Top 10 Takeaways from “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”

Why Zebras Book Cover.jpg


While I was away on vacation in St. Maarten I re-read one of the most encompassing books on stress there is out there. Reading about stress on vacation……..there’s a joke in there somewhere. Robert Sapolsky’s “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers” is a must read and having done so originally around three years ago I decided I wanted to go a little more in depth this time. In between pina colada’s and laying out on a sun soaked beach I took a bunch of notes. I have narrowed it down to a top 10.

A Little Background……

Your nervous system is made up of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is responsible for the 4 F’s as Sapolsky calls it, “Flight, Fright, Fight and…….Sex”. The PNS is responsible for everything else.

Zebras perceive lions chasing them as a stressor and rightly so if your carcas is on the line. For humans living in developed countries things like work, traffic, finances etc  may set you off. The body responds by secreting hormones to deal with this stress.

Hormones Made Simple…..

The SNS secretes Epinephrine and Norepinephrine (same as adrenaline) in response to a perceived stressor. As a result, the heart speeds up and blood is diverted to the muscles. A number of hormones are released in a chain reaction. The end result is mass release of glucocorticoids into the bloodstream. High levels of glucocorticoids in your bloodstream indicate high stress levels.

Acute stress versus Chronic Stress


“Constant activation of the stress response leads to poor health”.


With moderate stress and glucocorticoid release you enhance glucose and oxygen delivery to the brain. You feel focused, alert, alive, motivated and anticipatory. You feel great.This transient stress is called “Stimulation”.


Now that you know what happens internally when you perceive something as stressful, here are my top 10 take aways from Sapolsky’s book, including ways to manage stress.


1 – Long term activation of the stress response can lead to bone degeneration in females.

2 – Malnourishment as a fetus can lead to a high probability of being overweight during your adult life. Your body is programmed to store in case you experience another famine.

3 – Sleep deprivation increases glucocorticoid release which in turn affects memory recall. 75% of insomnia cases are triggered by a major stressor. Good sleep follow this pattern: Shallow sleep —-> Slow wave sleep —-> REM (deep sleep). Stress disrupts REM.

Coffee Eater

4 – Women are at risk for depression following a life stressor such as during menstruation, menopause and most importantly the weeks after giving birth. Men are more likely to mask depression with substance abuse.

5 – Internalized Locus of Control = People who believe in being masters of their own destiny. These people have less of a chance of being affected by chronic stress.

6 – Being a Type A person carries at least as much risk as smoking, or having high cholesterol levels.

Type A Personality


7 – Lack of control and lack of predictability in most aspects of ones life can leave you open to stress related diseases. This is most often associated with lower socioeconomic families.

8 – If you want to increase your odds of living a long healthy life, don’t be born poor! Socioeconomic status plays a huge role in how much stress you are exposed to in your lifetime. Poverty is associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, ulcers, rheumatoid disorders, psychiatric diseases and a number of types of cancer. Poorer people in westernized society are more likely to smoke and drink.

9 – Chronic stress can lead to a weakened immune system. Plug in the same diseases as in number 8 here.

10 – The level of stress in ones life depends on the level of control you have on your life/job, predictability, social support and outlets for frustration.


Managing Stress……

A) Exercise:

– Enhances mood and blunts the stress response (as long as its something you want to do)

– Needs to occur on a regular basis for a sustained period of time

– Don’t over do it. Too much can be as bad as too little.

Banded Pushup


B) More Control, More Predictability…….perhaps (depends on the individual)

C) Social Support

D) Religion & Spirituality

E) Meditation/Breathing


Final Words…….

Regardless of whether or not you believe any of the above methods really work, the simple truth is that simply believing they do can have a calming effect. Im not saying they work miracles but in the words of Sapolsky “The physiology of the system is often no more decisive than the psychology”.




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