By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Peter Berkrot
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers offers a serious examination of the causes and consequences of stress. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers comically infers a factoid of science.
While Zebras do not get ulcers, humans do. Though Doctor Robert Sapolsky’s explanation is compelling, understanding the complicated nature of stress, and its related diseases, is difficult for a casual listener to grasp.
Sapolsky begins with medical, psychological, and sociological data that suggest explanations for causes and consequences of stress. He ends with ways of coping with stress’s deleterious effects. To a critical listener, Sapolsky goes too far afield to convince a skeptic.
Sapolsky explains stress is related to the presence of glucocorticoids (steroid hormones) in the body. However, the meaning of “presence” is like the fable of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Like Goldilocks’ entrance into the bears’ house, glucocorticoids in the body can either be too much or too little. Glucocorticoid presence in the body must be just right to be good for humans. Being just right is dependent on the cause of stress, quantity of glucocorticoid hormones, and the effect of glucocorticoid presence in the body.
Sapolsky’s argument is that glucocorticoid hormone levels in the body are caused by fear (the fight or flight response), biological disposition, and sociological stress. High levels of glucocorticoid hormones are good and bad. They are good to the extent that they may compel one to act (fight or flight). They are bad to the extent that glucocorticoid levels may compel one to overreact or unduly worry about everything; everything being all things, within and without human’ control. This overreaction may lead to organ damage, developmental deficiency, psychiatric malady, and/or death.
Sapolsky notes that glucocorticoid hormones have wide effects, beginning at fetal development and continuing through life’s immunological and metabolic existence. The effects are both direct and indirect. Glucocorticoid hormones regulate or influence specific anti- and pro-inflammatory proteins, glucose absorption in the blood, and general organ function.
Sapolsky goes on to explain that extended high levels of glucocorticoid hormones can be harmful. They inhibit naturally occurring lymphocytes that fight some kinds of disease. High levels of glucocorticoid hormones are created when one is burdened by fears that never cease. Sapolsky explains these fears may lead to major depression.
Skepticism begins to rise when Sapolsky argues that sociological inequality is the primary cause of damaging glucocorticoid hormone levels. Sapolsky argues that the widening gap between have and have-nots creates higher stress levels, committing the poor to shorter, unhappier lives. A tangential argument is that extended health care is not a palliative solution. Sapolsky suggests stress caused by the feeling of being unequal is not mitigated by better medical treatment. Sapolsky’s argument infers that economic leveling is the solution for reducing human stress levels.
Plato suggested that happiness is the goal of life and that happiness is doing what one does best. Happiness is a condition of freedom. Ironically, freedom is also the source of both good and evil in the world.
Freedom of choice is certainly a source of stress. But, with wider availability of knowledge (the internet and growth of intelligence) freedom of choice leads to more good and less evil in the world.
Sapolsky is obviously a highly intelligent Neuroscientist and Neurobiologist but a microscopic view of human anatomy and physiology does not translate to societal’ cause and effect for stress. One cannot deny earning a living wage and having the opportunity to improve one’s socioeconomic status causes stress but top down manipulation of society to raise socioeconomic status is a mistake. It is the same mistake made in assisted living facilities that fail to listen to their tenants about what they want rather than what manager’s think they need. To get to a living wage and equal opportunity, individual freedom of choice is an essential ingredient, the Goldilocks’ solution to “just right”.
Eliminating social inequity will not end stress but, with the help of scientists like Sapolsky, humans will be able to intervene in stress’s physiological causes and some of its horrifically negative individual consequences (depression and suicide).