Feeling Good? Thank Heat Shock Proteins
The ancient healing and wellness cultures of the world all have a special, even sacred place for heat.
Yang, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, is the element in us that is warm and dynamic. Practitioners believe it comes in from the heavens and “...scoops down and creates the warmth in our body and the bottom...keeping us alive.” In folk medicine around the world, it was widely believed that violent sweating meant that a patient was cured. From Rome to Russia, India to Egypt, the control of heat–increasing or decreasing its levels in the body or the environment–has been a keystone in healing, tradition, and wellness procedures everywhere.
The range of heat-based treatments around the world is fascinating. Sulfurous volcanic hot springs, numbering in the thousands all over Europe, have been healing spaces for centuries and continue to be to this day! Heated onsens in Japan have been sites for spiritual purification. And then of course, we have the 2000-year-old tradition of Finnish saunas. We also see heat treatments in touch services, like hot stone massages and cupping to target pain.
Maybe our ancestors were on to something.
Heat-based therapies continue to endure whether they’re the traditional Finnish-style hot rooms and Russian banyas or the more modern infrared saunas. The benefits are consistent, undeniable, and wide-ranging, and all this might have to do with a special little molecule called the heat shock protein, or HSP.
What is a Heat Shock Protein?
They’re found in almost all animal and plant organisms (including bacteria) and play critical roles in various bodily functions. Sometimes referred to as “molecular chaperones,” because they essentially walk your cells through their normal day to day lives to make sure they behave. Their normal role is to facilitate the self-assembly and replication of proteins and their complexes. They also assist proteins as they pass through cellular membranes and within the processes of cell signaling. Their existence is a key feature in almost every part of being alive: they’re found in embryonic development in mammals, they maintain homeostasis for the immune and nervous systems, and their absence or malfunctioning can manifest in some pretty serious conditions. Malfunctioning HSPs are associated with many diseases, including cancers and neurodegeneration.
“Heat” Shock Proteins aren’t just produced when temperatures soar, as their name might suggest. They also occur when the body is stressed, which can come in many ways, including via oxidants, toxins, heavy metals, free radicals, viruses, UV light, wound healing, and even exposure to cold!
Under stress, cells get frenzied. They don’t function properly, and they may begin to unravel, lose their structure, degrade, and even die. Lying latent till then, HSPs galvanize into action. They buffer the disordered cellular environment and proteostasis (the dynamic regulation of proteins), restoring cell structure and cellular metabolism. There are several kinds of HSPs, each with its own superpower. Overall, these molecular superheroes inhibit cell death and provide cells with thermal stability, prevent irreversible aggregation of unfolded proteins, and assist in restoring their native structure.
Much like the stress of weightlifting strengthens our muscles, stress from heat exposure (at non-lethal temperatures) can revitalize and bolster our cells. As a consequence of regular exposure, our cells become more resilient, almost renewed. And this is what makes heat therapies like saunas and hot springs so beneficial to recovery and wellness.
Heat Shock Proteins Benefits:
Our bodies are constantly exposed to environmental stressors that can cause damage to our cells. By regularly activating HSPs through exercise, saunas, and other heat treatments, we see several benefits to our health and general well-being in the long run.
Improved cell function
The mitochondrion, if you remember from high school biology, is the powerhouse of the cell. A type of heat shock protein, Hsp70, mediates essential functions for mitochondrial biogenesis (aka the production of mitochondria). Many benefits flow from enhanced mitochondrial function, including the prevention of the progression of age-related diseases that affect tissues, including the muscle and the central nervous system.
Research associates the overexpression of Hsp70 with the reduction of ischemic injury (caused by a reduction in blood flow) in the mammalian brain. In a study involving over 2,000 healthy middle-aged adults, sauna therapy at least twice a week reduced the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Another 15-year-long study assessed 1,628 Finnish men and women without a recorded history of stroke. It showed that middle-aged to elderly men and women who used the sauna 4-7 times a week were 61% less likely to suffer a stroke than those taking a sauna once a week.
HSPs can protect the heart by helping the heart cells adapt to stress. In one study, water immersion (30 minutes at 42°C, to the waist), resulted in a greater reduction in average arterial blood pressure than the same amount of time on a treadmill. The mechanism through which this works is that passive heating raises levels of nitric oxide, a molecule that dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure. Isn’t it amazing that you can get the same benefits from sitting in a sauna or taking a hot bath as you can from exercise?
HSPs have been shown to be lower in people with diabetes. But does that mean raising them can actually potentially impact diabetes treatment? Research seems to say so. A 2011 study also promises that HSPs have the potential to function as an essential defense system against the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Our immune systems are continually reacting to our environment, detecting and neutralizing germs and viruses. It was observed in one study that “...exogenously administered HSPs induced various immune responses in immunotherapy of cancer, infectious diseases, and autoimmunity.” However, it is important to note that not all HSPs are created equal.
HSPs benefit almost all tissues and organs, including muscles. A Finnish research study looked at hGH levels in 55 healthy individuals before and after a sauna session. It found that hormone hGH levels (which help repair injured muscles) were 140% higher on average immediately following a sauna session! hGH is crucial for growth, cell production, and cell regeneration and helps speed up muscle healing after an injury, and repairs muscle tissue after exercise.
How Can We Activate Heat Shock Proteins?
There are many ways to do this: exercise, hot tubs, supplements, intermittent fasting, and of course, saunas.
One of the ways to activate heat shock proteins is to raise your core body temperature above 102°F, which is easily achieved in the sauna. Depending on your comfort level, you might choose either an infrared cabin or a traditional sauna.
A traditional sauna heats the air around you, while infrared sauna heat penetrates below the surface of the skin, and into fat cells through far-infrared wavelengths.
While a traditional sauna can sometimes go well above 180°F, the temperature inside an infrared sauna is adjustable and averages a comfortable 120-150°F, and since the heat penetrates your skin directly, you sweat at a lower temperature – which allows you to tolerate a more extended heat therapy session.
Want to try it? Sauna House has one infrared sauna cabin available, which you can book for 1 or 2-person private 45-minute sessions. If you’re new to the sauna, it’s a great way to ease into the experience because its temperatures are lower, maintained at 150°F. As you get more comfortable, you can raise the temperature.
If you still prefer the old-school way, try out the bathhouse or one of our private Hot-Cold-Relax rooms! Learn more here!