“Like a moth to the flame, burned by the fire. My love is strong…can’t you see my desire?” –Janet Jackson, “All 4 U”, April 21st, 2001
Why is fire so important?
Hi, I’m Kamal, from paindatabase.com. For as long as I can remember (meaning this morning…it was a rough night last night), I’ve been obsessed with fire. Last week, I was excited to see that researchers have found evidence of humans using fire one million years ago. So don’t TELL me we’re not adapted to fire. Nuh-uh. I will burn you.
So that’s the con of fire: it can burn you. The pros? Let’s do a “Being John Malkovitch” and enter the mind of an early caveman using fire. We’ll call this specimen “Brendan Fraser” for ease of discussion, or Fraser for short. There likely weren’t quite as many websites around back then, so Fraser would be really into obtaining food and having sex, but not always in that order. A popular viewpoint among researchers is that Fraser would have been able to eat more delicious, grilled meat and tubers than he would raw foods, leading to all kinds of changes with brain size and other physiological characteristics. At night, Brendan would be sitting around a campfire under the stars with his lovely, natural, hairy-legged better half. What next? Sex. I hypothesize that there would be even MORE sex than before fire. Spoon when it’s cold, copulate when it’s warm. That’s my motto.
Okay, let’s get serious. What are the physiological benefits of heat?
Let’s talk heat shock proteins. First, let me admit that all I know about heat shock proteins is what I could gather from half an hour of research. Next, let me tell you that they are quite interesting: when cells are exposed to elevated heat or certain other stressors, heat shock proteins do all kinds of cool shit. Like regulate tumor response, prevent cell death from excess stress, and influence aging through hormesis. Is this important for humans in warm vs cold climates? Ehhh…as you can imagine, our internal temperatures are quite well regulated, although environment/diet/hormones etc do play a role in core temperature. And you can influence heat shock proteins through other things such as exercise and fasting. But all this is pretty interesting nonetheless.
Infrared saunas to the rescue?
A regular sauna heats your body by circulating warm air. An infrared sauna transfers heat more or less directly to your body using special lamps or bulbs. It’s like the sun, but in a smaller, closer package that doesn’t provide you with vitamin D. Did you know that there is actually a decent amount of evidence supporting the use of these heaters for chronic fatigue, chronic pain, high blood pressure, and some other stuff? It’s actually quite a good adjunct treatment for dialysis patients, to boot. The mechanisms are up for debate. Sweating out toxins? Maybe. Increasing core body temperature? I dunno. But yet again, something to think about.
Core body temperature, lifespan, and everything else
So now that I’ve convinced you of nothing, but maybe given you something to chew on, let me wrap this up with a couple more thoughts about heat and humans. Will living in a warm climate, let’s say Hawaii, make you live longer or kill you a few years earlier? If hypothetical effects of ambient temperature on lifespan are a driving force in your life, well, that sucks for you! Hawaii is awesome, and I’m 82% certain that living in a balmy climate would extend my life through not having to deal with cold weather (but to each his own, as always).
Creating mutant mice that have much lower core temperatures leads to a 20% longer life. Great! But I try not to base my life on studies of mutant lab mice. I found a bunch of weird studies supporting the opposite argument, like this one hypothesizing that babies gestating in warm years suffer health consequences when living in cold climates. But really, study-battles can only get you so far. It doesn’t take a formal study to show that people generally like warm temperatures. Brendan Fraser certainly tried to avoid the cold, by huddling near the fire, using blankets, and having hot hot sex. And you can live to 121 years of age living in the sweltering Amazon, eating bananas, grilled meat, and tubers.
So while the historical roots of the human genome are fascinating, I personally strive for happiness over hacking influenced by potentially erroneous hypothesizing. Sure, the Earth’s temperature has fluctuated wildly up and down in the past few million years. But just because it was sweltering hot when mammals began to diversify, doesn’t mean I’m going to wear an infrared sauna suit three hours a week. And while I’d use cold baths if I get neurotic about burning a few more calories, or as an adjunct experiment for difficult-to-treat conditions, I’m not going to do four hour ice baths to get in touch with my single-celled ancestor from two billion years ago. Keeping things hormetically fresh by changing up the temperature…fine. But I get a pass on this one, because of my Indian ancestry. My predecessors haven’t seen snow in (???) thousand years. So to emulate my ancestors from Gujarat, India, all I have to do is keep the thermostat between 75 and 101 degrees. (!) Now it’s time for me to resume dreaming about living on the beach. Until next time…stay thirsty, my friends.