Nothing should make sense until everything makes sense.
Understanding my bioenergetic self
Understanding my bioenergetic self
A reading list for understanding the bioenergetic ideas of Dr. Raymond Peat and others
Over the past few years, an alternative movement has been gaining momentum in the world of health and nutrition. This movement has centred largely around the writings of Dr Raymond Peat PhD, a former professor of physiology and endocrinology.
I first stumbled across Ray Peat’s website in 2011 while researching caprylic acid (a fat found in coconut oil with some remarkable properties). But some of Peat’s main ideas ran contrary to other sources I was reading at the time (for example, that fish oil is not a sensible health supplement) and it wasn’t enough to convince me away from my preexisting biases.
Over time, however, the name Ray Peat would crop up again and again in various places online, and I decided to go back and revisit Dr. Peat’s articles in 2014.Once I started reading Peat’s articles in greater depth, and began linking the common threads that are woven throughout them, my own understanding of human biology, health, and nutrition were changed substantively.
“The key idea was that energy and structure are interdependent, at every level.” —Ray Peat
Peat presents a bioenergetic lens through which health, ageing, and disease can be understood as functions of energy metabolism—of the biological energy that’s available for use in our bodies. Energy isn’t just required for us to function, but for the organism as a whole to maintain its own integrity.
His articles describe how nutrition, hormones, and other environmental factors influence the availability of energy and impact health. These ideas are backed strongly by empirical research and validated by some of the most notable names in western science from the last century, including many Nobel Prize winners.
Despite this, many of the claims Peat makes run contrary to mainstream contemporary health advice and common cultural clichés.
This deviation from mainstream information, as well as the breadth and inherently technical nature of his articles, can mean Ray Peat’s work is often initially difficult to read.
I decided it would be helpful for me to dig deeper, and read the work of the authors Peat cites. This, I determined, would not only provide me with a deeper understanding of the information being discussed, but also help me to assess with greater confidence what are sometimes controversial ideas.
This educational journey has led me down a “rabbit hole”, creating a significant paradigm shift in how I understand and experience life.
Below is a list of books that I recommend to anyone who is interested in improving their own understanding of this broader way of thinking about life.
Note: This list is by no means exhaustive—these are only the books I’ve read so far—but I felt it would be inappropriate to recommend books that I haven’t read for myself. Readers will probably benefit from reading these books in the order presented, since they tend to progress in complexity.
If you would like to recommend a book be added, please feel free to contact me with your suggestion.
How to Heal Your Metabolism
“My recommendation is to eat to increase the metabolic rate (usually temperature and heart rate), rather than any particular foods.” — Ray Peat
Unlike many fad diet trends that focus on eliminating food groups or offer a strict protocol to follow, Ray Peat’s advice is simply to eat to increase the metabolic rate. Of course, this does include focussing more on certain food types and less on others — but you won’t find a specific “Peat diet” anywhere.
While there are many people who try to engineer their own diets based on Ray Peat’s recommendations (jokingly called “Peaters”), opinions are varied and can sometimes be conflicting. What’s more, scientific studies (which most Peaters try to look to) are often open to interpretation, and can be confusing to someone who doesn’t have a firm grounding in nutrition or biology.
To the newbie who is looking to start making positive health changes today, this book by fitness and nutrition coach Kate Deering is a great place to start. How to Heal Your Metabolism offers sensible, structured advice on the lifestyle, dietary, and training tips that are proven to increase metabolism and improve health.
“That mystique of diagnosing disease (specific, concrete, reified disease) was so strong that when Hans Selye noticed (in the 1930s) something that underlies all sickness (he first called it the “syndrome of being sick”), he was disregarded and disrespected, at least until his dangerous perceptions could be trimmed, distorted, and subsumed under some proper medical categories.” —Ray Peat
Central to understanding the impact of metabolism and energy on health, is to understand the effects of stress on the body. Hans Selye coined the term “stress” as we use it today. You could say he literally wrote the book on stress, and he called it The Stress of Life.
As a medical student, Selye observed that patients with a variety of conditions all displayed the same basic collection of symptoms. They just “looked sick”. While this observation seemed too obvious to be of any value to other medical academics, Selye made it his main area of focus.
Selye went on to define the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which describes how an organism reacts to stress: Initial shock, resistance, and, if the stress persists, exhaustion. He explained how bad stress (or distress) quickly leads to decompensation, as the body is no longer able to meet the demands being placed on it.
In other words, Selye described how regular or chronic stress means using more energy than we can sustain; how this pushes the body beyond its ability to maintain or restore itself, and leads to ageing, disease and death.
Selye was awarded the highest decoration in Canada and was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times.
This book should be essential reading for anybody interested in understanding health, or who has a stressful lifestyle themselves.
“Altemeyer found that people who scored high on his scale of authoritarianism tended to have faulty reasoning, with compartmentalized thinking, making it possible to hold contradictory beliefs, and to be dogmatic, hypocritical, and hostile.Since he is looking at a spectrum, focusing on differences, I think he is likely to have underestimated the degree to which these traits exist in the mainstream, and in groups such as scientists, that have a professional commitment to clear reasoning and objectivity. With careful training, and in a culture that doesn’t value creative metaphorical thinking, authoritarianism might be a preferred trait.” —Ray Peat
In a perfect world, the dominant ideas in society would be determined by the best data available, and would be constantly updated as new information became available. However, that is usually not the case, and Peat’s articles often delve into the social and political factors that influence why good science is often ignored and bad science is heavily enforced.
This tendency to allow authority to govern the truth is probably best explained by Bob Altemeyer who spent most of his career researching authoritarianism. His book, the Authoritarians, is an amusing and eye-opening analysis of the authoritarian personality.
While this book does not cover health or nutrition directly, I found it useful for understanding many of the social factors that influence the decisions that do affect health, nutrition, and well-being at national and sometimes global scale.
“His work is clearly presented, not hard to understand, and it is scientifically so sound that no one challenges it, at least not on the scientific level. It is ignored, rejected by people who choose not to be bothered to read it. How many people have died from heart disease, since his work first became available? (And how many more from cancer, tuberculosis, and other diseases he showed occur mainly among hypothyroid people?)” —Ray Peat
Those reading Ray Peat will very quickly realise that he has a lot to say about proper thyroid function and how it relates to health. This is probably one of the most controversial aspects of Ray Peat’s work.
Broda Barnes, M.D., studied hypothyroidism from the 1920s until his death in 1988.
In western medicine it’s well accepted that some individuals have problems with low thyroid function (hypothyroidism)—an insufficient amount of the active hormones that govern metabolic rate. But this is thought to affect only a small percentage of the population (about 5%), and is sufficiently treated with synthetic levothyroxine medication.
However, often with biological markers, the desired levels can be somewhat arbitrary, and the standards for what is considered a healthy range can vary from year to year, country to country, and even from doctor to doctor.
Barnes’s view was that hypothyroidism affects a very high portion of the American population, as much as 40%, and that hypothyroidism may lead directly to many degenerative or chronic health conditions (such as diabetes, hypertension, skin problems, etc). By treating what other doctors would regard as adequate thyroid function, Barnes was able to treat a variety of seemingly unrelated health issues.
In this book, Barnes describes his work in treating a variety of common diseases with thyroid medication, and his preference for using natural desiccated thyroid instead of the synthetic alternatives that are medically endorsed.
Despite the controversy, there are medical doctors today using Barnes's approach today as and reporting the same positive results .
This book is very easy to follow, and helped me gain a deeper understanding of the role thyroid hormones can play in general health.
“Americans have a lower metabolic rate than some other cultures, and the result is that obesity is a major problem in this county.” —Ray Peat, Nutrition for Women
This book, and others by Ray Peat, emerged as a collection of essays and lectures that he had prepared over the years. Because of this, his books often don’t follow a well structured narrative like many other books do that centre around developing a single proposition or idea.
Instead, Nutrition for Women is a collection of interesting notes that centre around the core theme of diet and lifestyle changes for better health. Since each section is very short, one can dip in and out, reading the book in many short intervals, or referring to the key topics as needed.
Despite the title, many of the ideas discussed here are, obviously, applicable to men too, although the book is composed with women in mind.
Generative Energy: Restoring the wholeness of life
Dr Raymond Peat PhD
“The main features of ageing can be produced directly by administering excessive amounts of cortisol. These features include atrophy of skin, arteries, muscle, bone, immune system, and parts of the brain, loss of pigment (melanin), deposition of fat in certain areas, and slowed conduction velocity of nerves. The physiology of ageing (especially reproductive aging) overlaps the physiology of stress.”—Ray Peat, Generative Energy
This book is probably the most “Peaty” of Ray Peat’s books, since it focusses on biological energy, and how this relates to hormones, health, ageing and stress—with some philosophy thrown in for good measure.
Areas covered include intelligence, brain development, hormones, stess, meaningful work, life as an emergent process, thyroid, metabolism, animal diets, coconut oil, etc.
Similar to Nutrition for Women, Generative Energy seems to be more of a collection of essays, rather than a book with a single focussed narrative. While I, personally, enjoy this meze of ideas, this style of writing be a little confusing for less technical readers.
Mind and Tissue: Russian Research Perspectives on the Human Brain
Dr Raymond Peat PhD
“A common American idea of the brain is that it is ‘genetically’ ‘wired up,’ and some degree of rigidity is assumed even by the environmentalists, but beyond the rigid inherited system, there is assumed to be a passive ability to learn. In Russian brain physiology, increasing specialization of function in certain areas of the brain is considered to be a feature of evolution, but plasticity is believed to be the outstanding property of nervous tissue”—Ray Peat, Mind and Tissue
Mind and Tissue is my favourite book by Ray Peat, and one of my all-time favourite books, mostly because it bridges my interests in biology, philosophy, and psychophysiology.
In the years since the Enlightenment, Western-European and Eastern-European philosophies diverged substantially. Emerging from the ideas of Darwin, and fuelled by inheritance of Roman dogma and Protestant individualism, Western-European thinking moved closer towards rigid genetic determinism, randomness, survival of the fittest, and individual competitiveness as its underlying ideologies.
In contrast, Eastern-European thinking, influenced by greek philosophers like Aristotle, and the neighbouring asian countries, led Eastern-European thinking closer towards ideas of holism (wholeness), environment, evolution as an internal drive, and collectivism.
This ideological divide, as well as the Cold War, which limited the sharing of scientific information between Russia and the rest of Europe and the United States, meant that there was a significant amount of Russian discoveries that were completely unknown outside of Russia.
As Peter Marin writes in the foreword: “The Russians peer into a mirror altogether different from ours, one obscured or distorted by different prejudices, and that often allows them to confront or admit what we miss. They are looking for different things, working out a different version of human nature and human possibility, a different kind of faith in reason, will and desire (forces we tend to ignore in our own psychology), and for that reason the complexity of the problems they have chosen to examine and the elegance of their tentative solutions often puts to shame our own approaches.”
Since Peat’s first degree was in linguistics—he speaks Russian. Mind and Tissue offers a window into the world of Russian psychology and brain physiology and compares it to the thinking of American science. In doing so, he also provides a justification of humanitarian sciences as hard sciences, since many of the Russian discoveries provide scientific bases for understanding phenomena such as creativity.
This book is less concerned with healthy eating, but provides fascinating and challenging alternative ideas on how we, as living organisms, are closely interrelated with each other, our own history, our environment, and our own view of ourselves.
“Rather than studying the regeneration of organs and tissues, and recognizing its obvious importance in healing as well as in understanding the nature of life, much of the last century was devoted to the defamation of the researchers who were making real process in the field. Despite many demonstrations that regeneration can occur in adult mammals, students were taught that it happens only in lower vertebrates. I think it’s important to look closely at the ideology responsible for this great loss.” —Ray Peat
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Robert O Becker was an orthopaedic surgeon and researcher in electrophysiology—he studied the electrical properties of the body.
In this biographical book he describes how his work progressed over the years, and how he discovered the electric potentials of the body.
Many people know that certain animals, salamanders especially, have the remarkable capacity to fully regenerate missing limbs—even a full leg. Becker’s early work began by exploring the question of why? … and why can’t other animals do the same.
In telling the story, Becker explains how he designed his experiments on regeneration, and the interesting electric properties of the body he discovered through his experimentation.
As his work progressed, Becker began to look into the biological effects of environmental EMF (electromagnetic fields), and the impacts that they have on the human body.
This book is essential reading for anybody who wants to better understand the interplay between metabolism, nerve tissue, and electrical fields in health, growth and development.
“Gilbert Ling’s revolution in cell biology remains outside the canon, despite the profound influence of MRI, which grew directly out of his view of the cell, because his work provided conclusive evidence that cells are not regulated by ‘semipermeable membranes and membrane pumps.’ Every field of science is ruled by a doctrinaire establishment.” —Ray Peat
This is, without a doubt, the most interesting biological textbook I’ve ever read. Had this been on the reading list when I started biology at University, I probably wouldn’t have dropped out.
Gerald Pollack is a professor of bioengineering at Washington University who is best known for his work with water that has earned him the nickname The Water Wizard. Building on the work of scientists like Gilbert Ling, Pollack has shown that water actually has 4 phases as opposed to the three (vapour, liquid, solid) that we are taught about in school.
This book describes how this 4th phase of water is probably the driver behind many functions within the cells of our bodies—in many cases, offering more elegant alternative theories to the current prevailing theories.
This is not a book for newbies. Many of the topics discussed here are at least high-school level biology, and require a bit of willingness on the part of the reader to fill in the knowledge gaps where necessary. However, the information presented is very clear, the layout is beautiful, and the theories developed in this book are so elegant that nerds will find themselves grinning uncontrollably while reading them.