Homeostasis

Introduction to Homeostasis

Homeostasis refers to the body’s ability to maintain a stable internal environment (regulating hormones, body temp., water balance, etc.).  Maintaining homeostasis requires that the body continuously monitors its internal conditions. From body temperature to blood pressure to levels of certain nutrients, each physiological condition has a particular set point. A set point is the physiological value around which the normal range fluctuates. A normal range is the restricted set of values that is optimally healthful and stable. For example, the set point for normal human body temperature is approximately 37°C (98.6°F) Physiological parameters, such as body temperature and blood pressure, tend to fluctuate within a normal range a few degrees above and below that point. Control centers in the brain play roles in regulating physiological parameters and keeping them within the normal range. As the body works to maintain homeostasis, any significant deviation from the normal range will be resisted and homeostasis restored through a process called a feedback loop.

A feedback loop has three basic components (Figure 1.10a). A sensor, also known as a receptor, is a component of a feedback system that monitors a physiological value.  It is responsible for detecting a change in the environment.  This value is reported to the control center. The control center is the component in a feedback system that compares the value to the normal range. If the value deviates too much from the set point, then the control center activates an effector. An effector is the component in a feedback system that causes a change to reverse the situation and return the value to the normal range.  Effectors are muscles and glands.

 

Two Types of Feedback Loops:  Negative and Positive

Negative feedback is a mechanism in which the effect of the response to the stimulus is to shut off the original stimulus or reduce its intensity.  Negative feedback loops are the body’s most common mechanisms used to maintain homeostasis.  The maintenance of homeostasis by negative feedback goes on throughout the body at all times, and an understanding of negative feedback is thus fundamental to an understanding of human physiology.

 

This figure shows three flow charts labeled A, B, and C. Chart A shows a general negative feedback loop. The loop starts with a stimulus. Information about the stimulus is perceived by a sensor which sends that information to a control center. The control center sends a signal to an effector, which then feeds back to the top of the flow chart by inhibiting the stimulus. Part B shows body temperature regulation as an example of negative feedback system. Here, the stimulus is body temperature exceeding 37 degrees Celsius. The sensor is a set of nerve cells in the skin and brain and the control center is the temperature regulatory center of the brain. The effectors are sweat glands throughout the body which inhibit the rising body temperature.
Figure 1.10. Negative Feedback Loop
In a negative feedback loop, a stimulus—a deviation from a set point—is resisted through a physiological process that returns the body to homeostasis. (a) A negative feedback loop has four basic parts. (b) Body temperature is regulated by negative feedback.
 

In order to set the system in motion, a stimulus change an internal environment beyond its normal range (that is, beyond homeostasis). This stimulus is detected by a specific receptor.  For example, in the control of blood glucose, specific endocrine cells in the pancreas detect excess glucose (the stimulus) in the bloodstream. These pancreatic beta cells respond to the increased level of blood glucose by releasing the hormone insulin into the bloodstream. The insulin signals skeletal muscle fibers, fat cells (adipocytes), and liver cells to take up the excess glucose, removing it from the bloodstream. As glucose concentration in the bloodstream drops, the decrease in concentration—the actual negative feedback—is detected by pancreatic alpha cells, and insulin release stops. This prevents blood sugar levels from continuing to drop below the normal range.

Humans have a similar temperature regulation feedback system that works by promoting either heat loss or heat gain (Figure 1.10b). When the brain’s temperature regulation center receives data from the sensors indicating that the body’s temperature exceeds its normal range, it stimulates a cluster of brain cells referred to as the “heat-loss center.” This stimulation has three major effects:

  • Blood vessels in the skin begin to dilate allowing more blood from the body core to flow to the surface of the skin allowing the heat to radiate into the environment.
  • As blood flow to the skin increases, sweat glands are activated to increase their output. As the sweat evaporates from the skin surface into the surrounding air, it takes heat with it.
  • The depth of respiration increases, and a person may breathe through an open mouth instead of through the nasal passageways. This further increases heat loss from the lungs.

In contrast, activation of the brain’s heat-gain center by exposure to cold reduces blood flow to the skin, and blood returning from the limbs is diverted into a network of deep veins. This arrangement traps heat closer to the body core and restricts heat loss. If heat loss is severe, the brain triggers an increase in random signals to skeletal muscles, causing them to contract and producing shivering. The muscle contractions of shivering release heat while using up ATP. The brain triggers the thyroid gland in the endocrine system to release thyroid hormone, which increases metabolic activity and heat production in cells throughout the body. The brain also signals the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (adrenaline), a hormone that causes the breakdown of glycogen into glucose, which can be used as an energy source. The breakdown of glycogen into glucose also results in increased metabolism and heat production.

Water concentration in the body is critical for proper functioning. A person’s body retains very tight control on water levels without conscious control by the person. Watch this video to learn more about water concentration in the body. Which organ has primary control over the amount of water in the body?

Positive feedback intensifies a change in the body’s physiological condition rather than reversing it. A deviation from the normal range results in more change, and the system moves farther away from the normal range. Positive feedback in the body is normal only when there is a definite end point. Childbirth and the body’s response to blood loss are two examples of positive feedback loops that are normal but are activated only when needed.

Childbirth at full term is an example of a situation in which the maintenance of the existing body state is not desired. Enormous changes in the mother’s body are required to expel the baby at the end of pregnancy. And the events of childbirth, once begun, must progress rapidly to a conclusion or the life of the mother and the baby are at risk. The extreme muscular work of labor and delivery are the result of a positive feedback system (Figure 1.11).

This diagram shows the steps of a positive feedback loop as a series of stepwise arrows looping around a diagram of an infant within the uterus of a pregnant woman. Initially the head of the baby pushes against the cervix, transmitting nerve impulses from the cervix to the brain. Next the brain stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete oxytocin which is carried in the bloodstream to the uterus. Finally, the oxytocin simulates uterine contractions and pushes the baby harder into the cervix. As the head of the baby pushes against the cervix with greater and greater force, the uterine contractions grow stronger and more frequent. This mechanism is a positive feedback loop.
Figure 1.11. Positive Feedback Loop
Normal childbirth is driven by a positive feedback loop. A positive feedback loop results in a change in the body’s status, rather than a return to homeostasis.
 

The first contractions of labor (the stimulus) push the baby toward the cervix (the lowest part of the uterus). The cervix contains stretch-sensitive nerve cells that monitor the degree of stretching (the sensors). These nerve cells send messages to the brain, which in turn causes the pituitary gland at the base of the brain to release the hormone oxytocin into the bloodstream. Oxytocin causes stronger contractions of the smooth muscles in of the uterus (the effectors), pushing the baby further down the birth canal. This causes even greater stretching of the cervix. The cycle of stretching, oxytocin release, and increasingly more forceful contractions stops only when the baby is born. At this point, the stretching of the cervix halts, stopping the release of oxytocin.

A second example of positive feedback centers on reversing extreme damage to the body. Following a penetrating wound, the most immediate threat is excessive blood loss. Less blood circulating means reduced blood pressure and reduced perfusion (penetration of blood) to the brain and other vital organs. If perfusion is severely reduced, vital organs will shut down and the person will die. The body responds to this potential catastrophe by releasing substances in the injured blood vessel wall that begin the process of blood clotting. As each step of clotting occurs, it stimulates the release of more clotting substances. This accelerates the processes of clotting and sealing off the damaged area. Clotting is contained in a local area based on the tightly controlled availability of clotting proteins. This is an adaptive, life-saving cascade of events.

Integrating Systems

Each organ system performs specific functions for the body, and each organ system is typically studied independently.  However, the organ systems also work together to help the body maintain homeostasis.

For example, the cardiovascular, urinary, and lymphatic systems all help the body control water balance. The cardiovascular and lymphatic systems transport fluids throughout the body and help sense both solute and water levels and regulate pressure. If the water level gets too high, the urinary system produces more dilute urine (urine with a higher water content) to help eliminate the excess water. If the water level gets too low, more concentrated urine is produced so that water is conserved. The digestive system also plays a role with variable water absorption. Water can be lost through the integumentary and respiratory systems, but that loss is not directly involved in maintaining body fluids and is usually associated with other homeostatic mechanisms.

Similarly, the cardiovascular, integumentary, respiratory, and muscular systems work together to help the body maintain a stable internal temperature. If body temperature rises, blood vessels in the skin dilate, allowing more blood to flow near the skin’s surface. This allows heat to dissipate through the skin and into the surrounding air. The skin may also produce sweat if the body gets too hot; when the sweat evaporates, it helps to cool the body. Rapid breathing can also help the body eliminate excess heat. Together, these responses to increased body temperature explain why you sweat, pant, and become red in the face when you exercise hard. (Heavy breathing during exercise is also one way the body gets more oxygen to your muscles, and gets rid of the extra carbon dioxide produced by the muscles.)

Conversely, if your body is too cold, blood vessels in the skin contract, and blood flow to the extremities (arms and legs) slows. Muscles contract and relax rapidly, which generates heat to keep you warm. The hair on your skin rises, trapping more air, which is a good insulator, near your skin. These responses to decreased body temperature explain why you shiver, get “goose bumps,” and have cold, pale extremities when you are cold.