Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers Review
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“Type A and the Role of Upholstery in Cardiovascular Physiology”—now there’s a chapter title that I never expected to read in my lifetime, but it’s in this book. And if I made a list of people on this planet whom I’d like to meet, Robert Sapolsky, the author, would be one of them. This guy is brilliant, hysterical, accessible, and informative in more ways than I can count. His writing can be extremely technical, explaining the details of hormones and neuroscience on every page (the word “glucocorticoid” shows up on almost every page), but then he goes on to give vivid, delightful illustrations of how that mysterious biochemistry shows up in baboons. And zebras (hence, the title). And, most of all, in us.

The purpose of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is to explain why we, both as individuals and as an entire Western social group, experience stress, and how it ultimately manifests in so many forms of sickness. We already know that it can lead to ulcers, headaches, heart attacks, and stroke. But Sapolsky’s role is to detail the physiological links between the squirminess of members of an orchestra who don’t get sufficient bathroom breaks and the ultimate accumulation of adipose tissue (that’s bad fat) around their midsections that can lead to a heart attack.

Besides the explanation of individual stress reaction, he also discusses how the organization of institutions and society create and sustain stress and, therefore, illness. He also makes a stunning case that poverty, in and of itself, causes sickness, and, therefore, universal access to health care won’t fix it.

I found this book to be incredibly validating (as in, “See! I am not making up these headaches as an excuse!”) and a call to action. Our behavior, and the structure of our society, is making us sick. It’s not humane to do what we do to ourselves. And we can change it.

I’d like to see this book as mandatory reading for every policy-maker in health and human services. But I certainly wouldn’t stop there. Managers, top to bottom, need it to understand the pressures on their employees and organizations. Scientists who work with people, or whose work affects people. Anyone who causes, or experiences, stress. Hmmm....does that leave anyone out?

Okay, not everyone will want to read this book, because it’s very technical, and you’ll need a college reading level to tackle it. But the lessons in it are for everyone. Sapolsky is one of the top neuroscientists in the world, and I’m grateful that he shares his knowledge in something other than a scientific journal. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers will be on my reference shelf permanently. But, unlike the others that I use for “reference,” I will also crack it open often, just because it’s a great read. Imagine that.

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