How To Stay Young With Saunas and Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs)

In this blog, I’m going to explain how we can stay young with sauna use.  Unfortunately, as we get older, we get more susceptible to disease. Disease is the number 1 cause of death, so if we want to stay young and healthy, we want to stave off disease for as long as possible. We want to be active and healthy well into our old age with all our cognitive abilities in tact!

Fortunately, using the sauna can help us do this.  There are several types of sauna we can use today – dry saunas, wet saunas and even infrared saunas. It doesn’t matter what kind of sauna we use, the goals of going into a sauna is the same: that is to get very, very hot and sweat!

What diseases can a sauna help prevent?  Well, here are some of them;

  • Heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Cardiomyopathy (a group of diseases affecting the heart, increasing risk of heart attacks)

Sauna use can also help us to prevent neurodegenerative disease, including Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease.  Of all the diseases I’ve mentioned here, I fear Alzheimers the most. Losing your mind is absolutely tragic, not just for you but also your friends and family.  So anything I can do to help prevent it, I’m going to do!

portable sauna

What actually causes these diseases to begin with?  Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear cut answer to this question.  However, it has been shown that something called ‘protein aggregation’ is a key player, especially in the case of the neurodegenerative diseases.

What is ‘protein aggregation?’  First, let’s talk about what proteins are.

Proteins are large, complex molecules that play a raft of critical roles in our body. They are responsible for doing most of the work in our cells.  Proteins are required for the function, structure and regulation of our body tissues and organs.

The building blocks of proteins are called amino acids. There are c20 different amino acids which attach to each other in long chains and when combined, make up a protein. A protein can contain between hundreds or thousands of amino acids.  It’s the sequence of these amino acids that determines each protein’s 3-D structure and specific function.

Proteins have many functions, they can serve as anti-bodies, enzymes, messengers, structural components and transporters.  After a protein has served its purpose, it gets degraded, cleaned away and then replaced with a fresh one.

I like to think of proteins as the soldiers of the body; they follow orders and do the doing. Proteins are critical to our health, so want to take care of them!

Now, when our cells in our body are stressed, it can cause these proteins to become damaged; their 3D structure becomes deformed.  When this happens, it messes up their ability to function but it also impacts their ability to be degraded and cleared away. When this happens, the protein hangs around and it starts to cause problems. It can also start to cluster with other proteins and form plaques.

Plaques are bad news.

This clustering of damaged proteins into plaques is called protein aggregation.  As I mentioned at the start, protein aggregation is strongly linked to a long list of diseases including heart disease and Alzheimers.

The good news is, we are all equipped with something that help us to keep our proteins healthy and functioning correctly.  That ‘something’ is called Heat Shock Proteins or HSPs (yep, more proteins). They help proteins keep their 3D structure and they repair damage so the proteins don’t have to be degraded.  However, when it is time for a protein to be degraded and cleaned away, the HSPs make sure this happens.

So that’s the good news.  The bad news is that as we get older, we make less and less of these Heat Shock Proteins, so we are more susceptible to protein aggregation and hence disease.

But here’s more good news….

It turns out there is a gene we can activate in the body that increases the production of Heat Shock Proteins. What’s more, we can activate that gene whenever we want to.  And we activate it by (you guessed it) sauna use. Heat stress activates this gene which increases our production of HSPs.

When we use the sauna frequently and we’re exposed to this intense heat stress, we become something called ‘heat acclimated’.  We are more used to the heat stress and we learn to sweat fast. When we’re heat acclimated, our body produces more Heat Shock Proteins under normal temperature conditions. BUT, not only that, we make even more of them under stressful conditions!  Awesome.

Sauna take 2

The production of Heat Shock Proteins has been linked to longevity (long life span) in general.  People that have gene variations (variations in the sequence of their DNA that alter the function of DNA, called polymorphisms) that cause greater production of Heat Shock Proteins are more likely to be Centenarians, which means they live to be 100 years old or more.

So how often do we need to use the sauna to make more Heat Shock Proteins and help to prevent disease?  A recent study that followed 2000 middle aged men showed that those who used the sauna 2-3 times a week had a 24% reduction in all cause mortality compared to those who used it 1 time a week.  Better still, those that used it 4-7 times a week had a whopping 40% reduction in all cause mortality compared to those who used it 1 time per week.  So there is a dose dependent effect, meaning the more times we use the sauna, the more benefit we’ll get.

How long should we stay in the sauna?  Well the duration I hear a lot is between 20-25 mins.  Now, staying in the sauna for this long can be quite tough.  I’ve been using the sauna for a while now, and to begin with I did 15 mins and then built up to 30 mins. It doesn’t take long to get to this level, and I built up to 30 mins in a few weeks using the the sauna 4-5 times a week.  30 mins is tough thought, be warned!

I always take an easy-to-read fictional book in the sauna, it takes my mind off the uncomfortableness and makes the time pass quicker.  I know roughly how many pages I need to read to get to 30 mins, so I don’t have to keep looking at the clock. Also, I always sit in the highest and hottest part of the sauna, to ensure I’m getting as much heat in my 30 mins as possible.

I’ve found going to the sauna to be additive (in a good way!).  Sauna use has many more benefits than producing more Heat Shock Proteins, and I’ll talk about these in future blogs!  Thanks for reading!