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Robert Sapolsky on stress and your health


UPDATE 07-30-10: The entire Wired article on Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky's research on the science of stress is now available.

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Stress has been linked to everything from the common cold to Alzheimer's disease. But the connection between physical health and emotional state hasn't always been widely recognized.

An article in the latest issue of Wired examines the affliction of stress and how research by Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, PhD, is illuminating just how big an effect it has on our health.

The story isn't yet available online. But author Jonah Lehrer has posted an excerpt on Wired Science:

The effects of chronic stress directly counteract improvements in medical care and public health. Antibiotics, for instance, are far less effective when our immune system is suppressed by stress; that fancy heart surgery will work only if the patient can learn to shed stress. As Sapolsky notes, "You can give a guy a drug-coated stent, but if you don't fix the stress problem, it won't really matter. For so many conditions, stress is the major long-term risk factor. Everything else is a short-term fix."

The emergence of stress as a major risk factor is largely a testament to scientific progress: The deadliest diseases of the 21st century are those in which damage accumulates steadily over time. (Sapolsky refers to this as the "luxury of slowly falling apart.") Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of damage that's exacerbated by emotional stress. While modern medicine has made astonishing progress in treating the fleshy machine of the body, it is only beginning to grapple with those misfortunes of the mind that undo our treatments.

In 2008, Stanford partnered with National Geographic to produce a documentary titled "Stress: Portrait of a Killer," which featured Sapolsky's work. Footage from the documentary and a video Q&A with Sapolsky can be viewed here.

Previously: Summer stress, Stressed out and not sleeping and David Spiegel on stress and the economic crisis
Photo by BLW Photography

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