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Robert Sapolsky speaks on stress, degraded health

People just don’t die like they used to. Few of us get cholera or succumb during childbirth.

Instead, we live well enough and long enough to see our bodies fall apart, plagued by diseases caused or worsened by stress, said Robert Sapolsky, a scientist and author who’ll speak Thursday in Spokane.

In an interview last week, Sapolsky ticked them off: Diabetes. Metabolic syndrome. Obesity. Cardiovascular diseases. Depression. Anxiety. Reproductive disorders. Infectious diseases. Gastrointestinal disorders. There were more.

“Basically every outpost in your body falls apart more readily if you’re chronically stressed,” he said.

Sapolsky, a biologist and neuroscientist at Stanford University who also studies baboons in Kenya, will talk about how and why primates experience stress differently from other animals – and how the stress response affects our overall health – at the free event Thursday. His work and his popular book about stress and disease, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” formed the basis of a National Geographic special called “Killer Stress” that aired on public TV in 2008.

Sapolsky is among a lineup of “big thinkers” in an Eastern Washington University lecture series whose work extends to multiple disciplines, said Georgia Bonny Bazemore, a history professor.

“One of the big questions in the liberal arts is why do we act like we act, why do we do what we do?” Bazemore said. “One set of scholars thinks what we do is biologically based, and if we can understand the underlying biology, then we can understand why humans act as we do.”

Nonprimates turn on their stress response in the face of some two-minute crisis, Sapolsky explained. With a lion in pursuit, a zebra’s heart races and lungs pump extra oxygen into its bloodstream. Its body shuts down nonessential functions such as tissue repair and ovulation.

It’s “totally brilliant,” Sapolsky said, for surviving in the short term. And when the crisis is over, the zebra’s stress response shuts down.

The problem for primates: It takes far less than an immediate threat of death for us to activate our stress response. We turn it on too long, too often, and for purely psychological reasons. Just a traffic jam or a boss can get our hormones and heart pumping fast.

And many of us keep that stress response on, for days or months or longer.

Sapolsky has spent his career studying the effects of that prolonged stress response on our bodies and brains.

“Humans are psychologically and socially sophisticated enough to use this whole piece of physiology in us that has absolutely no business being used for this reason,” Sapolsky said. But, he said, we’re not so advanced that our brains are good at telling our bodies, ‘Wait, wait, this isn’t as big a deal. Don’t secrete adrenalin just because your boss just walked in the room.’ ”

In particular, his lab at Stanford is focusing on one class of hormones.

Glucocorticoids – steroid hormones released by the adrenal glands during stress – are essential for saving your life in an actual life-threatening situation. They’re also central to many of the diseases related to chronic stress, Sapolsky said.

The most important human glucocorticoid is cortisol, known as hydrocortisone when it’s used pharmaceutically. Millions of people in the U.S. are prescribed synthetic versions every year, including prednazone, a drug used to treat swelling, allergies and other problems. But it’s long-term, sustained exposure that can damage the nervous system, Sapolsky said.

Essential for saving your life in a crisis, they also have a negative effect on learning, memory and judgment.

The good news is humans can change, using stress-management techniques such as breathing or talk therapy to control their response to psychologically stressful situations.

The bad news is that actually getting those techniques to work is difficult. People usually give up, Sapolsky said.

And, he said, some people are less resilient than others, their bodies and psyches worse at recognizing the difference between being chased by a predator and running a red light.

“If you get gored by a rhino, you’re going to have a stress response,” he said. “There’s no amount of meditation you can do that’s going to prevent that. It doesn’t matter what your self-esteem is like.

“But if you think about mortality and global warming, if you think about how you’re going to pay the bills, if you think about how you got rejected back when (and) you’re always going to fail … if you get mired in the real stress of human psychological turmoil, we differ enormously as to how readily we can keep things in perspective.”

Dennis Anderson, a mental health counselor in Spokane, used Sapolsky’s “Zebras” book instead of a traditional textbook in a class about stress and coping he taught for EWU’s psychology department.

By explaining to therapy patients what’s happening to them on a physiological level – whether it’s a result of anxiety or marital or financial problems – he can help provide a reason to change, he said, especially considering the long-term health effects of stress.

Sometimes people don’t realize long-term stress persists in the “background” of daily life, Anderson said. Meanwhile, those glucocorticoids are pounding away.

“They think of stress as you get fired from your job, or you get in a car wreck – you get in these big things that happen to us,” he said. “But all these little micro-stressors – you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you’re working in an environment that is a hostile environment – it recedes into the background. It becomes, ‘Oh, that’s what normal is.’ ”

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