Confession: I’m not that creative and could never think of this analogy about stress and the immune system on my own! “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” is a book.
But I’m about to break it down for you. Because for me, this book connected the dots between my chronic stress levels and my health.
The concept is simple. During a stressful episode, the body uses its resources to deal with stress and neglects other functions like digestion and immunity, and thank goodness for that. Because should you ever have to outrun a lion, as a zebra does, you want all the resources, am I right?
But over time, the “reallocation of resources” to deal with stress prevents the body systems from working optimally, causing imbalances. Meaning, that heartburn, indigestion, stomach ache, bloat, cold, virus, hives, etc., you get when you’re stressed is not just in your head or an old wives tale.
Picture this: A zebra’s in the grassland, munching along, not a care in the world. It spots a lion (who hasn’t eaten in days) lunging out of nowhere. The zebra runs for its life: heart pumping, adrenaline rushing. Its body takes all the energy it can from stored glucose, fats, and proteins and sends it straight to the zebra’s legs. The energy has to get there quickly, so its heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and breathing becomes rapid for more oxygen. There’s nothing else the zebra has to do but save its own life and outrun the lion. There’s no time to store more energy, only to use up whatever’s available. It doesn’t digest the food it was eating and its immune system to ward off a parasite from the water it drank. The zebra’s body isn’t thinking in terms of reproduction or tissue repair. It feels no pain, and its cognitive function is acutely intuned. It knows exactly where the lion is, can sense every move.
Luckily, the zebra survives, and its body transitions into resting mode. It needs to refuel and store energy, so it goes back to grazing almost immediately. Not a care in the world.
Fortunately, we’re not zebras, and we don’t get chased by lions (generally speaking.) We have relationships, finances, kids, jobs, school, houses, past traumas, and even our own pesky intrusive thoughts. But the stress response in any living organism can’t distinguish between a lion stalking it or that irritating parent in the carpool line who blocks traffic when you’re in a rush. To your body, stress is stress.
For fun, let’s pretend the zebra has a developed brain.
It finds a lovely patch of grassland to graze on but knows there’s a lion here because the zebra’s seen lions here before. It hears every rustle of wind and whisper of grass blowing. It’s on high alert. Its heart is already racing, blood pressure rising and eating as quickly as it can. This zebra doesn’t have time to deal with a lion today, but it worries regardless. Then it’s there, out of nowhere, a lunging lion. The zebra feels like it can’t run fast enough. It’s running, panting, hooves furiously digging into the ground. It’s thinking of all the ways it can hide, begging and bargaining for its life. And then the lion backs off and runs the other way. But the zebra can’t rest because all it can think about is the lion, picturing it over and over in its head, feeling how scared it was, reliving that terrifying moment and what could have been. For days, it paces, worrying that the lion will come back when its guard is down. It doesn’t sleep, grazes incessantly and mindlessly because its mind is elsewhere. The zebra can do nothing but relive the horrifying experience over and over again.
A two minute stress event has now turned into a week, counting the time leading up to and after the event.
I feel for this zebra because I am this zebra. A lion may not chase me on the regular. But I wait in the carpool line when I’m in a rush. And I worry about what could happen to my kids and husband. I have a childhood history of sad stories (and my own “lions”) that I still work through. I’ve got a business to manage. And like you, I had to wade through a pandemic (which pretty much felt like being chased at times.)
Earlier this year, I started dealing with some crazy stomach bloat every time I ate and reflux. I’ve never had reflux (unless I was eight months pregnant!) I was also experiencing new headaches that lasted days. And hot flashes, holy hell. My sleep was restless, and I had no energy. I never felt well, and I knew it was stress. But it wasn’t until I started managing it better that I genuinely understood and made the connection.
I thought for all these years that I had found the secret to my health in my diet, and I thought I had found my root cause. Going gluten-free did change my life and my health for the better; that’s a true statement.
But my food sensitivity was never my root cause, and it rarely is for my clients.
I’m not saying that stress is the only cause of symptoms in your body – that would be way too simplistic. There are genetics and detoxification pathways and a lot more science-y medical things that factor in.
But when we look at the modifiable risk factors, stress is #1. This is why managing it has become such an essential part of my own life and my practice.
Zebras don’t get ulcers because their body deals with a stressful event until it doesn’t. It moves from fight or flight to rest and recovery effortlessly. Their digestive system works because it has the energy to do so, making it extremely difficult to have a stomach issue (like an ulcer.) Same with their immune system and reproductive system. Their resources are allocated just as they should be, and all systems function in a well-balanced environment. You don’t see zebras with viruses and irregular hormone cycles.
The book’s message is this: not only should you create an opportunity to support your body with nourishing foods, but create an opportunity for rest (and digest) and support.
For me, that means nourishing my body with the foods that feel best for me and regular exercise (a routine and activity I can handle that doesn’t feel stressful!) It means therapy, and I’m not even remotely ashamed to admit that. It means nurturing my relationships. And for my overactive mind, sometimes I have to rely on guided meditations. Sometimes it’s a podcast. Sometimes it’s a night with girlfriends. Or a good book.
For you, maybe it’s spirituality, hiking, running, reading, sitting with your pet.
The important things to note are:
- Anything that can create space in your head for rest will also rest your body and help in your wellness goals.
- It’s cumulative. Just keep doing “things,” no matter how big or small. It adds up.
Be more like a zebra.