Popular Posts

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Health Lessons From Life of Pi

 Health Lessons from The Life of Pi: 

The Cleverness of It All

By Pharmacist Rudy

Spoiler Alert: Do not read this if you have not seen the movie, but are intending to. I totally give away the plot. The plot in three words: boy, boat, cat.  Don’t let me spoil the movie. See it first.   

Life of Pi: visually stunning, state-of-the-art cinema

On Friday, I saw Ang Lee’s award winning Life of Pi with my wife and son and I walked away moved by this movie. It was exactly as advertised:  very epic, very expensive, and deserving of all the awards. Besides, the book was written by a Canadian.

While I was watching this visual spectacle, I was making notes on some useful health tips. Well, not really. Although I was blown away by all the CG tricks, having read the book, I had this constant reminder that it was a contrived reality.  I had this nagging feeling that the whole time, I was being manipulated. Firstly, shelling out $40 (for the three of us) including extra for the 3D glasses (why do we not buy these things once and keep them for the next 3D movie, I don’t know). Secondly, I wear glasses, so putting the glasses on top of my glasses gives me a headache. Thirdly, the movie is not about boy-boat-tiger at all.  There, I told you so. This blog gets better, promise. It is Ang-Lee-good.

Still, I was entertained and forgot my annoyances by the time the whale jumped.

I am hoping that my accountant will allow me to write off the 3D glasses if I make an argument that this was all research for a blog I was writing on healthy living. Probably not.

Here are five health lessons I picked up form the Life of Pi. Put on your 3D glasses now.

Life of Pi Health Lesson No. 1

Do Not Believe in Everything

When Pi’s father tells him “If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all”, I was reminded of the many important lessons that I learned from my parents. Many of them were not delivered as lessons; I never remembered ever being lectured at. These were of the nature of gentle life observations on how to conduct myself. In short, they were at the cellular level.

Pi's Mother: Orange Juice

It was a common practice for my mother to send me at 5:00 PM to the corner store with an empty tin cup to buy rice before supper. I would walk the two blocks with an empty cup in hand and at the store, scoop a cup of rice from the big mound of rice that was just there, fragrant, precious and glistening like a mountain of silver.  I can not remember how much it was, but I do remember paying in coins. I would walk back home with the now filled cup, being careful not to spill a single precious grain. (bad luck) This cup will be cooked right away, soon imparting a fragrance from the kitchen. My sisters, at the same time, would be collecting water spinach from the river, which was a block away. The spinach never tasted the same if it was collected any sooner. The rice and the spinach constituted a simple meal, with a single dried fish per person. Maybe two on a special occasion. 

This was a simple lesson in simplicity (no packaging, no garbage), frugality (no waste, no money tied up in groceries) and freshness (no extra food, no spoilage issues). It is idyllic in my memory. At the time, we were simply poor.

Today in natural health, everyday we are offered new discoveries and the latest big thing. Here is the first lesson from Pi: do not believe everything. We are not supposed to follow all of the health tips from Dr. Oz, Dr. Mercola, Dr Weill, Kevin Trudeau, and Sayer Ji.  There are only so many anti-oxidants and super foods that we can realistically fit into a regimen. When Dr. Oz finds the latest miracle break-through on Monday and another one on Tuesday, he does not mean for you to throw out what you are already doing. What you are already doing may be redundant or just as good, or even better for your own situation.  There are no miracle cures out there. There are many choices to suit your budget and lifestyle. The only truth is that you can not achieve different results if you keep doing the same thing. Pi’s lesson from his father applies to natural supplements: do not take everything.

Except for my advice. (I absolutely detest LOL, so I will absolutely not use it in this space, but it is implied, and since you are so intelligent to even be reading this, I trust that you insert your own, prn)

Life of Pi Health Lesson No. 2

Vegetarians Do Not Die When They Eat Fish

As Pi is starving and is offered the flying fish, he weeps and bows in prayer. This is a fantastic moment in the film and is a reminder for us to always eat with gratitude. Pi thanks Lord Vishnu for appearing in the form of a fish. He eats it raw, full of gratitude. He does not say, “I wish I can have a little bit of wasabi just about now.”

Pi says, "Lord Vishnu, thank you."

I know many vegetarians and I admire them for their discipline and applaud them for their commitment to the planet. The so called Big Mac Effect (the demand for cheap meat) leads to the startling and real destruction of the rainforest. I get that. Cattle rearing accounts for 65% of Nitrous Oxide emissions, mostly from manure. Nitrous Oxide’s effect on global warming is 296 times more than carbon dioxide. The Fart Effect accounts for 37% of the methane emissions, which is 23 times greater than carbon dioxide. OK, I get the fart thing as well. A five year old gets the fart thing.

However, when Pi makes a choice between staying vegetarian or eating to stay alive, he eats the fish.  “Eat the rice with the gravy”, the sailor said. However, there was no rice, and there was no gravy. (Poor sailor, I really liked him.)

There is an account of a real life Richard Parker who was a cabin boy marooned with three others on a boat after the yacht Mignorette sank in 1884.  He met an unfortunate fate. It was not vegetarian at all.

Yann Martel, the Canadian author (Yaay for these clever Canadians!) who published Life of Pi in 2001, was initially criticized for not acknowledging the influence from Marcy Sclera’s book Max and the Cats. Sclera’s book, which was an allegorical book on Nazism, involves a man and a panther together in a boat. In my opinion, Martel has the cleverer allegory: the struggle between man and himself, the vegetarian and the carnivore. A vegetarian zookeeper who spends his life devoted to animals is forced to eat animal flesh or die. Martel’s fascination with this subject is revealed in later writings after the success of Life of Pi. It is not pretty.

In the book, Martel devotes quite a bit of space to the alternate reality. In the movie, this is used by skillful Ang Lee as a clever twist: a subtle, winkish nod at the end of the movie.  The note is so silent, so subtle, that most of the audience (most of who have not read the book), still high from the luminous acrobatic whale, miss it entirely. However, the last five minutes turn the whole movie upside down, inside out. This duplicate reality, in which the zebra is the sailor, Orange Juice is mother, the hyena is the cook and Pi is the tiger, is a contrast of light against dark, humanity against inhumanity, salvation against damnation. The whole movie takes on a different meaning.

The lesson comes back: do not believe everything, including the movie.

Man… Ang Lee is a genius!

Vegetarians and raw fooders have unique nutritional challenges. The four most common ones that I encounter are:

Iron, especially heme iron. Since heme iron is mostly found from meat in the diet, it is a common deficiency. One alternative is to cook vegetables rich in Vitamin C in a cast iron skillet, allowing the Vitamin C to pull iron into the food.

Calcium is another common deficiency for strict vegans who avoid dairy and cheese. Good choices are turnips, collard greens and rhubarb. This is especially important for children as their bones start to grow and as well for the post-menopausal women who are more prone to osteoporosis as a result of hormone changes.

Vitamin B12 is a very common deficiency and is a little trickier to source from plant based food. This is not only a common deficiency in vegetarians, but for the general population as well. Fortunately, this is a simple nutrient which can be delivered in sublingual tablets (methylcobalamin is preferred) or injections if you are so inclined. From food, I would recommend Brewer’s Yeast, Nori, chlorella and my favorite super nutrient: spirulina!

Zinc is another common deficiency and is particularly dangerous for aging men, as it is important for prostate support. It is also very important for young men for prevention of testicular cancer. If you are a young man from Vancouver Island, get your zinc tested. Four out of five islanders test deficient in zinc. For food sources, focus on what germ, lima beans and chard. Otherwise, it is a simple nutrient to get. My favorite form is Zinc Monomethionine.

Life of Pi Health Lesson No 3:

Acidity Will Kill Us and Kill The Planet: But Us First

Cutting to the alternate movie that no one is watching, Pi finds the algae island that is both a lifesaver and a life threat. It is both beautiful and deadly. It is a body innocent and a spirit diabolical. Ang Lee deftly touches on juxtaposed realities and duality of existence.

This was one of the more fascinating aspects of the movie and I think it is actually the main theme of the movie: the duality of life.  Life is not as always as we see it (Do not believe in everything…again).  We should at the same time, have faith in the unseen while questioning what is seen.  At night, the island eats the living things, turning the freshwater pools into deadly vats of acid. It both provides and consumes, nothing unfair about that deal. The earth provides does it not? The earth consumes, will it not?

The real movie starts on the algae island.

There is a non-fictional island off of Naples called Castello Aragones. This killer island actually has pools of corrosive salt water high in carbonic acid in which no life will survive. This natural phenomenon is a result of volcanic vents on the ocean floor through which the sea water absorbs carbon dioxide, becoming more and more acidic. Interestingly, as planetary CO2 emissions increase, the rate of absorption of CO2 by the oceans is slowly acidifying the ocean water, which is normally about 8.2 pH. It is predicted that if the current acidification of the ocean continues, the seawater will be 150% more acidic by the year 2100. In this planet, we are indeed the meerkats. Except, there are no 3D glasses to take off. The danger is real and it is already happening. A plug for Dr. David Suzuki right about here.  

The eye-candy-how-did-they-do-that-spectacle of the movie is a trap: Ang Lee is tricking us with a dazzling display of digital tigers (the tiger is completely computer generated, sorry to tell you that) and then underpinning a darker story of human tragedy. The sleight of hand is very, very clever. Or not. You are given the choice as to what to believe: it is either a pretty story or a disturbing one.

At a pivotal turn in the story, Martel tips his Canadian hand with Pi finding the incredidle floating algae island. The whole island is edible; the water is clear and pristine. It saves Pi’s life. Or does it? In the story, as in health and as in life: things are not as they seem. The island is edible, but it also eats. The pretty story is not the real movie.  Oops. We are the meerkats, falling for the trap. Too late, we have already paid extra for the 3D glasses. We are glued to our seats, and if the theatre was carnivorous, we would be too engrossed and too trapped to run for the exits.

Now, this I am not sure of: is Ang Lee really that clever? Or is he merely good, with his cleverness magnified by our uncleverness? I don’t like to use the word stupid, but there is a general dilution of the brain cells when Gangnam Style (805,000,000 views, probably a few million more per day) is more popular than The Fracking Song (important, but a piddly 70,000 views). ‘nuff said. 

The most downloaded video of all time is not a TED talk.

Life of Pi Health Lesson No. 4:

The Bacteria is Smarter than Us

I wrote recently about how the bacteria in the gut can actually help reduce allergies and asthma symptoms. (read my tweet…I am not going to be redundant. There is just too much stuff to tell you that if I repeat even one, it will create a cascade of redundancy and before you know it, I will be reduced to insignificance). There must be some rule against parenthesizing such a long digression... but, I just write what comes into my head.

Therefore, it seems that we are slaves to the bacteria and for our own good; we have to maintain the balance of good and bad.  This delicate balance in the gut responds significantly to changes in fiber, changes in pH and changes in minerals in our food. The health effects of this balance are multifold: inflammation, pain, immunity, brain function, serotonin levels, testosterone recycling, just to name a few off the top of my meerkat head. Multiply this by an infinite number of times as to what is happening in the soil, the soil we usually disturb and pave over to create a parking lot for Target. We disturb the balance when we deplete the minerals by mono-cropping, fertilizing and clear-cutting. OK, let’s just throw in the F word here: fracking.  How about disturbing the balance at a global level?

What the frack?

Vibrio fischeri, bioluminescent bacteria that clings on to the glowing whale.

In the movie, there is a magnificent display of bioluminescent bacteria in the water. This amazing ability is present in 90% of bacteria in the ocean and is a very accurate determinant of the balance between a healthy ocean and a sick planet. As the ocean becomes more polluted, the luminescent bacteria die off. No argument at all: killing luminescent bacteria just feels instantly bad.

Dr Edith Widder is a prominent marine biologist who is using bioluminescence as a measure of the effects of heavy metals and pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. Using the bioluminescent bacterium Vibrio fischeri, she uses light sensitive equipment to measure how toxins in the water decrease bacteria populations. This shifts lead to algae blooms which further deplete the amount of oxygen. By measuring these small changes at the bacteria level, she is able to predict larger scale of environmental damage. As Dr Widder says, “It’s my belief if we can make pollution visible, and let people know what small things they are doing are actually making an improvement in this incredible environment, I think it could make a huge difference. It can be a game-changer.”

I would not worry about the bacteria. They will be fine, I think.

I would worry about us.

Life of Pi Health Lesson Number 5:

Learn To Co-Exist With Disease

Pi learns to live with Richard Parker, but only after running out of options. First, he fashions a raft on which he stores all his necessities and niceties: his biscuits and his canned water. However, this leads to disaster as the raft is overturned during a storm and he is forced to co-exist with his enemy.

Often we see disease as the enemy. Our very own Richard Parker. So we build our raft and on it we put all our essentials: our supplements, our prescriptions, our yoga classes. Then a storm comes around and turns this all upside down and we are forced to deal with our Richard Parker. Until we do so, we are just negotiating and compromising. For example: we are in pain from gout, but we do not want to give up the red wine. We have acid reflux, but the coffee is just soo good.  We can not turn the mind off, but we have no time for meditation.

A common conversation sounds like this:

Me: Well, it looks like you are too acidic; your rosacea may improve if you are alkaline.

You: It’s only a problem when I ski all day.

Me: What did you have for breakfast today?

You: Today was not a typical day. Don’t pick today.

Me: OK, what did you have for breakfast yesterday?

You: Steel cut oats which is organic, Greek yogurt, organic, frozen strawberries, two slices of multigrain toast, a banana, and coffee, free trade.

Me:  What was in the coffee?

You: It was a double double.

Me: They serve Greek Yogurt at Timmy’s now?

You: No, that was later. I had coffee at home and then again at the drive thru.

Me: Then you went skiing.

You: Yes, then I went skiing.

Me: Everything you ate and drank were acidic. All.

You: Did I say the yogurt is organic?

I am not picking on skiers and I am not picking on Timmy’s fans. Coffee is perfectly fine. However, you are on the raft and Richard Parker is still on the boat. At some point we need to come face to face with Richard Parker.

In case I have meandered out of reach, Richard Parker is disease and to achieve health, we have to overcome our fear of disease. The body signals its ability in fighting disease in the strangest ways: pain, inflammation, swelling, heat, and fever. It is hard to accept that these are “good” signs…because it shows that your body is fighting for you and you are feeling sick while geting better. It is backwards,  like Richard Parker scaring Pi into being braver.

I like it when I get a stomach ache in the middle of the night because it reminds me that I should not have had the greasy plate of pasta at 10:00. If I eat well, I will still get sick, but not as sick. If I eat, like, not-well, I will get sick a lot more often and with more severity.

I have to learn to co-exist with disease, as Pi with Richard Parker. Remember when Pi devised a way of training Richard Parker with his whistle? He first studied. Then he planned. Then he acted. This approach can be followed when we deal with disease: study, plan, and act.

Universal Individuation: the planet is us and we are the planet.

Pi and Richard Parker are after all, the same. The movie demonstrates Pi’s struggle of individuation: how he finds his true self. The tiger is his animas, his unconscious, to which he is connected, but first, in conflict. Individuation is the result of harmony between the two. In health, we have our conscious health and our unconscious health and the two have to be in harmony. Disease can be contained, just as health can be maintained. The two exist in perfect harmony. They co-exist: just as if they were in their own lifeboat (our bodies), at the mercy of the ocean (our environment) and in this fragile vessel, we balance health (Pi) and disease (the tiger). 

That is why in the end, Richard Parker disappears into the forest. He is no longer needed , because truly, Him and Pi are one. He is Pi and Pi is him. Once we are one with our own Richard Parker, we are truly in harmony. Dis-ease becomes ease. 

Then we can enjoy the beautiful movie that is balanced health. Without fear and without regret.


According to the Lindemann-Weierstrass Theorem, pi is a tanscendental number. It is irrational. Computers thus far have been able to measure up to 10 trillion decimals. It is accepted that it is an infinite number. It signifies the unity of the circle and the square.. which is as illusive and tanscendental  as the universe.

This was a very enjoyable blog to write, as it crystallized some important concepts for me. I hope you enjoyed it. Man… Ang Lee is a genius. Martel… call your mom and tell her you love her.