Get Healthy? Endure Some "Mild" Stress

Who knew? Enduring "mild" stress is healthy.

But what's "mild"? 

Newswise.com reports that research identifies a cellular recycling process that links to beneficial aspects of mild stress.

Biologists have known for decades that enduring a short period of mild stress makes simple organisms and human cells better able to survive additional stress later in life. Now, scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) have found that a cellular process called autophagy is critically involved in providing the benefits of temporary stress. 

Autophagy is a means of recycling cells’ old, broken, or unneeded parts so that their components can be re-used to make new molecules or be burned for energy. The process had previously been linked to longevity. The new results suggest that long life and stress resistance are connected at the cellular level.

“We used C. elegans—tiny roundworms used to study fundamental biology—to test the importance of autophagy in becoming stress resistant,” says Caroline Kumsta, Ph.D., staff scientist in Hansen’s lab and lead author of the study. “They’re a great model system because they’re transparent, so you can easily observe what goes on inside them, most of their genes and molecular signaling pathways have functional counterparts in humans, and they only live a few weeks, which greatly facilitate measuring their lifespans.”

Kumsta and colleagues incubated worms at 36 °C, significantly above the temperature they are usually kept at in the laboratory, for one hour. After this short heat exposure—a mild form of stress that improves the organism’s survival—autophagy rates increased throughout the worms’ tissues. When the worms were exposed to another, longer heat shock a few days later, worms that were deficient in autophagy failed to benefit from the initial mild heat shock, as observed in heat-primed worms with intact autophagy.

The researchers reasoned that a mild heat stress might also improve the worms’ ability to handle another condition that worsens with age—buildup of aggregated proteins, which is stressful for cells. Exposing worms that make similar sticky proteins in different tissues to a mild heat shock reduced the number of protein aggregates, suggesting that a limited amount of heat stress can reduce this type of protein aggregation.

“A lot of people ask us if this means they should start going to the sauna or do hot yoga,” jokes Kumsta. “That may not be an entirely bad idea—epidemiological studies do indicate that frequent sauna use is associated with longer life. But we have a lot more research to do to figure out whether that has anything to do with the benefits of heat stress that we see in worms."

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