By Robert M. Sapolsky. (3rd ed.) New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2004.
Reviewed by Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix
Dr. Sapolsky is a Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University, and has researched animal behaviour in Africa for many years. It is this leading-edge research that forms the basis of his book, which looks at how stress impacts humans and offers strategies to cope. Specifically, chapters deal with how stress affects memory, growth, the immune system, sleep, depression, aging, addiction, and many other mind/body systems. This book, therefore, is a great companion to our mindfulness courses because they share the same message.
Dr. Sapolsky sets out to explain that medicine now understands that every cell in our body is influenced by not just our lifestyle habits, but also by our personalities and emotions. Accordingly, we cannot know much about the disease or dysfunction afflicting an individual, unless we understand how that individual interacts with their environment — socially, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually.
Dr. Sapolsky manages to use humour to enliven what could otherwise be dry material. He amusingly describes how our body maintains its natural balance of hormones and chemicals. He defines the word “homeostasis”, which means constancy through change—like having a caretaker to ensure that when our systems are pulled too much in one direction, compensation occurs so that everything else is still adequately supported. For example, when we stand, instead of our blood pressure dropping into our boots, our brain detects the change so quickly that a hormone or two is secreted instantly to narrow the blood vessels serving our brain, thus avoiding dizziness. Some medications, and sleep deprivation, can interfere with that.
The human brain is so well developed compared with many other mammals that it even anticipates when a change may occur, so as to be even more ready to compensate. This may sound ideal, but it can end up lengthening the period of “standing by”, or stress, especially in anxious individuals. The chronic nature of this “on alert”, continually anxious and stressed state has many adverse outcomes on our bodies and minds. Interestingly, this is not seen as much in zebras. Also, when zebras are running from lions, their very activity is good for their systems. So, once out of range of the lion, they recover faster. Unfortunately, this is not the case for humans experiencing stress.
One size never fits all, so some individuals handle stress better than others—there are reasons for that—but there are some universal outcomes: the child denied loving handling tends to be growth-stunted; we will all age, but at different rates depending on our lifestyle choices, stress exposure, coping, and genetics; and, our immune system is suppressed by chronic stress exposure and also aging.
Although this book is intended for the general public, it can be a challenging read. Health care professionals who may be more comfortable with the material will find this to be a fabulous read. Regardless, this book can help show everyone ways in which we can soften the effects of these stressful challenges on our bodies and minds, in order to maintain an optimal quality of life.