The Biology of Energy
Do we live in a Golden Age of peace and prosperity or a Dark Age of societal corruption? It always seems to depend who you ask; But what can't be debated is the fact we don't live in the Iron Age, Bronze Age, or Stone Age. We presently live in the most novel and complex environment ever encountered by human beings, vastly different from previous ages. This shift has been relatively swift, and the changes continue to occur as new technologies and social systems evolve daily.
When it comes to the basic biological reality of health and well-being, our systems have been slow to adapt to this new and changing reality. Yes, our average life spans have been lengthened by the reduction in deaths due to war, child birth, murder, and infectious diseases; But with this life-span increase has come a cost - A loss of our health-spans.
We have more chronic illness than ever before. We have an obesity epidemic, as well as epidemics of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and the diseases of old age - Alzheimer's and Dementia. We even have epidemic levels of mental illness, drug overdose/addiction, and rising rates of autism-spectrum-disorders and other novel cognitive issues.
We have spent the last century making light years of improvement in our understanding of biology, physics, engineering, chemistry, etc; Yet we seem to be less capable, in many ways, of improving human health and well being as a result of it. How is this possible? Personally, I've spent years regaining my health after a rough brush with schizophrenia, and several ensuing chronic health issues like IBS and eczema from the medications. Thanks to Qigong, Chinese Medicine, and Bioenergetic Nutrition, I'm much better now; But the question remains, how can there be so many people like me, in a technologically advanced scientific society, who feel they have to solve all their health problems themselves? What is happening in the current system?
Well, according to the father of the Bioenergetic Theory of Health, biologist Dr Ray Peat, this mismatch between our knowledge and health comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of health itself. He believes this misunderstanding leads to the wrong questions being asked, the wrong research being done, and ultimately the wrong health advice being given by our current class of experts.
If you have been practicing Qigong (a Chinese form of moving meditation and energy medicine) or related practices like Tai Chi, Yoga, or meditation, or have been studying any form of eastern medicine, this misunderstanding isn't news to you. You are likely already aware of the ignorance, arrogance, and corruption that sabotages western medicine's ability to clearly articulate a vision of human health and flourishing. This contrast in visions is usually described by Eastern Medicine books like this:
Western Medicine views the body as a machine; When the machine breaks down, new parts are needed, or worn out parts need removed. The optimal state of health is to simply have no malfunctioning parts. Conversely, Eastern Medicine views the body as a garden; When a plant is unhealthy, the gardener looks at the environment - Is there enough sunlight, water, or shade? Are there insects invading? Are other supportive plants nearby? Is the soil rich enough? The optimal state of health is to have the correct environmental conditions to allow the natural flourishing of vitality to emerge effortlessly.
This western view of the body as machine has been made more extreme by the gene theory of disease; Every illness, no matter how obviously lifestyle (or environmentally) induced, is blamed on genetics (or some external pathogen and its genetics). Eastern medicine generally contends that genes may cause vulnerability to specific diseases, but environment and lifestyle are ultimately what pull the trigger. In this way the Eastern view is much more optimistic about which illnesses can be avoided and cured than western medicine which tends to blame the body itself for its malfunctions.
What does all this have to do with the mostly unheard-of American biologist, Dr. Ray Peat, and his theories of health? Well, if you are interested in Eastern Medicine, you may be fascinated to learn that Ray's theories converged on the exact same underlying principles of healing, but from the perspective of biochemistry and biophysics. The strangest part is I haven't been able to find any evidence, including from asking Ray's associates, that any research on eastern medicine influenced his work. He seems to have arrived at the same conclusions from a totally different vantage point!
In science, this is a big deal; For something to be considered true, it needs to be replicable. The same experiments should be able to be done by different researchers, and lead to the same results. With more esoteric discoveries, like acupuncture points, it would be a big deal for two different cultures in two different time periods to have discovered the same points independently, and ascribe the same effects to each point. This adds certainty to claims, because the odds of different people across time and space having the same results and discoveries by mere coincidence alone is low.
Ray came to many of the same conclusions as eastern medicine, but from a different time period, place, culture, and technological toolkit. This provides reasonable evidence that both he and the ancient masters of the east have come across an objective, stable set of universal truths that can be discovered by anyone, anytime, and any place!
Ray is in his 80s now, and still with robust health, and has been writing about these theories since the 1970's. If you were ever interested, as I am, in how the principles of Qigong and other "energy"-based healing traditions might be explained in scientific terms, Ray is the guy to turn to. But not just him; There are several scientists and doctors over the last century that have been largely ignored or misunderstood, whose work contributed to The Bioenergetic Theory of Health. These include Gilbert Ling, Hans Selye, Broda Barnes, and Otto Warburg, as well as a number of Russian scientists and experiments ignored by the West due to the Cold War.
The underlying theory in Bioenergetic Health goes like this:
The human organism requires energy to function and thrive. It must both acquire that energy from its environment AND transform that acquired energy into useable energy (ATP) within the cells. The properly maintained and supported structures of the body, down to the cellular and molecular levels, enable this transformation to occur efficiently. As more energy is transformed and made available, that energy moves through the structures to support, repair, and increase their complexity. More structural order and complexity increase efficient transformation of energy. More energy made available increases structural order and complexity. If either of these two poles, of energy or structure, are interfered with, the result will be a decrease in vitality, and ultimately the production of disease conditions.
Or, in Dr Peat's words, “A given structure makes possible a certain level of useful energy, and adequate energy makes possible the maintenance of structure, and the advance to a higher and more efficient structural level.”
I don't know about you, but I hear loud echoes of Yin and Yang in this idea. In Chinese Medicine, the Yin of the body is our structures and substances (organs, bones, tissues, meridians, blood, fluids). The Yang of the body is its functions, another word for which is Qi (sometimes spelled Chi). The Yin/Yang theory of health states that structures and substances (Yin) are required as a baseline for the production of function (Yang), and that function (Yang) is required for the maintenance and production of structures and substances. A deficiency in either Yin or Yang, or a blockage in their transformation between one another, will lead to loss of vitality and ultimately manifestation of disease.
But the Bioenergetic Theory goes further into Chinese Medicine territory; It posits that the human being has two basic energy production modes.
“A high level of respiratory energy production that characterizes young life is needed for tissue renewal. The accumulation of factors that impair mitochondrial respiration leads to increasing production of stress factors, that are needed for survival when the organism isn’t able to simply produce energetic new tissue as needed. Continually resorting to these substances progressively reshapes the organism, but the investment in short-term survival, without eliminating the problematic factors, tends to exacerbate the basic energy problem.” ~ Dr Ray Peat
Or, in english, our bodies are not good at maintaining long term health when they are in short-term survival mode. Most of us already know this; Fight-or-flight mode directs resources to emergency functions, and takes resources away from long term vital functions like digestion or detoxification. But the Bioenergetic Model takes this further. In the above quote, Ray is telling us that, specifically, the stress-reaction of an organism will impair the efficient production of energy, AND that the impaired energy production will perpetuate the state of stress. Does this sound familiar? Qigong teachers like Lee Holden and Mantak Chia have been saying this for decades: "Less Stress, More Energy".
This is the driving theory behind Qigong (Energy-Cultivation) - If we can coax the body into making more energy (Qi), we will have more resources to meet life's demands, and as a result feel less stress. Simultaneously, as we lower our stress levels, our body's are able to make energy more efficiently, and so on and so forth. It's a not-so-viscous cycle of health!
Dr Peat's idea takes this even further though. His claim is that these two energy production states (stressed vs efficient) not only change the amount of energy available to us, but they fundamentally change our personalities. He believes that when people are not producing energy adequately, they become more selfish, and more prone to greed, anger, depression, anxiety, etc. Vice versa, when people are producing adequate energy, they are more empathetic, gregarious, peaceful, content, generous, etc. This would mirror the claim within Qigong that our level of Qi production has a direct relationship to the quality of our character and virtues.
Ray attributes these two energy states to the dominance of either the thyroid or adrenals in endocrine production. He believes that in a low stress state energy production in the cells is driven by thyroid hormone (T3), while in a high stress state energy production is driven by adrenal hormones (Cortisol, Adrenaline). In the low stress state, the thyroid signals cells to make energy from carbohydrates (rice, fruit, etc), mirroring the Chinese Medicine idea of "Post-Natal Energy" from food being transformed into Qi on a daily basis. Chinese Medicine says that when this "Post-Natal Qi" from food is unavailable our bodies tap into the "Pre-Natal Qi" stored in the kidneys and adrenal glands. This pre-birth energy is seen like a trust fund given to us by our parents at conception. There is a limited amount, and every time we tap into this emergency fund, we get a little closer to our deaths.
Ray's work shows that when we move from thyroid-driven metabolism to adrenal-driven metabolism, the cortisol (stress hormone) released signals our bodies to break down muscles and other protein-heavy tissues in order to provide extra energy through the conversion of protein into sugar. The cortisol simultaneously tells our bodies to convert blood sugars into fats, because it believes we are in an inhospitable/stressful environment that will require the stockpiling of resources. Essentially, the adrenal-based energy mode will sacrifice structures (protein-based tissues and cellular machinery) for energy, while simultaneously locking away energy in the form of stored fat. Staying in this state long enough will lead to the wasting conditions associated with aging: Loss of muscle mass, sagging skin, buildup of fat stores, loss of elasticity, lower energy, and a lower and lower body temperature until the inevitable rigid cold of death. Sound familiar again? This stuff is Chinese Medicine and Taoist Longevity Arts 101.
Ray wasn't the first western scientist to discover this parallel to the "Pre-Natal Energy" or "back-up energy" of Chinese Medicine. One of Ray's biggest influences, Dr Hans Selye, M. D. was a researcher at John's Hopkins as well as the Director of Experimental Medicine at the University of Montreal, Canada. Dr Selye found that upon studying the response of mammals to various stressors, there was a pattern of response that was the same no matter what the stressor was. He would apply heat stress, cold stress, exercise stress, toxin stress - it didn't matter, all the subjects responded with the same underlying condition: The adrenals increased stress hormone output, the lymphatic tissues shrunk, and the stomach and intestines became "leakier". He coined the term G.A.S. - General Adaptation Syndrome - for this strangely uniform response to every conceivable form of stress. He claimed that these adaptations were part of a larger effort by the organism to adapt itself to the stressor. But this came at a long term cost. In his own words, in his 1956 book The Stress of Life:
"It is as though something were lost, or used up, during the work of adaptation; but what this is, we do not know. The term 'adaptation energy' has been coined for that which is consumed during continued adaptive work, to indicate that it is something different from the caloric energy we receive from food; but this is only a name, and we still have no precise concept for what this energy might be. Further research along these lines would seem to hold great promise, since here we appear to touch the fundamentals of aging."
Dr Hans Selye, in 1956, having moved from Europe to America to study rats in a lab, independently rediscovered and tried to articulate what Chinese Medicine doctors, and Taoist Mystics, found out millenia ago - That we have two types of energy in the body:
1. Post-Natal Energy (Qi), the energy we get from food and air that powers our day to day needs.
2. Pre- Natal Energy (Jing), the energy that we rely on as backup when we don't have enough Qi to meet demands, and of which there is a limited amount.
Dr Selye even intuited that this "Adaptation Energy" was at the foundation of aging, a concept which mirrors the Taoist idea that when the Jing runs dry the life of the organism ends. How strange that he wasn't able to identify any particular form of physical energy that would account for this. Perhaps the Taoist description of Jing is more literal than many scientific materialist types would be inclined to assume (myself included).
Another area that Chinese Medicine overlaps with Bioenergetic Health is the assertion that there is something in the nature of youth that holds the keys to health and longevity. The Tao Te Ching (The Book of The Way and its Virtue) states:
"Man at his birth is supple and flexible; at his death, rigid and brittle. (So it is with) all things. Trees and plants, in their early growth, are soft and supple; at their death, dry and rigid."
The Taoists associate suppleness and flexibility with youthful vitality; But Dr Ray Peat takes it a step further. He points out the fact that young children seem to easily regenerate after injuries, at least compared to adults. One common injury is that of slicing off the tip of the finger while cutting fruit or vegetables. In adults, the fingertip is typically lost for good, whereas in children it will often grow back completely. Take the opposite extreme example, of an old person in a nursing home, who falls and breaks their hip. They frequently take so long to recover that they die of infections from lying in bed so long. (This is actually a very common cause of death, and a great reason to work your balance with a Tai Chi practice as you age!) According to Ray Peat:
“If we optimize the known factors which improve energy production (red light, short-chain and medium-chain saturated fats, and pregnenolone, for example), to the extent that our metabolism resembles that of a ten year old child, I don’t think there is any reason to suppose that we wouldn’t have regenerative, healing abilities which are common at that age.”
Taoist Longevity schools and Bioenergetic Health seekers are going after many of the same goals, just with different tools. The former uses herbs, breathwork, movement, meditation, and acupoints, while the latter uses microscopes, scientific journals, vitamins, minerals, and various supplements. Where they both meet is on the importance of diet as a foundation for health and longevity. I'll save describing the whole Bioenergetic dietary philosophy for another article. For now, let's see where Chinese Medicine and Bioenergetic diet principles align:
Carbs are the best fuel (Qi) source, not fats or proteins
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and eating it will lower your stress and give you more energy
Cooked foods are generally preferable to raw in terms of digestibility
Eating foods that are easier to digest is ideal in times of stress or illness
Overexercising can be just as bad for you as being sedentary, especially if you aren't eating enough
Eat the organs you are having issues with. Cow liver for your liver, and bone broth and tendon for your bones and sinews, etc
Fasting depletes the body, not just of fat reserves, but of fundamental adaptive energy or "Jing", and should only be used rarely and wisely
Having sufficient energy brings out our best virtues, so if you eat regular meals and keep your blood sugar balanced you will be more pleasant to be around
Periods of starvation or malnutrition have the potential to bring out the darkest sides of humanity - Beware such times and guard against the monster in yourself you may not yet know is there
Perhaps you have found doing something opposite to this advice has helped you. Good! We always want to listen to the results in our bodies over even the most time tested wisdom.
However, perhaps you are like me and have jumped on a bunch of dietary or fitness bandwagons due to the shiny marketing and bold promises. You may have pushed yourself to do something "healthy" because of how it is supposed to make you feel, rather than how it is actually making you feel in reality. One of my teachers once said to me, "People always say they've tried everything, when they really mean they've tried the same thing harder, and harder, and harder". If you suspect that might be you right now, I recommend just trying out these basic tenants, and seeing if anything improves. Eating lots of raw salads, skipping breakfast, doing tons of cardio, and trying to be "fat fueled" all day can be a great way to get shredded fast, but in the long run can suppress your metabolism, and ruin your health, by convincing your body it is starving all the time. This forces you to deplete your Jing, or Adaptive Energy, and leads to early aging, as I found out on my 2 year keto and intermittent fasting experiment where I started going bald and grey in my 20s (the bright side being it led me to find Ray Peat's work on anti-aging).
These two ways of viewing health, Bioenergetic and Eastern Medicine, would also agree that quality of breathing, movement, and rest impact health significantly. As Dr Peat puts it:
"Choosing the right foods, the right atmosphere, the right mental and physical activities, and finding the optimal rhythms of light, darkness, and activity, can begin to alter the streaming renewal of cells in all the organs. Designing a more perfect environment is going to be much simpler than the schemes of the genetic engineers. “
The Bioenergetic Health community doesn't have a whole lot to say yet about specific activities of breath, movement, or meditation. Fortunately the doctors of ancient China have already got that one nailed down! We can improve mitochondrial respiration, and thus metabolism and energy production, through our quality of breathing. We can improve blood and energy flow through the body, and relieve chronic pain and stiffness, through efficient posture and dynamic motion. We can lower stress hormones and improve brain function by focusing our awareness with mindfulness. We can achieve all these benefits and more through the practice of the ancient art of Qigong (or Chi Kung), which brings together many aspects of mind/body training into a unique system of health cultivation. There are thousands of interesting styles to choose from, but I have brought together some of the best exercises for beginners and intermediate students in my Bioenergy Training 60 Day Program. This affordable, approachable, convenient, and aesthetically beautiful 2-part program will take you through 10 unique routines of progressively more challenging Qigong exercises. The programs will improve your balance, posture, flexibility, strength, mobility, breathing, and focus, and will help your body learn to live in a high energy low stress mode of being. As we shift towards a higher energy and lower stress state, many people find health conditions mysterious vanish or become less severe or frequent. This is the magic of energy improving structure, and vice versa!
Its only a matter of time, in our hyper-connected modern world, before eastern and western medicine synthesize. The physical technology of the west, and the psychic technology of the east will converge somewhere. I personally believe Bioenergetic Health is the perfect starting place to make that bridge happen. When the old and the new, the subjective and objective, the east and west, the mythic and literal, finally find their balance and peace, we will advance in our wisdom and understanding as a species like never before. For now, a lot of people are suffering with needless illness. Let's get out there and change that.