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What your face says about your health

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on Monday, Feb 22 2016.

Photo: Jonathan Wong/SCMP

Eric Standop has read many a face in his years as a professional face reader, and the one that haunts him the most is his father’s.

In November 2012, Standop and his brother decided to bring their father to watch the latest James Bond film. The elderly man, a big 007 fan, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a few months prior and was given three years to live.

While helping his father into the car, Standop saw his father’s face illuminated by the garage light. “When I looked at his face, I saw all signs of death,” Standop recalls. “At that moment, I knew he would only live for another 24 to 72 hours.”

The following night, this father died. Standop says it was the “most shocking” moment of his career and the “biggest proof” of face reading’s credibility.

Face reading dates back thousands of years in Chinese culture and in the West. In her book Face Reading in Chinese Medicine, American practitioner Lillian Bridges writes that face reading was one of the diagnostic tools – with pulse, tongue and smell – used by Chinese doctors and healers.

The ancient Greeks studied physiognomy, which is the assessment of a person’s character or personality from their outer appearance, especially the face. Both Aristotle and Plato wrote about faces, and Europe has had a long tradition of evaluating faces. In America, Abraham Lincoln was known to have picked his cabinet members based on their faces.

A German native, 50-year-old Standop trained under one of the last masters of face reading, studied micro expressions and the Chinese version of face reading (shiang mien), as well as the Greek and Roman techniques of physiognomy.

He helps clients read their health, nutrition status, love life, career, personality, character, destiny and life purpose. On February 25, Standop will be in town for a week as a visiting consultant at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong’s Mandarin Spa, offering one-on-one face readings as well as an open talk and a workshop.

Standop says his accuracy is “85 to 95 per cent”, adding “the accuracy depends on what you want to know”.

He was once a sceptic of face reading, until an encounter with a face reader in Cape Town in 2003 that transformed his beliefs.

The face reader said Standop was intolerant and ignorant, and then told him about the skin problems on his back, a hernia, asthma and several allergies.

The results were so shockingly accurate that the then 37-year-old quit his job as a marketing director – he’d already suffered burnouts in that career – and set out to become a face reader.

Face reading, Standop says, is not a gift. “Everyone is a face reader,” he says.

Scientists say that we recognise our mothers’ face within weeks of our birth. Babies can differentiate their mother’s face from every other.

Apart from revealing one’s character, the face is also believed to reflect the inner state of the body. “Everyone has 43 muscles in the face, and every muscle is connected via the nervous system with the brain or the organs. Whatever happens there gives a signal to the face,” Standop says.

Lines below the eyebrows are related to health, while those above are related to personality. Chronic disease, he says, leaves messages all over the face.

Standop’s readings can be as short as two minutes or as long as five hours. “People are always surprised what can be seen in two or three minutes,” he says.

After checking my nails for lines, he does a quick read of my face. Then he looks for signs of metabolic weakness of (resulting in an inability to digest) carbohydrates, fat, protein and minerals.

A person with carbohydrate weakness would have little bags at the jaw. Someone with fat weakness would have greyish spots at the corner of the mouth and eyes, have a connective tissue problem behind the chin, and develop zits on the upper eyelid. People with protein weakness usually have a very masculine look (even women). And those with mineral weakness tend to develop a lot of lines all over the face.

I, apparently, have mineral weakness.

“The minerals inside you is like a roller coaster – in, out, in, out. It seems to me you sweat a lot, but you replace them almost immediately. This is usually seen in people who have an overworked thyroid, people who naturally sweat a lot, or people who do sports,” Standop says.

At this point I reveal to him that I had just ran a 100 kilometre trail race two days ago, and he suggests whatever he reads on my face could be a consequence of that intense effort. With my active lifestyle, he recommends that I eat foods that are high in magnesium to prevent cramps, a craving for sweets, migraines and neck problems.

He also advises that I eat more slowly and chew my food more, because he says it seems the food is “not in the best situation” when it reaches my stomach. I then reveal to him that I have never eaten so quickly since becoming a mother 19 months ago because there’s always something more important to do than to eat.

Standop’s quick reading seemed to be spot on for me and removed some scepticism I had about face reading prior to our meeting. But without a real scientific basis of the link between one’s face and everything else, many people out there question the practise. Recent studies, however, could help strengthen the reputation of physiognomy.

Carmen Lefevre, a research associate at UCL, says the idea is that our biology, like genes and hormone levels, influences our growth – including facial structure – and the same mechanisms will also shape our character.

In her studies, Lefevre has found that people with higher levels of testosterone tend to be wider-faced with bigger cheekbones, and they are also more likely to have more assertive, and sometimes aggressive, personalities. She’s also found that subtle differences in skin colour may reflect differences in lifestyle. In particular, a slightly yellowish, golden skin tone is associated with a diet high in fruit and vegetables, and this reflects robust health, as well as seen as highly attractive.

In a 2014 study by Keith Welker, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Colorado’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, analysed the facial-width-to-height ratio (FHWR) of about 1,000 players from 32 countries who competed in the 2010 World Cup. He found that midfielders and forwards with higher FWHRs were more likely to commit fouls. Forwards with higher FWHRs also were more likely to score goals or make assists.

Past studies have shown that a high FWHR is associated with more aggressive behaviour. For example, high FWHR correlates with greater antisocial and unethical behaviour, but it also correlates with greater success among CEOs and achievement drive among US presidents.

Whether you believe in face reading or not, at the end of the day, Standop advises that face readers are not therapists.

“I tell my clients that I’m not a therapist. Very often I push them to go to the doctor. A face reader is a counsellor, an advisor; he is not a therapist,” he says. “It’s nice to ask me for advice, but they need further help from a health professional.”


Paul and Rob Forkan. Photo: AFP

Interviewed Paul Forkan this morning, who founded Gandys Flip Flops three years ago with his brother Rob. The brothers along with four other siblings were orphaned when their parents were swept away in Sri Lanka by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami (story here). Paul and Rob have managed to turn tragedy into triumph: motivated by everything they went through, they set up Gandys with the goal of giving back to less fortunate orphans and kids. Their business is thriving, celebs are sporting their flip flops and last year, on the 10th anniversary of the tsunami, they built a preschool in a Sri Lankan village – the first of many they hope to plant all over the world.

Absolutely inspirational beings and really puts things into perspective. I’m thankful for the opportunity to get to know such amazing folks through my work.

Birch water, the latest wonder drink

This story was first published in the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, Sept 1 2015.

A birch forest in Latvia where British brand Sibberi taps its birch water.

Birch sap, long consumed in parts of Europe and northern China and claimed to have many benefits, is fast turning into a global phenomenon, and is now on sale in Hong Kong

By Jeanette Wang

Still sipping on coconut water? Oh, that’s as yesterday as the Kardashians. There’s a new wonder drink in town that boasts a bounty of health benefits with just a quarter of the calories.

Birch water – which is really the sap tapped from birch trees – claims to restore vitality, boost immunity, detoxify the body, fight fatigue, relieve joint pain, eliminate cellulite, alleviate skin conditions and treat ailments such as flu, headaches, bronchitis and liver disease.

“Birch sap is an invaluable remedy for rheumatic diseases, the after-effects of gout, bladder obstructions, and countless chronic ills,” according to Baron Pierre-Francois Percy (1754-1825), army surgeon and inspector general to Napoleon.

For sports, birch sap has been tested in Olympic athletes by the All-Russian Research Institute of Physical Culture and Sport. The institute, which analysed birch sap from Finland’s Nordic Koivu, the world’s leading birch sap producer, recommends the drink for optimising the functional state of the body during training and competition, and for accelerating recovery and preventing metabolic disorders and cardiovascular diseases.

It also has beauty benefits. When used in skincare products, birch sap is said to purify the skin, help restore skin tone and radiance, boost hydration and promote cell renewal, and revitalise the skin and improve its elasticity.

Birch water, which in the past year has been a hot commodity among the health-obsessed in Britain and the US, made its Hong Kong debut in June when local company Raleigh Sterling started importing Sibberi Birch Water. Fitness-oriented women and the yoga community have formed the bulk of customers, according to Christine Jagolino of Raleigh Sterling.

“[Drinking birch water] is the fashionable thing to do now,” says Jagolino. “It’s part of a new category of alternative ‘water’. Demand is coming from people looking for alternatives to soda.”

Birch water contains just 5 calories per 100 millilitres, compared to 20 calories in coconut water and more than 40 calories in cola.

For centuries, people in Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and parts of northern China have been enjoying the beverage during the transition between winter and spring, when the snow melts and the first leaves emerge.

In these communities, birch sap is also a traditional medicine used to promote the body’s elimination functions. In the 16th century, the birch tree was called the “nephritic tree of Europe”.

In autumn, birch trees accumulate natural nutrients and vitamins which are then stored in their roots during winter. In spring, warmth triggers the roots to draw spring water from the ground up into the trunk and to the branches, taking the stored nutrients with it. This sap flows for only about two to three weeks before the burst of first leaves.

A hole is drilled into the birch tree and a spout inserted to collect the sap. It can be drunk fresh or boiled down to make syrup. It keeps for up to six days in the refrigerator, or can be frozen for future use.

Pasteurisation technology, however, has enabled birch water to be packaged and drunk year-round and worldwide. Many birch water brands have sprung up recently, tapping into trees from various locations, such as BelSeva (tapped from trees in a tiny village Nant-le-Petit in Lorraine, northeast France), Byarozavik (from Belarus), TreeVitalise (from Eastern Europe’s Carpathian Mountains) and Sealand Birk (from Finland).

Sibberi comes from trees in Latvia. Only 1 per cent of the sap is drawn, says Jagolino, so that the trees’ natural processes are not disrupted. It costs about HK$40 per 300ml bottle, and is sold online at Berrytime ( and Life Project (, and in stores at Cabinet Organic in Sai Ying Pun and Food for Life.

“Some people say it tastes like yogurt. Others say it’s citrusy or like apple cider vinegar. Still others say it reminds them of coconut water or sugar cane,” says Jagolino.

I had my first swig of birch water at Sibberi’s booth at last week’s Natural & Organic Products Asia expo. Compared to coconut water, it looks and has a mouth-feel more like plain water, and definitely has a much subtler flavour. The aftertaste is slightly sourish and fermented.

While the drink may be a healthier alternative to soda, there isn’t really any solid scientific evidence to back its multitude of health claims.

Sibberi co-founder Clara Vaisse says she’d rather let the product’s inherent nutrients speak for themselves. Birch water is packed with electrolytes and micronutrients such as saponin, xylitol and betuloside.

Saponins are phytochemicals that studies show can have a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol levels, cancer, bone health and the stimulation of the immune system.

Xylitol, a naturally occurring alcohol, is often added to oral care products to prevent tooth decay and dry mouth.

Betuloside has been shown to have analgesic, anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties, which aid in flushing out toxins and in weight loss.

Finland native Mikko Revonniemi, founder of Berrytime, warns that some birch water brands add sweeteners and other chemicals to the natural product. These brands, he says, are “basically soda with high marketing value”.

Revonniemi has been drinking birch water since he was five. Collecting birch water was an annual activity with his father.
“There is something magical about going into the woods, collecting some birch water and enjoying it immediately,” he says. “That magic disappears the moment it’s pasteurised, bottled and shipped to the other side of the world.”

Birth of the bulge

This story was first published in the South China Morning Post on Monday, Sept 14 2015.

dadbod evolution

Weight gain, fatigue and mental problems are common among first-time fathers, but a little effort can arrest the slide

By Jeanette Wang

The hashtag #Dadbod went viral on social media a few months ago as a lighthearted reference to guys with a “nice balance” of beer gut and buff. But for real dads – especially new and recent ones – the demise in physique after fatherhood is no joke.

Since becoming a first-time father a little more than two years ago, Bernard Soh has put on 8kg and now has a body mass index of 29.4 that’s on the cusp of severe obesity. Once a fit and trim recreational cyclist, he has completely fallen off the saddle.

“Not enough sleep; wake-ups in the middle of the night; not enough time to do things, with added chores. Basically, no time to exercise,” says Soh, 44, reeling off a list of effects fatherhood has had on his health. “I think it’s the same for mums and dads, except we don’t get to breastfeed.”

Weight gain is common in men after having their first child, according to a recent study by Northwestern University that tracked the weight of more than 10,000 men for up to 20 years from adolescence to young adulthood.

Over the course of the study, the typical 182-cm man who lived with his child gained an average of about 2kg after becoming a first-time dad, or about 1.5kg for those who didn’t live with the child. In contrast, childless men lost 600 grams.

Controlling for other variables such as age, race, education, income, daily activity, screen time and marriage status, the weight gain translates to a 2.6 per cent rise in BMI for resident dads and a 2 per cent rise in BMI for non-resident dads.

“Fatherhood can affect the health of young men above the already known effect of marriage,” says Dr Craig Garfield, associate professor of paediatrics and of medical social sciences at Northwestern, and lead author of the study in the American Journal of Men’s Health. “The more weight the fathers gain and the higher their BMI, the greater risk they have for developing heart disease as well as diabetes and cancer.”

Fatherhood has also been linked with a higher prostate cancer risk. In a 2008 study in the journal Cancer, researchers at Copenhagen’s Statens Serum Institut analysed data from all men born in Denmark between 1935 and 1988, and found that men without children were 16 per cent less likely than fathers to be diagnosed with prostate cancer during up to 35 years of follow-up.

Paradoxically, among fathers, the more children one has, the lower the risk of disease. The authors suggested that, theoretically, this might reflect a “healthy father” phenomenon, in which men who retain fertility are less likely to develop a malignancy.

Being a first-time father also affects the mind. Mental health experts emphasise the dangers of post-natal depression for mothers, but University of Kansas researcher Carrie Wendel-Hummell says fathers should also pay attention to their mental health around the time of childbirth when life suddenly changes drastically.

Sometimes, parents also tend to put too much pressure on themselves to be perfect mothers and fathers, exacerbating mental health conditions.

“Both mothers and fathers need to pay attention to their mental health during the perinatal period, and they need to watch for these other types of conditions, not just depression,” says Wendel-Hummell, a PhD in sociology whose research focus brings together biological and sociological understandings of the problems that new parents face. “Anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis and bipolar disorder are all shaped by circumstances that surround having a baby.”

Kenneth Lim, 34, father of a 3½-year-old and 16-month-old, reckons that a father’s health “tends to decline a little in the first five years of your child’s life” until a tipping point is reached. “Then you either decide to start working out again, or just let yourself go and have the dad bod,” he says.

It’s not all bad news for new dads though; research shows fatherhood does have its health merits. First-time fathers show significant decreases in negative lifestyle behaviours such as tobacco and alcohol use, as well as crime, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family that assessed 200 at-risk boys annually from age 12 to 31.

“These decreases were in addition to the general tendency of boys to engage less in these types of behaviours as they approach and enter adulthood,” says the study’s lead author, David Kerr, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University.

“This research suggests that fatherhood can be a transformative experience, even for men engaging in high-risk behaviour. This presents a unique window of opportunity for intervention, because new fathers might be especially willing and ready to hear a more positive message and make behavioural changes.”

Another study in 2011 suggested that fathers have a 17 per cent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than childless men. Stanford University arrived at this finding after tracking 135,000 men aged 50 to 71 over a 10-year period.

Also declining among new dads are testosterone levels, according to a University of Michigan study last year. The hormone-lowering process starts even before the babies are born. Fathers’ testosterone levels have been linked with parenting behaviour and involvement, with higher levels associated with lower parental involvement.

A fully involved father was what Anand Chandran wanted to be when his firstborn arrived 16 months ago. In the initial months after Leah’s birth, the 32-year-old investment banker almost stopped his regular workout regime as he wanted to be around his wife and daughter.

“After a while, I realised I needed to build a routine into my life if I was going to stay fit. So I sorted out my priorities, with fitness being number two behind daddy and husband duties,” he says.

Chandran rises well before sunrise to cycle or run, and returns in time to see his family wake up. This resolve has made his #dadbod an anomaly; a fitter and buffer upgrade from his pre-dad bod.

“Fatherhood has been tiring – probably the most significant bout of prolonged exhaustion [I’ve experienced],” says Chandran. “It’s tough trying to fit other priorities in but having at least one other pursuit like exercise in the weekly routine helps. It alleviates a bit of the stress and fatigue of parenting with the endorphin boost, and makes sure you’re defined as a little more than just dad or husband. Also, I want my daughter to lead a healthy and active life, so I need to start living the routine myself.”

Sweat science

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, Sept 8, 2015.

Science suggests wearing the right gear can lift athletes by making them think it will allow them to go faster, or higher

By Jeanette Wang

Hands up if you’ve experienced that amazing boost in motivation to exercise after buying some new workout gear. Sportswear goes beyond just skin deep; it has a profound effect on our minds, too.

Increasingly, sports apparel companies are becoming aware of this and investing time, money and effort into researching and producing clothing that supports athletes not only physiologically, but also psychologically.

When Nike, for example, developed the Pro TurboSpeed suit – which moves through air faster than bare skin – for the London 2012 Olympics, they sought insight from athletes as to what gives them a mental boost. Nike designers found that patches of contrasting colour made the athletes feel faster, so fluorescent yellow strips were placed on the inside surfaces of the arms and legs of the suit.

At Australian company 2XU, design lines and placements of seams, logos and trims on its renowned compression garments are precisely engineered for maximum freedom of movement and comfort for the wearer.

“Comfort and emotion is critically important,” says Dr John Sullivan, a leading sports scientist and one of the top US sports psychologists, who spoke at the 2XU Heart of Performance summit in New York earlier this year. “If an athlete doesn’t feel comfortable, then they have one more thing to think about. And in that moment, you want them to focus on what’s in front of them.”

Last week, Lululemon launched “Engineered Sensations”, a new range of yoga and running pants categorised according to how the wearer would like to feel: relaxed, naked, held-in, hugged or tight? Two years in the making, the range was the result of a lot of customer feedback as well as understanding the world of sports technology and material, says Tom Waller, vice-president of Lululemon’s Whitespace innovation and R&D lab.

“We found there was a convergence [in the fitness world] towards tight pants, which people equated with compression, and therefore performance enhancement. But that’s not really true. What people are looking for is a sensory input which their mind can perceive – and everyone likes something different: some want to feel naked, others want a tight, supported sensation,” says Waller, who has a PhD in sports technology from Britain’s Loughborough University.

“It’s important that you look like you feel good and feel like you look good.”

That’s because when we feel good, we have greater confidence and will perform better, he explains. It’s well-established through studies that next to existing abilities and skills, one of the most important and consistent predictors of people’s performance is their perceived self-efficacy.

Professor Yi Li, an expert in high-performance sportswear from the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, believes good sportswear takes care of both the physiology of an athlete – such as body temperature, skin moisture and muscle conditions – and the psychological needs. Key to this is making the athlete feel comfortable.

“A sense of comfort sure plays a part in putting a person in better mood, or even a more competitive mindset. We call that sensory psychology,” says Li, who supervised the design and construction of sports apparel for the Hong Kong Olympic teams in 2008 and 2012.

“Another psychological factor that affects performance directly is peace of mind. When an athlete feels less intimidated by the fear of injury, he is a lot more likely to go all-out and push himself beyond limits in a sports event. Even the colour of the garment is important in establishing personal pride, team spirit or a sense of belonging.”

Superstition, or the symbolic meaning given to a certain piece of clothing, is another factor. Take for example basketball star Michael Jordan, who throughout his entire career wore his old blue University of North Carolina shorts underneath his NBA team uniform. World No 1 tennis player Serena Williams has her own “lucky” sportswear: a pair of socks that she wore throughout one tournament.

The psychology of sportswear is interesting, says sport and performance psychologist Edgar Tham, because it “borders on the mystical things we experience in many cultures”.

“However, the good news is recent studies confirm what we intuitively use or know,” says Tham, founder of SportPsych Consulting in Singapore. “One such study in 2010 [by the University of Cologne] showed that lucky charms boost confidence, effort and overall performance, while another study found that wearing certain clothes can change one’s mental processes.”

In the latter study Tham refers to, Northwestern University researchers coin the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. Enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors – the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.

The study, published in 2012 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, involved three experiments on undergraduates that explored the effects of wearing a lab coat with respect to carrying out attention tasks. A pretest found that a lab coat is generally associated with attentiveness and carefulness.

In experiment one, wearing a lab coat increased selective attention compared to not wearing one. In experiments two and three, wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat, and compared to simply seeing or even identifying with a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat.

So, clothes can put us in a very different psychological state. At Lululemon’s Whitespace lab in Vancouver, Waller’s team of 30 scientists, and engineers tinker constantly with materials and design. Using a biomechanics lab with an environmental chamber that can simulate all sorts of weather conditions, they study how tiny changes in the clothing influence how the wearer feels.

The goal: to remove psychological barriers to performance.

“You speak to most athletes and they’ll tell you that one could be in physical peak, but if the mind, heart and body are not in sync, then you’re not at the full potential,” says Lee Holman, Lululemon’s senior vice-president of women’s design.

Who knew so much thought went into creating tight fashionable athletic pants?

“We’re not in the business of selling rainbows,” says Waller. “We aim to make clothing that shifts what you believe to be possible.”

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