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  • Alex Perper

What are Heat Shock Proteins?

In life we tend to spend a lot more time maximizing our comfort and minimizing discomfort. However, training and working out teaches us that temporary "non-comfort" can be good for us! Not only can putting your body in discomfort increase external results but internal biological results as well! Biohacking is the study of changing our body chemistry to enhance our body. One method is through heat shock proteins (HSPs) and heat stress.


So what are heat shock proteins and heat stress?

Heat stress (≈5° above normal growth temperature) up-regulates the rapid synthesis of a multigene family of proteins, originally called heat shock proteins aka HSPs, which are the result of a response often referred to as the heat shock response (Benjamin and McMillan).

Okay, so what does that mean? Essentially, physiological stress such as heat, produces multiple changes in a cell that ultimately affect the protein structures and function. Our body goes into defense mode, a strategy for survival, causing the repair or degradation of these damages proteins. Creating heat stress in the body to produce these HSPs, has profound biological effects of producing this effect are cytoprotection, endurance performance, and muscle hypertrophy.


How do you create heat stress and what are its effects?

Deliberately acclimating your body to heat, whether it is through exercise or through the use of a sauna is referred to as “hyperthermic conditioning” by Dr. Rhonda Patrick, an expert in heat exposure and performance enhancement.

Hyperthermic conditioning causes adaptations that increase athletic endurance (by increasing plasma volume and blood flow to the heart and muscles) and muscle mass (by boosting levels of heat shock proteins and growth hormone). Not to mention improved cognitive function, is affected by this process.


1. Endurance

Using the sauna can help improve endurance, through the following effects:

Increases blood-flow to the muscles by reducing glycogen stores

Increases blood-flow to the heart by improving cardiovascular mechanisms and thus reducing rate and strain during the same workload previously performed

Improved thermoregulatory control during ordinary exercise by increasing blood-flow to the skin, which causes sweating to occur at a lower body temperature. This reduces your core temperature during a workload.

Another effect of the sauna is the acquisition of muscle mass through muscle hypertrophy, which is the increase and growth of muscle cells. It has been found that hyperthermic conditioning actually decreases the amount of protein degradation occurring, resulting in an increase of net protein synthesis and therefore muscle hypertrophy.


2. Muscle Growth

Muscle hypertrophy can be increased by hypothermic conditioning through the following:

Inducing the production of heat shock proteins

Boosting growth hormone levels

Improving insulin sensitivity through uptake of amino acids


3. Cognitive Function

Heat stress, runners high or post-exercise high actually makes you experience discomfort precipitated by dynorphin a kappa opioid that releases and its re-sensitizes you to the feel good effects of beta-endorphins (Patrick).

Heat stress affects the brain including cognitive function through:

Increases the growth of new brain cells

Increases the survival of existing brain cells

Improves learning and retention

Reduces depression and anxiety from early life stressful events

Improves muscle repair


Is the sauna really that effective?

According to Dr. Rhonda Patrick, one study has shown the release of growth hormone in sauna over different periods of time.

The first was a two 20-minute sessions a day at 80 degrees Celsius boosts the growth hormone about 2-fold. The second was two 1 hour sessions a day at 80 degrees Celsius for a week, which caused a 16-fold increase.

That’s a 1600% increase!

However, undergoing that length of time in the sauna is not recommended and the study’s intention merely demonstrates the effectiveness of heat stress therapy. Results can still be obtained with short sessions and consistency.


How to use a sauna safely:

Avoid alcohol before or after your sauna.

Don't overdo it. 15 to 20 minutes of a sauna should do.

3-4 times a week

Cool down gradually afterward.

Drink 2 to 4 glasses of cool water after each sauna.

Don't take a sauna if you are feeling ill.

Listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel right, please see your medical practitioner.

People who can perform moderate exercise, such as walking for 30 minutes will most likely get an okay. But people with poorly controlled blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, unstable angina and advanced heart failure or heart valve disease will be advised to stay cool (Harvard Health Publishing).


Are saunas and heat stress good for you?

In moderation, yes, especially if you are a performance athlete. While there are the physical benefits to hyperthermic conditioning, listed above, there is an additional benefit of relaxation and faster recovery. Saunas have been used as a tool for relaxation for centuries, evidenced by many countries that have the bath houses ingrained in their cultures. With the growing evidence of utilizing this tool for increased performance, it might be time to embrace the discomfort.

The use of saunas and heat stress therapy might be the biohacking tool you need to reach your next athletic level.


Sources:

Benjamin, Igor J. and McMillan, D. Randy. “Stress (Heat Shock) Proteins”. Circulation Research. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/01.RES.83.2.117

Beere, Helen M. “‘The stress of dying’: the role of heat shock proteins in the regulation of apoptosis”. Journal of Cell Science. https://jcs.biologists.org/content/117/13/2641

Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). “Sauna Health Benefits: Are saunas healthy or harmful?”. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/saunas-and-your-health

Patrick, Rhonda Dr., “Hyperthermic Conditioning for Hypertrophy, Endurance, Neurogenesis”. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHOlM-wlNjM.

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