Stress (Heat Shock) Proteins: The Positive Side of Stress?

April has, since 1992, been deemed to be Stress Awareness Month. During this month for the last 21 years, health professionals join forces to increase the public’s awareness of stress, discussing causes and treatments of what is something called “our modern stress epidemic.”

As April comes to an end, and in honor of such awareness, I wanted to write about skin stress – in particular as this topic has been a key area of research that my mother, Dr. Barbara Polla, has focused on throughout her medical career.

Let’s first look at stress in general – while it tends to be viewed quite negatively, stress has also very positive sides. Indeed, while excessive stress can be harmful to the psyche and the body, occasional, manageable stress can be positive by encouraging the optimization of the body’s biological response, putting us into survival mode and contributing to our resilience.

This positive response to stress is due to the existence of stress proteins also known as heat shock proteins, whose production is induced when the body is exposed to stress (here, think of stress not as a looming deadline approaching, but rather heat or infection). These proteins should really be called “anti-stress proteins” as their role is to act against the effects of stress. Stress proteins are powerful protectors, as they have the ability to prevent damage to the organism from stresses such as overheating or oxidation induced by exposure to free radicals.

The first observation of these stress/heat shock proteins came from Ferruccio Ritossa in 1962. The Italian scientist serendipitously observed that when drosophila fly chromosomes were exposed to elevated temperatures, they exhibited specific genetic activation. It was Alfred Tissières who discovered ten years later in my hometown of Geneva, Switzerland that upon stress exposure the cell stops its normal activities and produces stress proteins that enable the cell to be protected and survive.

An interesting question is to wonder if it is possible to induce these protective stress proteins when the cell itself is not stressed, in effect activating the positive protective mechanisms in the absence of stress. While pharmacological research on this topic is ongoing, several plant extracts have been identified to have such properties, among which, curcumin. Turmeric (extracted from Curcuma longa) is found in curry spice mixtures and used in many Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Most interestingly, curcumin is indeed a non-stressful inducer of stress proteins – i.e., it increases the levels of stress protection by yet unknown mechanisms that do not depend on the presence of actual cellular stress. Curcumin also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and anti-carcinogenic properties. Regular oral intake or application of curcumin-containing products has been found to contribute to stress protein accumulation and to prevent some negative effects associated with chronic stress.

Specifically at the level of the skin, curcumin, when applied topically, has been found to speed skin healing by decreasing inflammation and increasing collagen production and overall skin cell renewal.It will come as no surprise then that we use curcumin in our product formulations, specifically in our best-selling Antioxidant Skin Repair Gel for men, helping men look youthful, and stress-free!

(Thank you to my fabulous Geneva intern Rachel for your help researching this blog post; references available upon request.)

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