Stress: Portrait of a Killer: Documentary on Effects of Stress on Human Body

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Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Robert Sapolsky and his Study of Baboons
  • How Stress Affects the Body
  • Emmanuel Johnson and the Dutch Hunger Winter


From the views of National Geographic, stress is a killer. Stress is a disease that can affect you in unimaginable ways, clogging arteries, restricting blood flow, affecting the heart, obesity in the torso, killing brain cells, unraveling chromosomes, and can even cause a person to have a shorter life span. Stress isn’t just a temporary feeling like most people assume, it is measurable and disastrous.

Robert Sapolsky and his Study of Baboons

Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky dedicated his career to studying the effects of stress in baboons. These animals don’t deal with stress of being eaten, or not being able to find food, but instead deal with social stress cause from other members in the group. The troops of baboons are arranged in a social hierarchy, with the most powerful males at the top tormenting the ones below them. This trend continues down to the weakest baboon. Sapolsky found that, “a baboons rank determines the amount of stress hormones they have.” Dominant males have much lower stress hormones, while submissive baboons have higher stress hormones. The baboons who had lower ranks in the social hierarchy showed increased heart rates and higher blood pressure, conditions that lead to a shorter life span. Doctor Carol Shively verified Sapolsky’s findings by testing stress levels in macaques. Like the baboons, these monkeys also organize themselves into a social hierarchy. A dominant monkey shows signs of little stress and in turn has cleaner arteries. The submissive monkeys develop more atherosclerosis build up which caused damage to the artery walls. Another test showed that the dominant monkeys had higher dopamine levels, chemical that signals pleasure, than that of the subordinates. After watching the baboons for many years, one of the first troops Sapolsky had studied, encountered a strain of tuberculosis, and about half the males died. But it wasn’t a random selection of the males who died, the ones who were aggressive and not socially connected died. These were the alpha males. The entire social structure of this troop changed after this event. There was no more organization of the group based on power, the baboons became nicer and showed significantly lower levels of stress. Once the social hierarchy is eliminated, they are able to live a stress free, healthier, and longer life.

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How Stress Affects the Body

Chronic stress has long lasting fatal effects to the human body. Studies were done to show that chronic stress leads to clogged arteries which leads to restricted blood flow, which leads to heart problems and diseases. Along with this, prolonged exposure to chronic stress can lead to an increase in glucocorticoids which can kill some of your brain cells. This directly effects the hippocampus which controls learning and memory, causing people to forget things they know well. Like the monkeys, stress also affects dopamine levels in humans on the basis of where people stand on the social hierarchy. The levels of stress can even be found by studying the houses in neighborhoods. People who live in nicer houses tend to have less financial stress and rank higher in the social hierarchy. These people live longer and are healthier than their counterparts who have more stress and have a worse health outcome. Another notable finding was the effect stress had on weight gain. Chronic stress was found to cause fat build up in the torso, the worst place in your body to have fat. This is because it releases hormones different than in other places of the body, which is harmful to humans. This was also found to be true in monkeys as well. The last point that national geographic made about how stress affects the body was telomeres. These are chemicals that protect the ends of chromosomes from fraying and shorten with age, but also stress. Doctor Elizabeth Blackburn did a study on mothers of disabled children who live very stressful lives. She found that, “the length of the telomeres directly relates to the amount of stress somebody is under, and the number of years that they’ve been under the stress.” When this happens, these people tend to have shorter life spans. Although, there is a cure for this, there are enzymes that help rebuild and repair the damage to the telomeres. But compassion also promotes longevity and increases telomeres. Chronic stress has no positive benefits to the human body and shows why there should be a strive for a more balanced lifestyle.

Emmanuel Johnson and the Dutch Hunger Winter

Emmanuel Johnson is a man who works as a guidance counselor in a city with high crime rates. The stress of his job directly impacts his health. Five years prior to the making of this film, Johnson had a heart attack and now is diabetic. As a result, to his stress levels, Johnson has to deal with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar levels. The correlation between stress and health is obvious. In the year 1944, Holland was controlled by Germany and the entire area struggled with starvation. Dutch researcher, Tessa Roseboom decided to study the effects of the Dutch hunger winter on babies who were exposed to stress in their fetal life. Roseboom found that, “babies who were conceived during the famine have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease; they have more hypercholesterolemia; they are more responsive to stress and generally are in poorer health than the people born before the famine or conceived after it.” This is due to the increased stress hormones in the mother’s blood which caused a change in the nervous system of the fetus. Stress, even in the fetal stage of development, has long lasting effects on the body.

By completing experiments and studies, it is found that stress has numerous effects on the body. Stress is directly influenced by a persons or animals place on the social hierarchy scale. Dominant people deal with less stress while the submissive have more stress and in turn more health problems. Stress can make a person feel miserable, which explains why people should value balance and strive for less stress. 

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