BOOK REVIEW: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky

Why Zebras Don't Get UlcersWhy Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Sapolsky’s book examines why stress and stress-related illnesses are rampant in humans. As the title suggests, prey on the Serengeti Plain, animals that are chased by fierce and fast predators, aren’t nearly so likely to suffer the ill effects of stress—despite living in a harsher world than most of humanity. To oversimplify, this has a lot to do with the fact that one downside of our big brains is an ability to obsess about what has happened and what might happen, and our sympathetic nervous system (i.e. the fight or flight mechanism) can be triggered even when there is no immediate threat in reality. In short, humans can uniquely worry themselves to death. Sapolsky gets into much great detail and lets the reader know what is known and what remains to be uncovered with respect to stress.

In almost 600 pages, arranged into 18 chapters, Sapolsky covers human stress in fine detail. While it’s a book written for a lay audience, it’s not a quick and easy read. The book discusses topics like the action of neurotransmitters and hormones, and, while it assumes no particular science background, it does assume a broadly educated and curious reader.

The chapters begin by looking at the stress mechanism from a physiological perspective. It then considers stress with respect to specific illnesses, the relationship between stress and various other topics in human being (e.g. sleep, pain, and memory.) The final chapter offers insight into how one can reduce one’s bad stress and one’s risk of stress-related illness. Among the most interesting topics are what personalities are particularly prone to stress-related illness and why psychological stress (as opposed to stress based in immediate real world stressors) is stressful.

Sapolsky has a sense of humor and knows how to convey information to a non-expert audience, but this isn’t the simplest book on the subject. It’s an investment of time and energy to complete reading this book, but it’s worth it if one’s interest in the subject is extensive enough. One of the strengths of the book is that it stays firmly in the realm of science. Because stress has been wrongly considered a fluff subject, many of the works on the topic—even those by individuals with MD or PhD after their names—have been new-agey or pseudo-scientific. This book stays firmly in the realm of science. Sapolsky explains what the studies have shown, and he tells the reader clearly when there is a dearth of evidence or contradictory findings.

If the reader has a deep interest in stress-related health problems, I’d highly recommend this book.

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