Do Yourself a Favor and Watch Stress: Portrait of a Killer (with Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky)

Intel­li­gence comes at a price. The human species, despite its tal­ent for solv­ing prob­lems, has man­aged over the mil­len­nia to turn one of its most basic sur­vival mechanisms–the stress response–against itself. “Essen­tial­ly,” says Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist Robert Sapol­sky, “we’ve evolved to be smart enough to make our­selves sick.”

In the 2008 Nation­al Geo­graph­ic doc­u­men­tary Stress: Por­trait of a Killer (above), Sapol­sky and fel­low sci­en­tists explain the dead­ly con­se­quences of pro­longed stress. “If you’re a nor­mal mam­mal,” Sapol­sky says, “what stress is about is three min­utes of scream­ing ter­ror on the savan­nah, after which either it’s over with or you’re over with.” Dur­ing those three min­utes of ter­ror the body responds to immi­nent dan­ger by deploy­ing stress hor­mones that stim­u­late the heart rate and blood pres­sure while inhibit­ing oth­er func­tions, like diges­tion, growth and repro­duc­tion.

The prob­lem is, human beings tend to secrete these hor­mones con­stant­ly in response to the pres­sures of every­day life. “If you turn on the stress response chron­i­cal­ly for pure­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal rea­sons,” Sapol­sky told Mark Shwartz in a 2007 inter­view for the Stan­ford News Ser­vice, “you increase your risk of adult onset dia­betes and high blood pres­sure. If you’re chron­i­cal­ly shut­ting down the diges­tive sys­tem, there’s a bunch of gas­troin­testi­nal dis­or­ders you’re more at risk for as well.”

Chron­ic stress has also been shown in sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies to dimin­ish brain cells need­ed for mem­o­ry and learn­ing, and to adverse­ly affect the way fat is dis­trib­uted in the body. It has even been shown to mea­sur­ably accel­er­ate the aging process in chro­mo­somes, a result that con­firms our intu­itive sense that peo­ple who live stress­ful lives grow old faster.

By study­ing baboon pop­u­la­tions in East Africa, Sapol­sky has found that indi­vid­u­als low­er down in the social hier­ar­chy suf­fer more stress, and con­se­quent­ly more stress-relat­ed health prob­lems, than dom­i­nant indi­vid­u­als. The same trend in human pop­u­la­tions was dis­cov­ered in the British White­hall Study. Peo­ple with more con­trol in work envi­ron­ments have low­er stress, and bet­ter health, than sub­or­di­nates.

Stress: Por­trait of a Killer is a fas­ci­nat­ing and impor­tant documentary–well worth the 52 min­utes it takes to watch.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Sapol­sky Breaks Down Depres­sion

Dopamine Jack­pot! Robert Sapol­sky on the Sci­ence of Plea­sure

Biol­o­gy That Makes Us Tick: Free Stan­ford Course by Robert Sapol­sky

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