Dr Robert Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and has done research on Primates in Kenya. Growing up in NYC he dreamed of living with apes, and later did just that, living with baboons in Africa. There he began to study the stress responses of the baboons and thus its correlation to us humans. He wrote the first version of this book in 1994, a second in 1998, and now this version in 2004. (Science is constantly changing, and what we think we know is constantly changing).
I read it back in med school, but lately it has come back into my life as I've been researching the nervous system. The title is interesting and at first glance makes you wonder, what do zebra's have to do with this book? And why don't they get ulcers? Well it all boils done to stress, and how stress can save and/or kill us.
There are different types of stress, and they affect the body differently, whether you are a human or any other animal living on the planet. Most animals, the zebra for example, live in a peaceful state of wandering, eating, drinking etc without much worry. Once in a while though the zebra experiences moments of acute stress, like running from a hungry lion, where split second hormonal and neurological activities are essential for their ultimate survival. These nervous system functions are the same in humans, and under acute stress, we do what it called the "flight or fight" reaction. It used to be that people worried about dying from diseases such as Cholera, Polio, the Flu ( hmmm I guess they still are, but not to the extent that we used to see) However, in this day and age of tests, bills, deadlines, traffic, the list could go on, more people are living with CHRONIC stress and dying from stress related diseases, and thus the ulcers begin.
This book wraps up the many ways in which good and bad stress can affect our lives and bodies, but it also looks at the personality and HOW the mind can influence our perceptions and ultimately who CHRONIC stress will kill first. Did you know that if your mother was malnourished during her first trimester you have a higher risk of heart disease or obesity, and in the 2nd or 3rd trimester a greater chance of diabetes? Did you know that more people living in NYC die of heart attacks than anywhere else in America, or that high levels of stress hormone secretion is what kills salmon after their long journey to the spawning grounds? (of course taking away the nets, fisherman, eagles, bears) This book is FULL of interesting science, facts, and some fiction, and the author has a great sense of humor! (Definitely read the notations at the bottom of the marked pages, they can usually give you a good laugh!) The author endlessly refers to research but also gives some of his own experiential theories. (pg 200 his idea about Fibromyalgia and its potential correlation to high Substance P and some low stress hormones- interesting?) as well as some of his fellow scientists (pg 33, Dr Shelley Taylor of UCLA suggesting that "fight or flight" only applies to males, and that the female stress response is "tend and befriend" because of their higher oxytocin release during stress, a theory that could explain why women tend to be more social beings.)
This book is a great reference, as the author has it nicely divided into chapters like Pain and Stress, Depression and Stress, Personality, Temperance, and their Stress Related Consequences etc etc so it is easy to flip to the chapter that one is needing in any given moment. However I recommend reading the first 6 chapters, as they give a good rundown for those "laymen" who aren't up to speed on the neurophysiology (big word), biology, endocrinology (other big word) and so on- background it always good when learning about a new subject. It not only gives the lowdown on stress, but actually some things we can do to make the picture not so bleak- action vs reaction!
I highly recommend this book and any of Dr Sapolsky's other writings, refer to http://www.barclayagency.com/sapolsky_corporate.html for more info about this interesting man!