What Baboons Can Teach Us About Stress

By Clark’s Nutrition, C Doussett MPH, RDN

Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolski has spent the last 35 years studying baboons and the effects of stress in social situations. Throughout this time, he has observed some remarkable phenomena among these ‘Old World’ monkeys that may offer valuable insights into the myriad ways social hierarchies affect our health and chances for a longer life. The social hierarchy of baboons is similar to the hierarchical structures we find ourselves in at work, school, and home and may encourage us to rethink how we deal and choose to be with others. Two noteworthy phenomena observed by Dr. Sapolski centered on the effects of stress up and down the social hierarchy. Almost without fail, the lower a baboon was on the social chain, the more health problems it suffered; specifically, cardiovascular disease (atherosclerosis in particular), increased frequency of injury, and more time spent foraging foods for others rather than taking care of itself. The second observation was that baboons that happened to live in troops where all members were seen as equals, had less incidence of injury, degenerative disease, and domination cycles. This is congruent with professional viewpoints regarding healthy relationships both intimate and familiar for humans. Choosing groups that view every member as an equal and indoctrinating new members to this way of thinking is critical in avoiding unhealthy and potentially injurious power dynamics. Here are a few behaviors to strive for:

  • Always ‘fight fair’ in your group – respecting a partner’s/friend’s rights means accepting differences in background and opinion
  • Listen and clarify – focus on the intent of the speaker, don’t interrupt, and repeat the message if needed in your own words
  • Find your voice – speak your truth as clearly and succinctly as possible
  • Edit your voice – Choose your words as you would choose any tool for the task at hand i.e., not every job requires a hammer
  • Your wants and needs should support the groups wants and needs, otherwise, find a new group/friend

Now that we have found our group, it behooves us to support our body’s wants and needs. Treating our bodies like our best friend is one way to send the message that we only accept respectful friend requests. The following foods and supplements may further our efforts to manage stress and support healthy relationships:

  • Nuts – a cholesterol free snack that may reduce inflammation
  • Salmon – healthy omega 3s for brain health
  • Avocadoes – potassium = great for blood pressure
  • Dark chocolate – ‘feel-good’ compounds such as caffeine and theobromine
  • Crunchy vegetables: celery, broccoli, and carrot sticks require mechanical digestion (chewing) which may directly reduce ‘clenched-jaw tension’
  • Water – a hydrated system is a fully functioning system
  • Passion flower – discovered in Peru 500 years ago and still a great option in tea or tincture form for anxiety
  • Gingko Biloba – circulation to the brain
  • Vitamin C – reduces circulating cortisol (stress hormone) levels, especially when taken before or immediately after a stressful event. 500 mgs
  • Physical activity – monkeys, when not moving as a troop, spend time playing, grooming, and engaging in short-bursts of activity throughout the day. This is not too far off the recommended daily “types” of activity for humans

There is no monkey business when it comes to building healthy relationships and reducing distress to our life. Seek out a qualified nutritional consultant and discuss personalized options for achieving or maintaining positive-stress relationships. And, as always, have a healthy day!