why zebras don’t get ulcers

11/16/2009

by anne lueneburger

imagesWhy don’t zebras get ulcers–or heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases–when people do? In a fascinating look at the science of stress, biologist Robert Sapolsky presents an intriguing case, that people develop such diseases partly because our bodies aren’t designed for the constant stresses of a modern-day life–like sitting in daily traffic jams or growing up in poverty. Rather, they seem more built for the kind of short-term stress faced by a zebra–like outrunning a lion.

With wit, graceful writing, and a sprinkling of Far Side cartoons, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers makes understanding the science of stress an adventure in discovery. “This book is a primer about stress, stress-related disease, and the mechanisms of coping with stress. How is it that our bodies can adapt to some stressful emergencies, while other ones make us sick? Why are some of us especially vulnerable to stress-related diseases, and what does that have to do with our personalities?”

Sapolsky, a Stanford University neuroscientist, explores stress’s role in heart disease, diabetes, growth retardation, memory loss, and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis. He cites tantalizing studies of hyenas, baboons, and rodents, as well as of people of different cultures, to vividly make his points. And Sapolsky concludes with a hopeful chapter, titled “Managing Stress.” Although he doesn’t subscribe to the school of thought that hope cures all disease, Sapolsky highlights the studies that suggest we do have some control over stress-related ailments, based on how we perceive the stress and the kinds of social support we have.

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