Book Seventeen: Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky

Seeing as how it took me nearly six weeks to read this book, I'm not even sure I can remember the bulk of it enough to write anything meaningful. However, I can confidently say that this book totally kicks ass. Don't let my sad slow pace discourage you from reading this--it's really terrific science writing. In fact, it's just really terrific writing. Essentially, the main point of the book is that in modern times humans have become little stress machines and our bodies aren't quite able to handle it. Little, constant, everyday stressors take a big toll on our bodies, causing all sorts of potential problems, which Sapolsky details extensively here. The title of the book refers to the zebra who is being chased across the savanna by the lion, and as it is being chased the stress response in the body is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and it helps the zebra get away and avoid becoming a lion's dinner. But this kind of stress response is different in that it is acute, and once the zebra gets away, the parasympathetic can kick back in and he can recover quickly, thereby avoiding the ulcer. However, we humans suffer through these chronic physical, psychological and social stressors that may ultimately end up giving us ulcers, among other, more horrible and dreadful, things.

Each chapter in the book essentially details another way in which stress is going to kill us, including giving us ulcers, heart attacks, depression, and infertility, wreaking havoc on our digestive system, causing us to age faster, and stunting our growth. But before you decide to go kill yourself before the stress does (or, like me, head out the freeway off-ramp holding the sign that reads, "We're all going to die!"), the book fortunately offers some ways of getting around this and coping with stress instead of letting it best you. What's especially nice about this book is that Sapolsky is an actual scientist and researcher, and every bit of information he gives is backed up by mounds of research (the last 70-some pages are, in fact, notes and citations for this research). Nothing irks me more than people who spout off ideas about health without any solid information or research or even basic facts to back it up. I also love Sapolsky's even-keeled approach to the topic. For example, he mentions that stress may have a very marginal role in one's capacity to be susceptible to cancer, but points out that those who blame people who have cancer (or worse, those with cancer who blame themselves) on things they did or didn't do are absolutely in the wrong. This kind of thinking often promoted in the mind-body world can be very dangerous, and, as he writes in the book, even more damaging to the human body. Sapolsky also has no real agenda in offering solutions to managing stress. He is not a new age guru selling some specific kind of meditation or hawking supplements are offering a guide for "8 weeks to a stress free life!" or anything of the kind. I will run the risk of ruining the ending for those who might want to read the book, by offering the last paragraph as a nice summation of what could have been a very depressing book:

Perhaps I'm beginning to sound like your grandmother, advising you to be happy and not to worry so much. This advice may sound platitudinous, trivial, or both. But change the way even a rat perceives its world, and you dramatically alter the likelihood of its getting a disease. These ideas are no mere truisms. They are powerful, potentially liberating forces to be harnessed. As a physiologist who has studied stress for many years, I clearly see that the physiology of the system is often no more decisive than the psychology. We return to the catalogue at the beginning of the first chapter, the things we all find stressful--traffic jams, money worries, overwork, the anxieties of relationships. Few of them are "real" in the sense that that zebra or that lion would understand. In our privileged lives, we are uniquely smart enough to have invented these stressors and uniquely foolish enough to have let them, too often, dominate our lives. Surely we have the potential wisdom to banish their stressful hold.

*As a sidenote, I read the second edition of the book (another book that Chris has had forever and has been urging me to read), and I'm linking to the third edition. I'm not sure what has been added, though I'm sure it's terrific and only adds to the quality of the information.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home