What is a heat stress?

Heat stress occurs when the body is exposed to high temperatures and humidity levels, leading to an inability to regulate internal body temperature effectively. It can occur in various settings, such as during heatwaves, in hot and humid environments, or during strenuous physical activity. Heat stress can range from mild discomfort to severe heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion or heatstroke, which can be life-threatening if not promptly treated.


When the body is exposed to excessive heat, it tries to maintain a stable internal temperature through mechanisms such as sweating and dilation of blood vessels near the skin’s surface to release heat. However, in conditions of high heat and humidity, these cooling mechanisms may become overwhelmed, leading to an accumulation of heat within the body and an increase in core body temperature.


Severe heat stress can progress to heat exhaustion or heatstroke, which are medical emergencies requiring immediate intervention. Heat exhaustion is characterized by more pronounced symptoms, such as heavy sweating, rapid pulse, cool and clammy skin, weakness, and nausea. Heatstroke, the most severe form of heat-related illness, occurs when the body’s temperature regulation system fails, leading to dangerously high body temperatures (above 104°F or 40°C), altered mental status, seizures, or loss of consciousness. Heatstroke can cause organ damage, brain injury, or death if not treated promptly.


What is the relationship between heat stress and oxidative stress?

The relationship between heat stress and oxidative stress involves complex interactions between various physiological responses to high temperatures and humidity levels. Here’s how heat stress may be related to oxidative stress:


  • Increased Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) Production: Heat stress can lead to increased production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) within the body. ROS are highly reactive molecules that contain oxygen and can damage cellular components such as lipids, proteins, and DNA. Exposure to high temperatures can stimulate metabolic processes and cellular respiration, leading to the generation of ROS as byproducts. Additionally, heat stress-induced cellular stressors, such as hypoxia (inadequate oxygen supply) or ischemia-reperfusion injury (interrupted blood flow followed by restoration), can further promote ROS production.


  • Oxidative Damage to Cells and Tissues: The accumulation of ROS during heat stress can cause oxidative damage to cellular structures, including membranes, enzymes, and DNA. Lipid peroxidation, protein oxidation, and DNA damage can impair cellular function, disrupt signaling pathways, and induce cell death or apoptosis (programmed cell death). Oxidative damage to tissues and organs can exacerbate heat-related injuries, such as heat stroke, heat exhaustion, or exertional heat illness, and contribute to tissue damage, inflammation, and organ dysfunction.


  • Activation of Antioxidant Defense Mechanisms: In response to increased oxidative stress during heat stress, the body activates antioxidant defense mechanisms to neutralize ROS and maintain redox homeostasis. Antioxidant enzymes, such as superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, and glutathione peroxidase, as well as non-enzymatic antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and glutathione, play crucial roles in scavenging ROS and protecting cells from oxidative damage. However, under conditions of prolonged or severe heat stress, antioxidant defense mechanisms may become overwhelmed, leading to oxidative stress and cellular damage.


  • Modulation of Heat Shock Response: Heat stress can also induce the expression of heat shock proteins (HSPs), which are molecular chaperones that help protect cells from stress-induced damage and promote cellular repair and survival. HSPs play important roles in cellular defense mechanisms against oxidative stress by stabilizing proteins, preventing protein aggregation, and facilitating protein folding and degradation. However, dysregulation of the heat shock response or impaired HSP function may contribute to oxidative stress and cellular dysfunction under conditions of prolonged or severe heat stress.


Overall, heat stress can induce oxidative stress by promoting ROS production, oxidative damage to cells and tissues, modulation of antioxidant defense mechanisms, and dysregulation of cellular stress responses.