days, the trip would have been excruciating. I wouldn’t have done the truffle-making class, gone to every tasting station, or bought pralines to take home. Now I was able to immerse myself fully. I asked someone at the museum how the employees stay fit working among so much temptation, and the response was simple. “The Swiss walk everywhere”. Indeed, that day alone, I had completed 24,000 steps. That more than justified the confectionary samples.

I used to think it was ironic Red Bull sponsored all the big sporting events, like racing and diving. But I now understand why they do it, aside from promoting the energy aspect of the drink.

Wong and the realisation that there's more to the gym-bro life

Look at people in the blue zones. Most of them have never set foot in the gym, nor do they count their calories. Those Okinawans, Sardinians, and Ikarians are living the longest on a workout routine simply called life. They’re moving naturally, and eating whatever they want, granted it’s mostly delicious whole foods and red wine. In a big city, where cooking from scratch is less common, we can still enjoy the things we want to, in moderation. Eighty-four per cent of Singaporeans allot time for exercise at least once a week. If you make sure that’s combined with ample natural daily activity, like walking (or better, running) you’re covered for those treats. Hey, you might even find yourself dancing. 

I used to think it was ironic Red Bull sponsored all the big sporting events, like racing and diving. But I now understand why they do it, aside from promoting the energy aspect of the drink. They’re not saying consume sugar all day every day. They’re saying, for the big exhilarating occasions, come on over and wet your lips. Maximise the earth’s opportunities to make real memories, and stop wasting time and money confined in four walls of apparatus and the box of dietary restrictions they’re synonymous with. 

Speaking of money, I don’t think people realise how much it all adds up to in a lifetime, assuming you don’t have a gym at home. Say you spend SGD200 a month at Virgin Active: that’s SGD2,400 a year on the club, plus whatever you purchase at MBS’ activewear chain stores. Protein shakes are expensive, too. Instead, how about picking up a racket and joining a tennis group for a low-cost, high-return sweat every week? And if you absolutely must have that fancy Andy Murray Castore gear, showcase it out on the courts, not the gym floor, you’ll get more admiring eyeballs. 

It’s been years since my last direct debit to a gym, and I think I’m just as healthy if not more than I was before. I carried out repetitive motions five times a week, binged at parties, and then deprived myself till the next one. My goal then was not to feel good but to look good. Though I don’t have a six-pack any more, I have miles more energy than when I did (or is that the Red Bull?). I owe it to appreciating the great outdoors, where I walk at least 10,000 steps a day, or take long picnics with friends (strawberry cake and dancing to K-Pop’s always a good time). Not thinking about the ensuing detox has been great for my mental health too. If we want to live as long as those blue zoners, we should take a leaf out of their not-so-secret habits. Movement without dumbbells and treadmills, and spending our hard-earned dollars on things that put a real spring in our step no matter what age we make it to. 

(DJ HARVEY)

If we ask you to think of Bali’s best-known wellness activities, meditation, yoga and various other cross-legged pursuits will probably spring to mind. DJ Harvey would like to remind you that there’s another practice people have been using to get their chakras aligned, their spirits uplifted and their auras cleansed since our cave-dwelling days.

“Dancing around is as ancient and as natural as getting up in the morning,” says the legendary British disc jockey. Harvey argues that rather than being debauched or hedonistic, going out to dance all night is in fact an act of self-care. “If it puts a smile on your face and makes you happy, that’s mental health, that’s healthy. And if you happen to get some aerobic exercise from it, that’s physical health. And if you make a new friend, all the better.” 

In Harvey’s view, “Dancing to music is a wonderful pursuit. I can’t see anything wrong with it in any way, shape, or form. It’s completely beneficial in every single way.” Should you find yourself in Bali in May—and isn’t that why people go to Bali, to find themselves?—you can sample Harvey’s brand of spiritual healing during his month-long residence at Klymax, the new club he’s established at Desa Potatohead in Seminyak. 

The 400-capacity subterranean space was designed to Harvey’s exacting specs, from the state-of-the-art sound system down to a gentle sprinkling of dust on the disco ball, which softens its effect, Harvey reckons. A visual reflection of the ‘cosmic disco’ sound Harvey is often associated with, Klymax’s aesthetic resembles a nightclub scene from a stylish 1970s sci-fi movie—except instead of Michael York or Charlton Heston, here, you’re the star. 

The technology used in DJing has advanced immensely over the course of Harvey’s five-decade career. But at the end of the day (or the end of the night, as the case may be), success as a DJ comes down to playing the right music to suit the moment and the mood, Harvey says. 

“You choose a record, and then you choose the next one—hopefully you haven’t chosen them all before you get to the party, which some people do,” he chides. “You play some music and hope people like it, and then you play another tune and hope they like that, and you try to get from one record to the next without bringing the dance floor to a screeching halt. And if everyone’s smiling at the end, you’ve done your job, simple as that.” 

As space-age as Klymax may appear, as high-tech as the equipment he uses is, the partying Harvey presides over is part of a tradition dating back to the most primitive times, at the very dawn of mankind. “The frequencies don’t change, just the delivery. It used to be we’d beat a stick on a log, now you press a green button. But the rhythm that comes out, that has never changed and can never change because they are frequencies and rhythms that tune into the frequencies and rhythms of your existence,” Harvey believes. “That stuff doesn’t change, it’s just the medium which produces those rhythms or frequencies that evolves.” 

Farina Ghanie, who runs wellness retreats for stressed-out executives in Singapore under the moniker ARISE, says dancing and getting out of your head (perhaps in more ways than one) possess plenty of parallels with the more esoteric forms of mind-body-spirit wellness. “Dancing is effectively a form of meditation because you are one with yourself,” she says. “It’s about connecting with your breath, being connected with your body. It’s similar to when elite sports athletes get into a hyper focus state. That is a form of meditation, too, because everything external, all the ‘noise’ is removed, and they only focus on one thing.” 

More and more men are coming to recognise the importance of taking time for physical and mental self-care before they reach the stage of burning out. “At our retreats, we teach very simple practices like breath work—it’s just breathing, you don’t have to look at it as something spiritual or ‘new age’,” Ghanie says. “It’s just about you, showing up for yourself and giving yourself time to breathe, and just being. It’s about acknowledging the need for these moments of self-care and self-love, the need to recharge our batteries and to make time for ourselves because life is so chaotic.” 

According to Ghanie, many men who attend one of her retreats use it as a way of gaining certain skills necessary to better look after their own physical wellness and mental health, independently. “We help people to experience these ancient tools and techniques that have existed in Asia for thousands of years, that really help with mindfulness,” she says. “These wellness experiences calm the nervous system, helping to reduce stress and anxiety. And when you do that, that’s when the magic happens—you get clarity, you get quietness of the mind, you get focus, and you get creativity coming out.” 

Musician, designer and artist Kiat says for him, creative self-expression is cathartic. “Making music had long been my main form of personal therapy, but I’d always seen it as something to share in person, something linked to a physical space, a sound system, to an actual physical interaction, which wasn’t possible during the pandemic.” During the lockdowns, he says, “I started taking up the brush a lot more, purely out of the need to express myself, not for anyone else, without any feedback, because when I’m painting, it’s just me and the canvas.” 

Artist Kiat says there’s no better self-care than self-expression.
(ART OUTREACH)

Kiat says when he began making art for art’s sake, painting for the fun of it, “A strange thing happened. I not only felt better—I literally felt like the weight of the world had lifted, I felt a lot lighter, less anxious, I could breathe a bit more. But also, the more I painted and the better I felt, the more my professional work life improved, the more freelance jobs started coming in, even in the middle of the pandemic.” 

The lesson Kiat took away from this intense period was, “Sometimes things don’t work out exactly as you wanted or how you’d planned, but it’s ok as long as you keep creating, and as long as you create for yourself, rather than create for other people. Just exercise pure creativity, whether that be through cooking, gardening, writing, painting, singing, dancing, whatever. It’s ok not to be perfect or to reach a finish point—just enjoy the experience. That in itself is its own reward.” 

adidas doesn't get as much credit as it should with its running shoes. I mean, sure they were name-dropped by Run DMC but adidas are pretty good in the innovation department. The company came up with 4D printing as well as the Boost midsole tech... now that latter was a game changer. A reactive bouncy foam that returns energy with each stride? It scored higher than EVA (ethylene vinyl-acetate) soles. The Boost tech is made from TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), which, like the EVA, does the whole cushioning, superior durability look but it also has a "high abrasion resistance".

So, we tried the adidas Supernova, a model that's made as an entry-level trainers for beginner runners. With a padded mesh upper, it has the Dreamstrike+ midsoles and other similar support rods. There's a considerable stack height. The best part of this was its Solution feature, which offers added longitudinal stability. So you've got your comfort with the Dreamstrike+ and then stability with the Solution.

Here's how good the Supernova Solution was: We started running and easily cleared three kilometres; each impact of my footfalls resulted in a "snap". Then, sensing little-to-no fatigue in the lower extremities, we decided to continue another 10km. I was able to maintain my running gait for much longer. At five kilometres, my speed has slowed but my feet were so cushioned that it never occured to me to stop.

Overall, the Supernova Solution is muy bueno. And considering that it's made out of recycled materials, this is not too shabby.

Urban life. While that promises living comforts, urban living can stifle the body and souls. You need to step out, "touch grass" as they say. every step counts. HOKA, the titan in performance footwear rewrites the playbook with the release of their latest lifestyle marvel: the Kawana 2. Not just another pair of running shoes, these are a statement on the track. What you have on your feet is a fusion of form and function that necessitates into the tapestry of daily movement.

In your navigation of the streets, seamlessly transition from pavement to studio; work to play; that's where the Kawana 2 shines brightest. Aside from its design, it's all down to the nitty-grittiness of its construction. There's the enhanced foot lockdown and cushioned comfort; and the Kawana 2 is engineered for the dynamic demands of urban life.

Find the Kawana 2 at HOKA's latest pop-up at Foot Locker Orchard. From now until 25 April, immerse yourself in a diverse range of footwear, from signature running shoes to everyday essentials like, I mean, since we're on the topic, the Kawana 2.

And the best part? Not only do you walk away with your own HOKA shoes, you get to receive a complimentary tote bag that you can personalise.

Is male menopause real? Catchy as it sounds, “male menopause” is actually a misnomer. Men do not go through the same experiences as women during menopause. Any parallels that are implied aren’t actually there. The more accurate term for men experiencing hormonal changes—typically between the ages of 40 and 60—is andropause.

Andropause occurs when the body’s production of testosterone decreases. This drop in testosterone levels is, however, not sudden and drastic like what typically happens during menopause. Rather, testosterone production typically sees a steady decrease from age 30 onwards.

Statistically, more than half of men aged 60 to 70 would have experienced andropause and its accompanying symptoms. These symptoms are often subtle, given the gradual decline in testosterone levels. Still, they are noticeable. Common ones include lower cognitive functioning and energy levels, reduced muscle mass, increased mood volatility, greater chances of depressive moods and lower libido.

To be fair, the jury is still out on whether these symptoms are a direct result of just reduced testosterone production or if ageing and other lifestyle choices also have a part to play. Nevertheless, there are very real effects of lower testosterone levels in older men.

Mood changes, in particular, feature very strongly in andropause. It may be tempting to write someone off as a “crabby” or “grumpy” old guy and chalk it up to a natural part of ageing. But the gruffness that we see may be an indication of depressive symptoms. Know this: depression presents itself variedly according to the individual. A person may be more irritable than usual. They display anger more quickly than in the past or lose interest in daily activities altogether. These are all symptoms of depression—the condition is much more than just “being blue”.

For many, the symptoms that come with andropause can be a big blow to their self-esteem and sense of self. What compounds the issue is how andropause can be a tricky topic to navigate. Especially with all the misconceptions surrounding it. Being a source of support for someone experiencing andropause is similar to that for someone with a chronic illness or disorder. In that a great deal of patience, understanding and tact is necessary. Hence, respecting someone’s need for space and reluctance to speak can be just as important as letting them know about the consistent support that they have.

The good news about andropause is that many of its symptoms can be better managed with healthier lifestyle choices. By extension, support for an individual with andropause can also come in the form of modelling healthier habits yourself. Whether as a caregiver, a family member or a friend, this includes working out more regularly, making better food choices, as well as cutting down on smoking and drinking. These are are the typical yet oh-so-important things we know but choose to ignore. Participating more actively in social activities can also help with mood regulation, as well as to combat any lowered self-esteem.

As a parting note, having clarity in whatever we might be struggling with will almost always help with how we cope with it. Providing resources for medical and mental health professions can also be a very valuable helpline for those struggling to make sense of what they might be going through.

In the fast-paced, first-world professional world, the employee who’s most on the ball, responding to emails past midnight and in the office before nine, is glorified. It has almost become a boast to say that you’ve been too busy to sleep. We all know someone who mentions his or her lack of sleep with pride. Along with ‘sleep is for the weak’, there persists a stubborn yet baseless business culture that adheres to the futility of sleep.

The phenomenon of encouraging insufficient sleep is strange, given how much attention corporations pay towards other areas of employee health, safety and conduct. Somehow we’re stuck on the notion that time spent on task equates to efficiency of task. Regrettably, this is not just a misguided blunder, but a costly one too.

The price of bad sleep

A net annual capital loss of SGD18 million, a result of collective declined productivity rate, is found in companies where employees don’t get enough sleep. These employees are not just less productive, they are also less creative, less motivated and prone to making unethical decisions. On a managerial level, this makes them less charismatic and more abusive. On a national scale, inadequate sleep robs countries of more than two percent of their GDP—roughly the entire cost of its military and almost as much as its investment in education. Just let that sink in.

Sure, there exists a sleep elite, a group that is adept at getting six hours of sleep with minimal impairment. Members of this group carry a sub-variant of the BHLHE41 or Dec2 gene that allows them to sleep no longer than this duration even in the absence of alarms. Don’t be deluded into thinking you could be one of them because this anomaly is so rare that you stand a higher chance of being struck by lightning. Expressed as a percentage of the population, the rounded whole number would be zero.

So for the rest of us mortals, here are three things that could help improve sleep quality.

MYTH: Melatonin or alcohol can help me sleep

Want to actually sleep? Maybe skip the nightcap.
Maybe skip the nightcap. UNSPLASH

You probably know Melatonin as a hormone responsible for your dozing off, but sleep is not a block of time when you are knocked unconscious. Human beings, and all living things, live in constant oscillation. You have a circadian rhythm, an internal clock which coordinates according to external social and environmental factors (running at 24 hours and 11 minutes, according to an extensive cave adventure by the godfather of modern sleep medicine, Nathaniel Kleitman, and his science buddy Bruce Richardson). You are simultaneously on another beat working at 90-minute cycles. The ultradian rhythm is what maintains the equilibrium of rest and fatigue.

RECOMMENDATION: Avoid it

Besides melatonin, "quick fixes" like a nightcap may shorten the amount of time taken to fall asleep, but its presence in the bloodstream can disrupt the second half of the sleep cycle and the important information consolidation process that takes place during REM sleep. Meaning you get sleep, but not deep, restorative sleep. Alcohol also impairs breathing in sleep, affecting the brain’s breathing centre by masking the effect of low oxygen levels in the bloodstream, which leads to sleep apnoea. So while sleep is one way of energy renewal, the other essential things we do while awake also play a big role in the quality of our sleep. Nutrition, hydration, movement, relationships. Melatonin and the likes are merely the signal to sleep and not what effectualises it.

MYTH: I know when I'm sleep-deprived and can reset it

What you look like sleep-deprived, but less cute.
What you look like sleep-deprived, but less cute. UNSPLASH

The thing about chronic (yes, chronic) sleep deficiency over years, or simply months, is that deteriorated alertness, energy and general capacity become the norm to the individual. Even while reading this, you might feel perfectly all right. But what if we told you that based on epidemiological studies of average sleep time, you are living in a sublime compromise in your mental and physical states? If you were to compare it to alcohol, which we all know can severely impede our mind, being awake for 17 hours (usually between 7am and midnight), makes your cognitive impairment no different from one who is legally drunk.

This was proven by the School of Psychology, University of New South Wales, which took two groups of healthy adults, intoxicated the first bunch to the legal driving limit, and kept the other bunch awake. The results of the concentration test by the latter were equivalent or worse. And if you think you can take the weekend to pay off your sleep debt, dream on. Assuming you sleep much less than eight hours a day, Stanford University Sleep Research Center shows even after three nights of ‘recovery’ sleep, your performance will not return to the original baseline of those who sleep the regular eight.

RECOMMENDATION: Make it a habit

Not the sleeplessness, the positive wind-down rituals. You know them, the ones prescribed by Doctor Google. No heavy meals hours prior, switching off your phone, breathing exercises, etc. Setting an alarm to sleep is a good one. You have one to wake, so why not? It’s all about discipline. Even if they don’t show immediate results, practice them for at least 21 days (the average span for an action to become a habit). 

MYTH: The optimal sleep window is before midnight to 7AM

Yes, sleep chronotypes are a thing.
Yes, chronotypes are a thing. UNPLASH

This is true. But only for 40 percent of the population. In adults, our preference for sleeping and waking times are based on our chronotype, which is pretty much programmed into our DNA. Unfortunately for the 30 percent of ‘evening types’, common societal practice restricts them from performing to their potential (usually past work hours), and leave them prone to ill health as a result of a forced early waking time and an innate inability to sleep until far later.

The reason for this genetic inequality? In a time before warm, cosy homes came along, this variation would reduce the period of vulnerability in a community of species living together. So while everyone gets ideally eight hours of sleep, the collective group is only in danger for half that duration. If you believe you belong to a special nocturnal group... the remaining 30 percent are just chronotypes who function best between morning and evening.

RECOMMENDATION: Stop trying so hard

While it is good practice to stick to a sleep schedule, don’t lie in bed awake if you simply can’t fall asleep. Don’t allow yourself to be susceptible to attentional bias. Instead, go do something relaxing. Read (but not on devices because you know, blue light). Drink some milk. Daydream even. Picture yourself doing what you enjoy. It’s crucial to avoid exposure to information about sleep to take your focus off trying to sleep and unnecessarily scaring yourself with symptoms you believe you have that you actually don’t.

Witchcraft. I mean, alternative therapies. UNSPLASH

It all started with my first visit to the Chinese physician because of a sport-related ankle injury years ago. After simple acupuncture and some gentle rotation, the swollen joint was wrapped in a thick slab of heady herbs that had been stewing during the session, and I was told to have it on for a night before being sent on my way. No, it was really a curiosity on the persistence of alternative therapies in an age of modern medicine and technology.

Of course, the ankle sprain and TCM visit did happen, and you might be wondering what happened to the swell in the end. Not to sound like a TV episode that exploits sequence jumps—but we’ll get to it.

There are, needless to say, plenty of alternative or complementary therapies out there, many of which are not recognised by medical studies. From hypnotherapy to reflexology, they can be divided into alternative medical systems, mind-body interventions, biologically based treatments, manipulative and body-based methods, and energy therapies.

As Western medicine is primarily founded on ancient Greek theories and practices, it is logical for its ‘unorthodox’ counterpart to outnumber. You have Ayurveda from the Indians, Reiki from the Japanese, and the list goes on.

Crystals

Crystals. UNSPLASH

We start with the least invasive but potentially the most expensive—gemstone therapy. Associated with chakras and auras, crystals invoke the most spiritual connotations—and eyebrow raises—from their origins to their purposes. More so when they are commonly used as birthstones in accordance to your star sign.

Historical uses of crystals point to divine communication in ceremonies, such as the 12 embedded on the high priest’s breastplate of the Hebrews representing the tribes of Israel, the ancient Egyptians’ Blood of Isis amulets placed on the mummies’ throats to ensure rebirth into the afterlife, and the Aztec’s obsidian sacrificial knife.

How to set up your new crystal

In modern times, the procedures for owning a crystal still carry a sense of ritual. You start by choosing a crystal, physically cleansing it and then purifying it off negative vibrations—methods include burying it in a container of sea salt, salted lukewarm water, moist sand or soil and even seawater as long as it is unpolluted (we don’t make the rules!) for a minimum of 24 hours. Otherwise, smudging, where you pass your crystal several times through incense smoke, or even the candle flame itself. Sunlight and moonlight, with the aid of mirrors, are also permitted.

Then comes bonding by familiarising with your crystal, engraving its appearance in your mind and—wait for it—charging it. Not with a type C cable but a meditative intent, you hold the crystal while thinking of the function it’s meant to serve and visualise imparting this energy into it with each exhalation and what you want to receive from it at each inhalation. These are then ‘vibrations’ stored in the crystal. In terms of healing, there are specific properties assigned to each gemstone.

Common ailments—though books are quick to assert that these should not be a replacement of qualified medical diagnosis and treatment—have a recommended pairing. Examples are amber for asthma, ruby for low blood pressure, emerald for constipation, malachite for rheumatism, and a personal favourite—amethyst for alcoholism. All have yet (and are difficult) to be corroborated by science, but we’ll discover it isn’t the only one.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine. BRITANNICA

Some 21 years ago, the Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners Act was passed in Parliament. By the fifth year, all acupuncturists, physicians and dispensers were registered with the TCM Practitioners Board. So what entitles this 2,000 year old discipline the recognition while others remain in the lurch, especially when it has yet to be fully verified?

“Strictly speaking, there is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data,” Dr NK Ho writes for Singapore Medical Journal in an article titled "Understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine —a doctor’s viewpoint". “Many people still consider traditional medicine as unproven medicine for which scientific evidence is lacking.”

Let’s just trace back to what these Chinese healing techniques entail. Most famously acupuncture and tui na but not exclusive of herbal remedies, dietary therapy, breathing exercises, cupping and moxibustion, all essentially means restoring qi that flows through meridians in the body. One is unwell when his internal qi falls out of balance.

Western v Eastern theories

Many translators ascribe qi as the energies that exist in all things in universe. Ruling philosophy combines Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, encompassing the harmony of man with the heavens. The principles of yin (negative) and yang (positive) governed theories on bodily functions such as cold and heat, xu (deficiency) and shi (excess). Illness was a result of imbalance. Obviously, these concepts aren’t exactly explainable by modern medical theory. However, the originating Greek principles weren’t entirely different.

Hippocrates believed the balance of passions was key to good health. Likewise, the four humours—blood, phlegm and yellow and black biles—had to be modulated, resulting in infamous practices such as bloodletting. People who prefer Chinese remedies often believe that they have fewer side effects, though most TCM practices have not been validated by randomised controlled trials. Acupuncture seems the most promising of the lot because it has proven lineage between somato-visceral regulation and corresponding brain function. There is functional MRI evidence that suggests a relation to induced analgesia with the release of opioids like endorphins.

But does it actually work?

Moxibustion. BRITANNICA

Or is it all a big sham? The big question and possibly what got you started on this article. In 2009, Daniel C Cherkin, PhD, carried out a sizeable randomised trial comparing acupuncture, simulated acupuncture and usual care for chronic low back pain. The 638 patients all had pain for at least three months and were divided into four batches.

The experiment

One was given seven weeks of standardised acupuncture treatment with a fixed number of needles assigned to eight designated points and strictly kept on for the same duration. The second group received individualised treatment where professional physicians had the freedom to prescribe any number of needles and points, while the third involved non-acupuncture points poked at with toothpicks encased in skinny plastic tubes.

As all were completely new to acupuncture and blindfolded for the treatment, most participants could not discern which group they were in. The final control batch received no acupuncture and continued with regular medication and physical therapy as other batches were also allowed to as well.

The results are nothing short of intriguing. Comparing the three types of acupuncture, none was more effective than the others in reducing disability and discomfort. Yet, compared to 39 percent of the control group having no acupuncture, approximately 60 percent of those who had received acupuncture, were ‘toothpicked’ or otherwise claimed improvement after two months. This does not ignore the minority who would have improved due to fluctuations in symptoms or response bias.

Even the Hawthorne effect where subjects of an experiment modify their behaviour in lieu of undergoing observation—in this case a clinical trial inspiring them to take better care of themselves. Still, 21 percent is no insignificant number, and conclusions share similarity with studies from German researchers around the same time.

The placebo effect

“Medicine is not only a science; it is also an art.
It does not consist of compounding pills and plasters;
it deals with the very processes of life, which must be
understood before they may be guided.”

—Paracelsus

“A great many of us can block our pain and relieve other symptoms without ever realising it,” reporter Melanie Warner writes in her book, The Science of Alternative Medicine and the Surprising Power of Belief. She cites studies for modern surgery like vertebroplasty for spinal fractures and arthroscopy for osteoarthritic conditions. Heck, even percutaneous coronary intervention for chest pain—you know, where a tiny balloon and stent are inserted into obstructed arteries—is no more effective than having a surgeon give a placebo incision.

“Just thinking you’ve gotten your shoulder or knee fixed is as good for pain relief and mobility as actually having the procedure done.” Warner also tries simulations with neuroscientist Luana Colloca and discovers that despite being aware of placebos, she is still susceptible to it. This aligns with the recent studies of patients who were given vials clearly marked ‘placebo’ while knowing its effects, and having a notable fraction of them still achieving meaningful relief. Some even wanted to continue their dosage after the conducted studies were over.

Wait, what about essential oils?

Essential oils. UNSPLASH

Ah, the healing wafts of aromatherapy and all the smells of zen. Not to be the constant harbinger of bad news, but as Dr Tieraona Low Dog says, “when looked at in totality, the evidence is weak for beneficial effects with inhalation”. Studies have been done to determine if different scents can carry differing effects on our moods. One compared lavender and lemon and while the latter was purported to be positive for those under stress, neither altered stress indicators, pain control or biochemical markers of immune system changes. Pretty disappointing, we know.

So though there currently isn’t any rigorous research backing lavender scent as a cure for insomnia, essential oils aren’t entirely useless. Many exhibit antiseptic or antioxidising capabilities when applied, some assisting with cellular regeneration. The word antiseptic is self-explanatory; ‘anti’ meaning against and ‘septic’ from sepsis, a potentially fatal severe body response to bacterial infection that causes tissue damage. Thus, what we can say is, the best way to use an essential oil is probably still to smear it on than breathe it in.

So, is it All in Our Heads?

A multi-coloured diet. UNSPLASH

Much as we slammed dear Hippocrates earlier, his diagnosis on exercise, rest and good diet on health still stands. In other words, there’s no cheating your way out of this. If there’s any consolation, there prevails one healing method to tap into.

“Herbs are rich in nutrients, and they contain a higher ratio of phytochemicals, which is why their taste and smell are so intense,” registered dietitian Gabby Luo explains. “A moderate consumption of herbs is recommended daily, and the most effective way is by using herbs as conditioning agents to replace salt and sauce.”

A resident nutritionist at Sangha Retreat in Suzhou, Luo goes on to advocate mindful eating, where the practice is not centred on appreciating your food while eating it, but being aware of your body’s need for the right foods and nutrients. The wellness retreat, known for individually curated programmes and facilities designed for a holistic healing, adopts a fused approach.

Recommended Eating

The East-meets-West approach of observing an individual’s ailments to find the root cause through TCM tenets, then using Western science to quantify nutritional value, including food acidity, to subscribe a recommended diet and ideal meal plan has proven to work effectively together. Especially for chronic health issues, she says.

A diet that is low in palmitic acids (found mostly in saturated, fat-rich foods) and high in oleic acids (abundant in olive oil and tree nuts) is anti-inflammatory and can enhance the sensitivity of the body’s insulin response. Dark-coloured foods are normally high in antioxidants, which help us battle reactive oxygen species (the agent that causes inflammation).

“One of the most common misconceptions is that only ‘superfoods’ are good for anti-inflammation. However, food diversity is of the utmost importance. As all the natural foods contain some certain anti-inflammatory substances, and they interact with each other in the body,” says Luo. “You should always choose multi-coloured fresh vegetables, nuts with skins and coloured whole grains. To create a high-quality and diverse diet that suits your appetite is always a good idea.”

The Thing About Inflammation

Garlic: effective not only against vampires. UNSPLASH

Inflammation is not altogether detrimental. One of the body’s natural defences against illness and injury, though what is more often discussed is how a high sugar and fructose diet triggers major inflammation and precipitates disease. Like how Type 2 diabetes is closely related to obesity, cardiovascular disease, renal diseases and other metabolic syndromes. It is the most-studied chronic disease that can be prevented or even reversed by a lifestyle change. Anti-inflammatory diets are key and more effective than any other medical prevention.

“An effective way to decrease the inflammatory effects of your diet is to use an oil high in oleic acid to cook with, and to consume a predominantly plant-based diet. It is important to include a wide variety of non-starchy fruit and vegetables to balance your nutrient intake, the benefits of which are more explicit when they are eaten as opposed to drunk,” Luo concludes.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Besides ingestion, the physical application of herbs is an age-old concept. In war, the simple meadow herb yarrow was used to staunch haemorrhages and aid scar healing, earning its nickname Soldier’s Woundwort. While we don’t go picking among the grass for stinging nettle, disinfectants like garlic (used in World War II to prevent gangrene) remain unchanged in their antibacterial properties.

Which circles us back to the very start, as promised. My ankle did ‘miraculously’ reduce in swelling to its original state overnight. Whether that was the placebo effect of the needles, the efficacy of the herb patch or simply my body’s natural recovery, it’s hard to say for sure. However, it is now clearer to see that there are ‘alternative’ therapies that work, and why they do. Nonetheless, long-standing methods like TCM are not entirely placebo. Scientist Tu Youyou was awarded for her discovery of artemisinin as a cure for malaria in 2015.

Her team reviewed ancient medical texts before finally finding a reference to sweet wormwood, which treated malaria-like symptoms in China around 400 AD. The extract was developed into a class of drugs and a standard treatment for Plasmodium falciparum. Tu is the first mainland Chinese scientist to achieve a Nobel Prize in a scientific category without a doctorate, medical degree or training abroad.

Just as TCM proves viable in the research for new drugs, there’s also untapped potential in the human body to heal itself. Understanding how the mind holds the reigns. Alongside physical aids procured by science and cues unearthed by history, it’s truly in us to unlock the cure.

While your body, according to John Mayer, is like a wonderland, it is also a machine. And a machine of muscle, blood and skin requires the occasional tune-up. For example, it is advisable to rest after a strenuous physical activity. After a strenuous workout, microscopic tears will appear in your muscle tissues. Only rest allows the fibroblast cells to repair these tears, leading to stronger muscles.

And then there are the injuries that come with the exercise. Maybe you pulled a muscle or there’s stiffness in the joints. Sometimes you have to deal with the injuries that come with exercise. Well, different hurt requires specific cures, right? But Hydragun (the sports health brand that made... well, the Hydragun) created the Thermosleeve with different recovery modalities. You have a cold pack, a heat pack and a compression sleeve—or, as my mother would whole-heartedly favour as, a “three-for-one deal”.

Inflamed joints and muscle pain? Chuck the Thermosleeve in your freezer for an hour or two; the chill from the Thermosleeve retards blood flow to reduce swelling and inflammation, and reduces pain by slowing pain signals to the brain. Muscle stiffness or tightness? A quick 50 seconds of Thermosleeve in the microwave oven should do the trick; just wear it on your elbows, wrists, knees, calves and thighs.

Put the Thermosleeve over the affected area or wear it like a sleeve and the relief should set in in no time. I rolled my ankle around the time I wrote this and the cold was a balm. The swelling subsided and I was able to regain full use of my ankle in no time. After sneezing, a sharp pain shot out in my lower back (it was a really hard sneeze, mmmkay?). Only a warm Thermosleeve helped with the soothing (although for my sleeve, the heat tended to dissipate quite quickly).

The Thermosleeve compression sleeve retails for SGD69.

This was originally printed in the 2022 March issue of Esquire Singapore.

Why is there the phrase “knickers in a knot” but not “boxers in a bunch”? This April in Singapore, the hottest day of the year was recorded at 35.9°C. The worst to me? It was only April. Coupled with the average humidity level of 84 per cent, and sparingly light winds if Mother Nature had mercy, you wouldn’t be able to imagine what our crotches feel like most of the time.

One Tuesday a couple weeks back in May, after an early morning game of basketball with the boys, we sat by the sidelines. While beads of perspiration gathered up and trickled past furrowed brows, we broached the unlikely topic of underwear. Now, as straight men, our conversations are unintentionally skin deep: that “work is relentless”, that someone “tried this omakase place”, that something is “ridiculous in this bear economy...” That morning, though, we debated singularly on the relevance of underwear amid climate change and the perpetual Singaporean summer. Considerations around protection, support, a sense of security and propriety were pit against concerns such as comfort, ventilation, odour, and even confidence.

What felt like nine sweltering minutes went by before the group dispersed into the shower cubicles. Our crotches had been exactly like sweat-drenched, heat-radiating boxers in a bunch.

Though I am not overzealous about free balling, I contemplate it from time to time to cope with the dreaded double whammy of heat and humidity here. For some, freeballing in summer has the same energy as attending a fancy party with minimal make-up—it is about comfort, confidence and a touch of fabulous. Yet, for others like me, it may not be so much a flex as it is pragmatic. Combining the opinions of those around me and on Reddit, it seems reduced perspiration, a lower chance of bacteria growth and odour, and better ventilation are compelling reasons cited by men when asked why they might free ball.

Regardless of motivation, going commando in public, akin to rocking up bare-faced to a soirée, is a ballsy move. My advice as an aesthetics doctor is to invest in some self-care.

At the core of comfort and confidence is self-care. Thankfully, skincare and grooming have burst through the seams of the feminine realm, slowly seeping into the daily lives of men, queer or not. Those who are not yet on board may see skincare regimes as means to achieving the pretty Korean star look, but as a mostly reticent member of the male species myself, I implore even the quintessential macho guys to take skin and body care more seriously. In my field of work, treatments sought by male patients are very commonly for acne scarring, the regrettable result of sheer negligence that does not plague women as much.

Especially for severe acne scarring, treatments are typically customised, taking advantage of different cool equipment and technologies for optimal effect. Bear with me as I geek out: one of those that amaze me is Ultherapy, a non-invasive treatment that lifts, smoothens and tightens skin. Bypassing skin’s surface, Ultherapy is able to deliver the right amount of ultrasound energy at the right depths and temperature, in order to trigger a natural response under the skin, jumpstarting the regenerative process that produces fresh, new collagen. Ultherapy is commonly used to lift skin on the neck, chin and brow, and to reduce lines and wrinkles. With an appointment, patients are usually in and out the clinic in an hour tops; some even get it done over lunch break.

For the bolder (or more macho, if you please) among us, one of the injectables that stand out as an especially efficient treatment is Profhilo. It super-charges skin with a high concentration of the formidable hyaluronic acid (HA), stimulating the production of new collagen and elastin, both of which give skin great texture and brightness. Profhilo delivers deep hydration and treats skin laxity, helping to lift and tighten it too.

Coming out of my awe of potion-like chemicals and marvellous technology, I lament the predicament of men who suffer from pubescent acne and its emotional and mental implications. If only men felt empowered too, to begin caring for their skin from adolescence as women usually do. I mean, if we collectively have such poor facial and dermal hygiene, what could it be like where the sun doesn’t shine?

In my advocacy for self-care and living well, comfort down south is just as big a deal as the rest of the body. The ultimate nemesis of modern-day grooming needs no introduction: we have a troubling love-hate affair with hair—too much, too little, too patchy, too thick. Down south though, more want their lawns mown, be they flat or hilly terrains, to prevent ingrown hair and pimples that come with an inevitably sticky, itchy crotch in tropical weather.

IPL, short for intense pulsed light, is an effective way to get rid of hair permanently. It involves long-term treatment every four to six weeks, where high-energy light is used to permanently destroy hair and hair follicles where you don't want them. You'll have less scratching and pinching, just good ol’ hanging.

Where a partner is involved, smell must be the chef’s kiss. There is now a gamut of hygiene products dedicated to the cause. Check out a ball wash, rub or deodorant the next time you are in a drug store—they help to fight odour, leaving us fresh, clean, and hopefully, yummy. It would also be wise to invest in a set for when shorty gets low, low, low.

Next time the mercury level hits over 33°C and the potentially bashful idea of free balling comes to mind, don’t get your boxers in a bunch. Do what is necessary so you can shake, shake, shake it, bruh.

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