Did you know exposing your body to extreme temperatures can be beneficial to your health? When you’re very hot or very cold, substances called heat and cold shock proteins are produced. These help cells regenerate, support the immune system, improve your resilience to stress and even protect your brain.
Read on to discover why you should be paying attention to shock proteins.
Your body creates shock proteins when it senses you’re exposed to short-term stress. Short-lived stressors and chronic, uncontrolled stress have very different effects on your body. Natural stressors are usually fairly brief and your body has developed coping mechanisms to deal with their effects, while ongoing stress damages cells, encouraging inflammation and chronic disease.
The natural kind of stress is increasingly recognised as beneficial. It’s known as hermetic stress, one example being working your muscles, causing damage to muscle fibres. Afterwards, they grow back stronger and more resilient.
Your body prepares itself for any future short term stress by producing shock proteins so it’s better able to cope with the stressor in the future.
Shock proteins change the shape of other proteins in your cells as well as influencing how cells communicate, protecting them against stress and repairing any stress-related damage. They even help your DNA to repair itself.
One type of stress known to increase shock proteins is a change in body temperature. This has earned them the names of heat and cold shock proteins. They’re manufactured when temperatures fluctuate, helping your body cope with the stress of extreme heat and cold.
In the modern world, humans have learnt how to control our environment so we’re no longer exposed to temperature fluctuations as we would have been during human development.
Scientists have discovered certain heat shock proteins can delay the progression of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s thought they avoid damage to brain nerve cells from incorrectly folded and clumped together proteins.
Studies with hibernating animals have found many of the synapses – the communication junctions in their brains – are removed when they hibernate, only to be made afresh once body temperature increases in the spring. This process depends on a cold shock protein known as RMB3. If it isn’t produced efficiently, the synapses aren’t restored. Human brains also cull redundant synapses over time, and an inability to form new connections is thought to be behind the damage to neuronal connections and memory decline seen in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
One recent study found higher than average levels of RMB3 in the blood of people regularly exposing themselves to cold water by swimming outdoors.
Heat shock proteins support a healthy immune system, and ensure damaged body cells die when they should, a process defective in cancer. In one study on depression, 60% of people receiving infrared heat treatment reported their symptoms of depression improved.
Research has found if you repeatedly expose yourself to extremes of heat and cold, your stress response to temperature changes decreases over time. This adaptation may cross over into your body’s responses to other stressors, potentially decreasing the inflammation brought about by chronic stress associated with modern living.
When muscles work hard during cardio and strength training, body temperature rises, producing heat shock proteins. HIIT seems to be particularly effective.
Sauna bathing raises your core body temperature and with it heat shock proteins. Sauna use has been linked with better brain, lung and skin health, and lower levels of inflammation. People who regularly took saunas were found to suffer less frequently from cardiovascular disease.
A cold shower after your workout or sauna, or finishing off your warm shower with a 20-30 second blast of cold water encourages the release of cold shock proteins. Start slowly with the water temperature a fraction lower than usual and progressively reduce the heat. If you can’t bear to do this, exposing even a part of your body to cold water can help you experience the benefits of cold shock proteins, so try splashing cold water on your face in the morning.
Converts of wild swimming report benefits to both their mental and physical health from the cold water. If you do try it, always buddy up with a friend, stay in for a short while only – less than ten minutes to start with – and make sure you know how to get out, bearing in mind tidal currents if you are in open water. For a list of wild swimming events, take a look here.
As little as ten minutes’ sun exposure can raise your core body temperature, triggering heat shock protein production, as well as increasing much-needed vitamin D.
One of the best things about boosting shock proteins by the above methods is you’re working with natural lifestyle measures in harmony with your body. To explore other ways of naturally supporting your health, come with me on a journey to optimum health and vitality through functional medicine.
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