Hot Shock and Cold Shock Proteins: What Are They and How to Activate Them

Hot Shock and Cold Shock Proteins: What Are They and How to Activate Them

Thousands of years ago, Greeks and Egyptians used thermal springs and hot caves at volcanic sites for heat therapy. Later in 16th century China and Japan, stones were heated and placed on the body to treat a range of ailments. Historians also know that ancient peoples from Asia to Europe practiced cold plunging to treat a wide range of health issues. 

Before modern medicine, hot and cold environments found in nature were invaluable to people suffering from disease or looking to boost their health and well-being. How does exposure to extreme temperatures work to improve such a wide range of ailments? The answer is heat shock and cold shock proteins, also known as stress proteins.

What Are Stress Proteins?

Stress proteins are molecules in the body required for maintaining homeostasis in the face of environmental stressors. They play a role in regulating the immune system's reaction to pathogens, the nervous system's "flight or flight" response to stress, and everything in between.

Why Stress Can Be Good for You

Stress hormones released during stressful situations wreak havoc on the body's homeostasis. They increase muscle tension, blood pressure, and blood sugar while suppressing digestive and immune function. Not all exposure to stress is bad, however.

Exercise, for example, exposes your body to stress. Your muscle fibers tear and break down, only to rebuild stronger. Strength training even challenges your central nervous system, helping it gain resilience. Exposure to extreme cold or heat releases stress proteins that help your body build resilience to various types of stress, as well as aid in post-workout recovery. In fact, heat shock proteins released during vigorous activity are what deliver many of the benefits of exercise.

Benefits of Hot and Cold Shock Proteins

Activities that trigger the release of heat shock and cold shock proteins offer profound health benefits. The evidence of these benefits and the mechanisms behind them have been well-documented by the medical community.

Protects Brain Health

Cold shock proteins fight dementia and other signs of neurodegeneration by reducing brain inflammation and neuronal damage.

In mice with Alzheimer's disease, just one cold plunge was shown to increase cold shock proteins for three days. Regular cold shock therapy reversed symptoms of neurodegeneration in the mice within six weeks. Scientists reported the therapy worked by improving structural plasticity, or the ability of the brain and nervous system to regenerate and repair itself. 

Heat therapy is likewise shown to support the neuropathways associated with cognitive function. Heat shock proteins support better mitochondrial function in cells, in turn slowing the brain's aging at the cellular level. They also support cerebrovascular health (the brain's blood flow), which is a factor that plays into the development of neurodegenerative diseases.

Aids in Muscle Growth and Speeds Recovery

Cold shock proteins have anti-inflammatory effects that help speed up post-workout muscle tissue repair. Beyond reducing inflammation, cold shock proteins also improve muscle plasticity and regulate the adaptive processes in skeletal muscle. This means they support the healthy growth of muscle in response to physiological challenges by improving the metabolic capacity of muscle tissue and adjusting the size of muscle fibers. 

Heat shock proteins also aid in muscle recovery. Specifically, they ensure new proteins the body synthesizes for muscle tissue are folded in the correct shape. They also help direct the required amino acids to the sites of muscle damage after exercise.

Supports Your Immune System

The immune system is in a constant state of reaction. The earlier it can detect and mitigate a threat, the better it's able to keep your body in homeostasis. Heat shock proteins spur the immune system into action by boosting the production of T cells and activating dendritic cells and macrophages — key players in the detection and destruction of foreign invaders. 

Cold shock therapy is also shown to increase the body's production of T cells. Plus, it boosts the production of B cells and cells that regulate B cells called neutrophils. The combined effect is a more effective immune response to everyday pathogens.

How to Activate Hot Shock Proteins

Exposure to temperatures of 102.2 degrees F and above activate the release of hot shock proteins. Exercise also activates them without the need to add heat. Here are the best ways to benefit from heat shock therapy:

1. Exercise

According to the Journal of Applied Physiology, exercise causes an influx of heat shock proteins in the brain. Aerobic exercise, in particular, is recommended.

2. Hot baths and saunas

Sitting in a sauna or soaking in a hot bath raises your body's temperature and effectively prompts an increase in heat shock proteins. You can do this daily without harm as long as you drink extra fluids and cap your heat exposure at 20 minutes.

3. Heating pads

Research has proven that even heating pads applied to localized areas on the skin can stimulate the flow of heat shock proteins in those areas. This explains why heating pads can alleviate aches and pains in the joints and muscles they're applied to.

How to Activate Cold Shock Proteins

Exposing your entire body to a cold temperature ranging from 40 degrees to -166 degrees Fahrenheit will activate cold shock proteins. To minimize discomfort and maximize benefits, cold plunges at colder temperatures for shorter durations are best. 

1. Take a Cold Shower

A cold shower can expose you to 50-60 degree F temperatures and offer the benefits of cold shock therapy. Aim to keep the shower cold for two or three minutes, or start with 30 seconds and build your way up to three minutes of cold exposure.

2. Take an Ice Bath

For an ice bath, the sweet spot is 50 to 59 degrees F. Like with a cold shower, you only need a couple of minutes of exposure. Too much time can be harmful, so limit your baths to 10 minutes max. Ice baths are best done immediately after exercise. While there are fancy cold plunge ice baths you can purchase, a regular bathtub with ice works well as long as you monitor the temperature with a thermometer.

3. Use a Cryosauna or Cryo Chamber

A cryosauna or cryo chamber reaches temperatures colder than a cold shower can offer and allows your entire body to be exposed. If you can find local cryotherapy practice, the cryo chamber experience may cost as much as $100 per session.

Supporting Your Stress Proteins 

Far from being a new trend, heat shock and cold shock therapy are age-old practices people have engaged in for thousands of years. Today, thanks to saunas and cryosaunas, you don't have to rely on hot springs or frigid lakes to reap the benefits of hot/cold shock proteins. These healing proteins already exist in cells, awaiting a drop or rise in temperature to multiply in numbers.
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