Book Review: ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers’

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

A noted biologist, neurologist and primatologist, as well as a recipient of a genius grant, Sapolsky has been studying and writing about stress for more than 20 years, and does so in easily digestible prose. For anyone who suffers from or fears they are suffering from stress, Sapolsky’s book is both a frightening wake-up call and a beacon of hope.

Stress advice for those “who would not normally be caught dead” near a science book 

Professor Robert M. Sapolsky has spent a lot of time studying people and the primates from which he believes mankind evolved. A biologist and neurologist, he has paid special attention to the impact of stress on the body, including the physical as well as mental and emotional toll it can take. A scientist who intentionally writes for “nonscientists” as he puts it, Sapolsky says his goal is to both “convey that excitement” that scientists feel when they make a discovery, and to “make the subject interesting and accessible to those who would not normally be caught dead near the subject.”

The “Grim” facts about stress, the brain and other organs (including the sexual ones)

“Some of the news in this book is grim,” warns the author, especially those parts in which he describes the impact stress can have upon the heart, brain, digestive system and other organs – including those which as the title for chapter seven notes involve “Sex and Reproduction.” Many people may jump to page 120 to find out about how stress can cause erectile dysfunction in males, make it very difficult if not impossible for women to conceive or how it can squash the libido so where people not only can not have but do not have the desire for sex. Sapolsky gives the details on those and other related issues (including how stress can induce a miscarriage), and includes some graphic drawings of male and female sexual organs. Although highly clinical, this section, like those other chapters that discuss the physical impact of stress on the human body, is also very readable and easily understood by the layman.

Stress is “Crippling” and brings about “Heart Attacks and Voodoo Death” and more

Stress is a “crippling” disease explains Sapolsky. It can accelerate aging and bring about death – and not just through heart attacks and “voodoo death,” both of which he talks about early in the book in chapter three. Stress can cause physical as well as mental pain, explains Sapolsky, and can so weaken and undermine the immune system that the body can become defenseless against other diseases. Stress can bring about memory loss issues that mimic Alzheimer’s, cause depression and bring about unwanted changes in temperament and personality. Sapolsky devotes many of his 18 chapters to these other consequences of stress, from sleep loss to death.

Managing Stress: hope in a final chapter

Most of Sapolsky’s work is intended as a warning to those who suffer from stress. His book is meant to educate and frighten, and while at times sensationalist it is all meant to help those who need help to take action to do just that. The 18th and final chapter makes that point. As the professor writes in the opening lines of Chapter 18: “By now, if you are not depressed by all the bad news in the preceding chapters, you probably have only been skimming.” He then goes on to summarize the effects of stress and then rhetorically asks “Why don’t we throw in the towel?” The answer is because “there is hope,” and in his final chapter Sapolsky offers such hope, including “Tales from the Trenches” – a section about “some folks who are amazing at dealing with stress.”

About the Author

Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University. He is also a primatologist – someone who studies baboons and other primates. He has written several works on non-fiction on such creatures, including A Primate’s Memoir and Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals. Sapolsky is also interested in people, and in addition to Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers has written two other books dedicated to understanding and battling stress and other disorders, including one entitled Stress, the Aging Brain and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death.

Free Downloads

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is available in print, and on Kindle and other e-book formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other major booksellers, but the author has also made it accessible for free online and in a free, downloadable pdf file.