Heat Shock Proteins, Sauna, and Global Health Benefits

Heat shock proteins are the key to sauna health benefits, and can even play a role in fighting Coronavirus. If you want to understand what’s really happening to your body during a sauna, heat shock proteins are one of the keys.

What are Heat Shock Proteins?

When cells are exposed to stressful situations, they respond by creating heat shock proteins. Since the first type of stress found to activate these proteins was heat, the proteins were named heat shock proteins.  Other triggers of heat shock proteins in the body include cold temperatures, ultraviolet light, heavy metals, ethanol, low levels of oxygen, tumors, and wounds or damages tissues in the body. 

There are several different types of heat shock proteins: HSP10, HSP40, HSP60, HSP70, and HSP90, for a start. The number corresponds to their molecular weight. The ones titled 40 and under are called small heat shock proteins. 

As a general rule, these proteins act as guards to other proteins, preventing them from misassembling while they are forming larger proteins. You could say that one of their most important functions is protein homeostasis, or keeping the proteins in the proper form and structure for cellular function to happen. 

Different Functions Depending on the Situation

In non-stressful situations, heat shock proteins regulate the synthesis, transport, assembly, folding, and unfolding of the cell’s proteins. When there’s stress in the cell, proteins may become misfolded – and the heat shock proteins step is to restore their original shape. These stress proteins are true cellular crisis stress managers. You can count on them to reduce the effects of oxidative stress, regulate inflammation, and inhibit cells from walking down the path towards cellular death. 

For example, HSP40 discovers an amino acid chain that has become unfolded in the cell. It then passes off the unfolded chain to HSP70, which then reforms it and releases it. Presto! Now you’re back to business as usual inside the cell.

Heat Shock Role in Infections

The reason why proteins go astray and are misassembled in the first place can be because of an infectious pathogenic organism. Heat shock proteins from the HSP70 and HSP90 families run to your aid identifying the infectious organisms and start messenger systems that alert other parts of the immune system

Some heat shock proteins (hsps) play important roles in cell cycle control and signaling. Others sort proteins into correct subcellular compartments. Still others protect cells against apoptosis (cell death caused from within the cell). Fascinating relatively new research states that HSP90 can stimulate the dendritic cells of the immune system by causing immature dendritic cells to mature. And you can boost your own body’s heat shock proteins with sauna therapy.

Neurological Disorders Show Low Levels of Heat Shock Proteins

All living organisms have heat shock proteins. All cell types have heat shock proteins. As you age, the level of protection you get from these hsps declines. Then the cells can’t maintain protein homeostasis. 

Researchers have found that in neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, levels of heat shock proteins are low. These are diseases found in older people. In these types of neurological diseases, proteins form masses called aggregates that disrupt neurological function. The heat shock proteins protect against this type of aggregation. And because heat shock proteins are created during saunas, there’s a whole new interest in the use of saunas for these neurological disorders.

Some scientists proved already that by raising the stress protein levels, there’s a neuroprotective effect. Elevating the levels could prevent or reduce the toxicity of protein aggregation. Sauna benefits have included improvements in cerebral blood flow and muscle function. Now it’s easy to associate sauna benefits with heat shock proteins. However, more research needs to refine the knowledge base about these proteins to use them therapeutically. 

Diabetics Improve When They Take Saunas Due to Heat Shock Proteins

In diabetic animal studies, when heat shock protein 70 expression is improved by heat therapy, – (this means saunas) – insulin sensitivity, body fat content, inflammation and ability of the blood vessels to expand and contract improves. 

In human studies, the heat therapy – found in saunas and hot tubs was able to reduce fasting blood sugar levels, caused a 1% reduction in Hemoglobin A1c, and a reduction in weight and percentage body fat. The heat therapy used to obtain these results was 80-100 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes three times a week for three months. It’s a typical protocol for Finnish saunas.

Four Other Facts About Heat Shock Proteins and Saunas

Here are some other facts why saunas and the heat shock proteins that are increased from them are beneficial to the body: 

  • You Get Rewarded With More Heat Shock Proteins If You’re Fit

The better shape you are in when you engage in a sauna type of activity, the greater the expression of heat shock protein genes. This doesn’t mean that if you aren’t in shape at all, you avoid the sauna. You’ll still get benefits.

One Poland study found significant changes in heat shock proteins after four weeks of exposure to sauna heat in those who were athletes. 

  • Heart Disease Patients Have Hope with Heat Shock Proteins

Since repeated exposure to passive heat stress, such as in a sauna, protects cells against oxidative stress and inflammatory stress associated with low levels of oxygen followed by reoxygenation, the use of a sauna can protect patients with heart disease and peripheral artery disease. 

Scientists believe that it’s the increased heat shock protein expression and upregulation of other factors in the circulation that makes the sauna so valuable to these patients. The other factors in the circulation include NF-kB, superoxides, immune system factors, and heat shock transcription factors.

  • Those With Mood Disorders and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities: Heat Shock Proteins Could Help

Saunas heat surface tissues, which activate HSP90, which in turn activates BH4 or tetrahydrobiopterin. BH4 levels are low in those with multiple chemical sensitivities to the point where there’s a clear deficiency of it. BH4 is also called sapropterin. 

It’s a cofactor of enzymes used in the degradation of phenylalanine and the synthesis of serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, adrenaline, as well as the cofactor for the production of nitric oxide. Yet, increased blood flow to the heated tissues on the surface of the skin increases the BH4 levels, helping those with these sensitivities. 

  • Heat Shock Protein Levels Increase Fast

Saudi Arabian scientists found that human volunteers exposed to 168 degrees Fahrenheit in a sauna don’t have a significant increase in core body temperature, yet the expression of the level of the heat shock proteins changes rapidly during the sauna experience. 

The results are still amplified one hour later. More than two thirds of the genes checked in their study were suppressed, and genes were expressed for proteins that function in stress pathways, energy metabolism, cell growth, cell proliferation, cell death, and cell survival.  

Saunas Work for Increasing Heat Shock Proteins

Sitting in a sauna for 30 minutes at 163 degrees Fahrenheit was found to increase levels of HSP72 by 49% in one study. In another study, six days of deep tissue heat therapy given to healthy adults increased HSP70 by 45% and HSP90 by 38%. 

Increasing your level of heat shock proteins from sauna use is such an easy way to improve your health on essentially a ‘global’ level. The next time you sit in the sauna, ponder the wonder of these heat shock proteins. 

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