How to Boost Your Longevity With “Heat Shock Proteins”

They're an approachable entry-point to the latest research

A man running on the road in the heat.
There are various ways to activate HSPs in the body — but know your limits.
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If you dare to delve into the weeds of vanguard longevity research, the key terms tend to get overwhelming, fast.

You’ll encounter phrases like: “telomere attrition,” “single nucleotide polymorphisms” and “pro-/antioxidant pathways.” They may remind you of murky mornings, long ago, when you were forced to balance equations. Which will probably zap all excitement from the process; after all, any nascent interest in longevity and lifespan is all about looking forward.

But here’s a term that’s (a) easy to remember and (b) simple enough to understand: heat shock proteins. They’re “the guardians of your cellular galaxy,” according to genetics labs, a positive byproduct of the body enduring — and surviving — stressful situations. Heat shock proteins are potent and attainable…and not a mouthful. Here’s what you need to know.

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The Benefits of Thermal Stress

Broadly speaking, “heat shock proteins” are a family of proteins that protect cells from damage. Some cells “fold” improperly as you age, or clump together with other misfolded proteins, which causes dysfunction, which can lead to neurodegenerative diseases. Not good.

But research indicates that HSPs are able to prevent this chaos and even “clean up” the cells in your body. They’re often called chaperones. Their efforts can help mitigate the effects of inflammatory cell senescence, which is a fancy way of saying that HSPs have the capacity to essentially slow down aging; they improve your immune response, help you build muscle and generally promote resilience throughout the body.

Chasing Hormesis

So, how do you reap the rewards of HSPs? Can you hand over your cellular car keys to this helpful protein? To an extent, yes — there are a host of ways to “trigger” HSPs and increase their influence on your body and lifespan. The central concept here is hormesis, the healthy stress that plays out at the molecular level.

Hormesis occurs when the body experiences a concentrated period of intense pressure. It turns on its defenses, assuming it’s under attack, and activates its proteins accordingly. In scheduling these shocks, you can literally sharpen your cells. The better they get at dispatching small bouts of stress, the more equipped they are to handle the big stuff that comes later in life, like the risk of dementia, strokes or Parkinson’s. 

As the “heat shock protein” moniker suggests, one way to court this brand of stress is to expose the body’s cells to heat. Around 20 minutes in the sauna is enough to push your body temperature past 102.2 degrees F, which activates the release of HSPs. High-intensity interval training is another excellent method for courting hormesis. While continuous endurance training has long been the darling of exercise research, recent studies have confirmed HIIT’s anti-aging characteristics. Vigorous exercise for 15 minutes is enough to make an impact at the molecular level.

Don’t Overdo It

There are other ways to briefly raise your core temperature, of course (exercising outside in a heat wave, among them). And there are other ways to push the limits of your homeostatic zone — with the wildly popular “cold plunges” chief among them.

Ultimately, it’s just important to be discerning about how intensely/frequently you pursue these shocks to the system. Pepper them throughout your week, by all means. But don’t overdo them, or kill yourself in the name of living forever. The science suggests they’ll help in moderation. But remember the key tenets of longevity: consistent movement, lots of sleep, a diet rich in whole foods and tons of time spent with friends and family.

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