The Urinary System and Homeostasis – Water and Electrolyte balance.

Water Balance

On a typical day, the average adult will take in about 2500 mL (almost 3 quarts) of aqueous fluids. Although most of the intake comes through the digestive tract, about 230 mL (8 ounces) per day is generated metabolically, in the last steps of aerobic respiration. Additionally, each day about the same volume (2500 mL) of water leaves the body by different routes; most of this lost water is removed as urine. The kidneys also can adjust blood volume though mechanisms that draw water out of the filtrate and urine. The kidneys can regulate water levels in the body; they conserve water if you are dehydrated, and they can make urine more dilute to expel excess water if necessary. Water is lost through the skin through evaporation from the skin surface without overt sweating and from air expelled from the lungs. This type of water loss is called insensible water loss because a person is usually unaware of it.

Regulation of Water Intake: Osmolality is the ratio of solutes in a solution to a volume of solvent in a solution. Plasma osmolality is thus the ratio of solutes to water in blood plasma. A person’s plasma osmolality value reflects his or her state of hydration. A healthy body maintains plasma osmolality within a narrow range, by employing several mechanisms that regulate both water intake and output.

This figure is a top-to bottom flowchart describing the thirst response. The topmost box of the chart states that there is insufficient water in the body, which has two effects. The left branch of the chart leads to decreased blood volume, which leads to decreased blood pressure. This triggers an increase in angiotensin two. Angiotensin two stimulates the thirst center in the hypothalamus. On the right branch, insufficient water in the body leads to increased blood osmolality, which causes dry mouth. Increased blood osmolality and dry mouth is sensed by osmoreceptors in the hypothalamus. This stimulates the thirst center in the hypothalamus to increase thirst, giving a person the urge to drink. Drinking decreases blood osmolality back to homeostatic levels.

Figure 1. Click to view a larger image. The thirst response begins when osmoreceptors detect a decrease in water levels in the blood.

Drinking water is considered voluntary. So how is water intake regulated by the body? Consider someone who is experiencing dehydration, a net loss of water that results in insufficient water in blood and other tissues. The water that leaves the body, as exhaled air, sweat, or urine, is ultimately extracted from blood plasma. As the blood becomes more concentrated, the thirst response—a sequence of physiological processes—is triggered. Osmoreceptors are sensory receptors in the thirst center in the hypothalamus that monitor the concentration of solutes (osmolality) of the blood. If blood osmolality increases above its ideal value, the hypothalamus transmits signals that result in a conscious awareness of thirst. The person should (and normally does) respond by drinking water. The hypothalamus of a dehydrated person also releases antidiuretic hormone (ADH) through the posterior pituitary gland. ADH signals the kidneys to recover water from urine, effectively diluting the blood plasma. To conserve water, the hypothalamus of a dehydrated person also sends signals via the sympathetic nervous system to the salivary glands in the mouth. The signals result in a decrease in watery, serous output (and an increase in stickier, thicker mucus output). These changes in secretions result in a “dry mouth” and the sensation of thirst.

Decreased blood volume resulting from water loss has two additional effects. First, baroreceptors, blood-pressure receptors in the arch of the aorta and the carotid arteries in the neck, detect a decrease in blood pressure that results from decreased blood volume. The heart is ultimately signaled to increase its rate and/or strength of contractions to compensate for the lowered blood pressure.

Second, the kidneys have a renin-angiotensin hormonal system that increases the production of the active form of the hormone angiotensin II, which helps stimulate thirst, but also stimulates the release of the hormone aldosterone from the adrenal glands. Aldosterone increases the reabsorption of sodium in the distal tubules of the nephrons in the kidneys, and water follows this reabsorbed sodium back into the blood.

If adequate fluids are not consumed, dehydration results and a person’s body contains too little water to function correctly. A person who repeatedly vomits or who has diarrhea may become dehydrated, and infants, because their body mass is so low, can become dangerously dehydrated very quickly. Endurance athletes such as distance runners often become dehydrated during long races. Dehydration can be a medical emergency, and a dehydrated person may lose consciousness, become comatose, or die, if his or her body is not rehydrated quickly.

Regulation of Water Output

Water loss from the body occurs predominantly through the renal system. A person produces an average of 1.5 liters (1.6 quarts) of urine per day. Although the volume of urine varies in response to hydration levels, there is a minimum volume of urine production required for proper bodily functions. The kidney excretes 100 to 1200 milliosmoles of solutes per day to rid the body of a variety of excess salts and other water-soluble chemical wastes, most notably creatinine, urea, and uric acid. Failure to produce the minimum volume of urine means that metabolic wastes cannot be effectively removed from the body, a situation that can impair organ function. The minimum level of urine production necessary to maintain normal function is about 0.47 liters (0.5 quarts) per day. The kidneys also must make adjustments in the event of ingestion of too much fluid. Diuresis, which is the production of urine in excess of normal levels, begins about 30 minutes after drinking a large quantity of fluid. Diuresis reaches a peak after about 1 hour, and normal urine production is reestablished after about 3 hours.

Role of ADH

This set of diagrams shows the effects of ADH on various structures within the body. In the brain, ADH affects the cerebrum by influencing social behavior in some mammals. ADH is also produced in the brain by the hypothalamus and released in the posterior pituitary. ADH also constricts arterioles in the body, which are the small arteries that enter into capillary beds. Finally, a kidney is shown because ADH increases the reabsorption of water in the kidneys.

Figure 2. ADH is produced in the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary gland. It causes the kidneys to retain water, constricts arterioles in the peripheral circulation, and affects some social behaviors in mammals.

Antidiuretic hormone (ADH), also known as vasopressin, controls the amount of water reabsorbed from the collecting ducts and tubules in the kidney. This hormone is produced in the hypothalamus and is delivered to the posterior pituitary for storage and release (Figure 2.). When the osmoreceptors in the hypothalamus detect an increase in the concentration of blood plasma, the hypothalamus signals the release of ADH from the posterior pituitary into the blood.

ADH has two major effects. It constricts the arterioles in the peripheral circulation, which reduces the flow of blood to the extremities and thereby increases the blood supply to the core of the body. ADH also causes the epithelial cells that line the renal collecting tubules to move water channel proteins, called aquaporins, from the interior of the cells to the apical surface, where these proteins are inserted into the cell membrane. The result is an increase in the water permeability of these cells and, thus, a large increase in water passage from the urine through the walls of the collecting tubules, leading to more reabsorption of water into the bloodstream. When the blood plasma becomes less concentrated and the level of ADH decreases, aquaporins are removed from collecting tubule cell membranes, and the passage of water out of urine and into the blood decreases.

This diagram depicts a cross section of the right wall of a kidney collecting tubule. The wall is composed of three block-shaped cells arranged vertically one on top of each other. The lumen of the collecting tubule is to the left of the three cells. Yellow-colored urine is flowing through the lumen. There is a small strip of blue interstitial fluid to the right of the three cells. To the right of the interstitial fluid is a cross section of a blood vessel. Arrows show that water in the urine is entering the left side of the wall cells through aquaporins. The water travels through the cells and then leaves the kidney tubule through additional aquaporins in the right side of the wall cells. The water travels through the interstitial space and enters into the blood in the blood vessel. The aquaporins in the wall cells are being released from aquaporin storage vesicles within their cytoplasm.

Figure 3. The binding of ADH to receptors on the cells of the collecting tubule results in aquaporins being inserted into the plasma membrane, shown in the lower cell. This dramatically increases the flow of water out of the tubule and into the bloodstream.

A diuretic is a compound that increases urine output and therefore decreases water conservation by the body. Diuretics are used to treat hypertension, congestive heart failure, and fluid retention associated with menstruation. Alcohol acts as a diuretic by inhibiting the release of ADH. Additionally, caffeine, when consumed in high concentrations, acts as a diuretic.

Electrolyte balance

The body contains a large variety of ions, or electrolytes, which perform a variety of functions. Some ions assist in the transmission of electrical impulses along cell membranes in neurons and muscles. Other ions help to stabilize protein structures in enzymes. Still others aid in releasing hormones from endocrine glands. All of the ions in plasma contribute to the osmotic balance that controls the movement of water between cells and their environment.

Electrolytes in living systems include sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate, calcium, phosphate, magnesium, copper, zinc, iron, manganese, molybdenum, copper, and chromium. In terms of body functioning, six electrolytes are most important: sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate, calcium, and phosphate.  These six ions aid in nerve excitability, endocrine secretion, membrane permeability, buffering body fluids, and controlling the movement of fluids between compartments.

Excretion of ions occurs mainly through the kidneys, with lesser amounts lost in sweat and in feces. Excessive sweating may cause a significant loss, especially of sodium and chloride. Severe vomiting or diarrhea will cause a loss of chloride and bicarbonate ions. Adjustments in respiratory and renal functions allow the body to regulate the levels of these ions in the ECF.

The following table lists the reference values for blood plasma, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), and urine for the six ions addressed in this section. In a clinical setting, sodium, potassium, and chloride are typically analyzed in a routine urine sample. In contrast, calcium and phosphate analysis requires a collection of urine across a 24-hour period, because the output of these ions can vary considerably over the course of a day. Urine values reflect the rates of excretion of these ions. Bicarbonate is the one ion that is not normally excreted in urine; instead, it is conserved by the kidneys for use in the body’s buffering systems.

Table 1. Electrolyte and Ion Reference Values
Name Chemical symbol Plasma CSF Urine
Sodium Na+ 136.00–146.00 (mM) 138.00–150.00 (mM) 40.00–220.00 (mM)
Potassium K+ 3.50–5.00 (mM) 0.35–3.5 (mM) 25.00–125.00 (mM)
Chloride Cl 98.00–107.00 (mM) 118.00–132.00 (mM) 110.00–250.00 (mM)
Bicarbonate HCO3 22.00–29.00 (mM) —— ——
Calcium Ca++ 2.15–2.55 (mmol/day) —— Up to 7.49 (mmol/day)
Phosphate PO4 0.81–1.45 (mmol/day) —— 12.90–42.00 (mmol/day)

Imbalances of these ions can result in various problems in the body, and their concentrations are tightly regulated. Aldosterone and angiotensin II control the exchange of sodium and potassium between the renal filtrate and the renal collecting tubule. Calcium and phosphate are regulated by PTH, calcitrol, and calcitonin.


Sodium is the major cation of the extracellular fluid. It is responsible for one-half of the osmotic pressure gradient that exists between the interior of cells and their surrounding environment. People eating a typical Western diet, which is very high in NaCl, routinely take in 130 to 160 mmol/day of sodium, but humans require only 1 to 2 mmol/day. This excess sodium appears to be a major factor in hypertension (high blood pressure) in some people. Excretion of sodium is accomplished primarily by the kidneys. Sodium is freely filtered through the glomerular capillaries of the kidneys, and although much of the filtered sodium is reabsorbed in the proximal convoluted tubule, some remains in the filtrate and urine, and is normally excreted.

Hyponatremia is a lower-than-normal concentration of sodium, usually associated with excess water accumulation in the body, which dilutes the sodium.  An abnormal loss of sodium from the body can result from several conditions, including excessive sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea; the use of diuretics; excessive production of urine, which can occur in diabetes; and acidosis, either metabolic acidosis or diabetic ketoacidosis. At the cellular level, hyponatremia results in increased entry of water into cells by osmosis, because the concentration of solutes within the cell exceeds the concentration of solutes in the now-diluted ECF. The excess water causes swelling of the cells; the swelling of red blood cells—decreasing their oxygen-carrying efficiency and making them potentially too large to fit through capillaries—along with the swelling of neurons in the brain can result in brain damage or even death. Hypernatremia is an abnormal increase of blood sodium. It can result from water loss from the blood.  Hormonal imbalances involving ADH and aldosterone may also result in higher-than-normal sodium values.


Potassium is the major intracellular cation. It helps establish the resting membrane potential in neurons and muscle fibers after membrane depolarization and action potentials. In contrast to sodium, potassium has very little effect on osmotic pressure.

Hypokalemia is an abnormally low potassium blood level. Similar to the situation with hyponatremia, hypokalemia can occur because of either an absolute reduction of potassium in the body or a relative reduction of potassium in the blood due to the redistribution of potassium. An absolute loss of potassium can arise from decreased intake, frequently related to starvation. It can also come about from vomiting, diarrhea, or alkalosis. Hyperkalemia, an elevated potassium blood level, also can impair the function of skeletal muscles, the nervous system, and the heart. Hyperkalemia can result from increased dietary intake of potassium. In such a situation, potassium from the blood ends up in the ECF in abnormally high concentrations. This can result in a partial depolarization (excitation) of the plasma membrane of skeletal muscle fibers, neurons, and cardiac cells of the heart, and can also lead to an inability of cells to repolarize. For the heart, this means that it won’t relax after a contraction, and will effectively “seize” and stop pumping blood, which is fatal within minutes. Because of such effects on the nervous system, a person with hyperkalemia may also exhibit mental confusion, numbness, and weakened respiratory muscles.


Chloride is the predominant extracellular anion. Chloride is a major contributor to the osmotic pressure gradient between the ICF and ECF, and plays an important role in maintaining proper hydration.

Hypochloremia, or lower-than-normal blood chloride levels, can occur because of defective renal tubular absorption. Vomiting, diarrhea, and metabolic acidosis can also lead to hypochloremia. Hyperchloremia, or higher-than-normal blood chloride levels, can occur due to dehydration, excessive intake of dietary salt (NaCl) or swallowing of sea water, aspirin intoxication, congestive heart failure, and the hereditary, chronic lung disease, cystic fibrosis. In people who have cystic fibrosis, chloride levels in sweat are two to five times those of normal levels, and analysis of sweat is often used in the diagnosis of the disease.


Bicarbonate is the second most abundant anion in the blood. Its principal function is to maintain your body’s acid-base balance by being part of buffer systems.


About two pounds of calcium in your body are bound up in bone, which provides hardness to the bone and serves as a mineral reserve for calcium and its salts for the rest of the tissues. Teeth also have a high concentration of calcium within them. A little more than one-half of blood calcium is bound to proteins, leaving the rest in its ionized form. Calcium ions, Ca2+, are necessary for muscle contraction, enzyme activity, and blood coagulation. In addition, calcium helps to stabilize cell membranes and is essential for the release of neurotransmitters from neurons and of hormones from endocrine glands. Calcium is absorbed through the intestines under the influence of activated vitamin D. A deficiency of vitamin D leads to a decrease in absorbed calcium and, eventually, a depletion of calcium stores from the skeletal system, potentially leading to rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults, contributing to osteoporosis.

Hypocalcemia, or abnormally low calcium blood levels, is seen in hypoparathyroidism, which may follow the removal of the thyroid gland, because the four nodules of the parathyroid gland are embedded in it.  Hypercalcemia, or abnormally high calcium blood levels, is seen in primary hyperparathyroidism. Some malignancies may also result in hypercalcemia.


Bone and teeth bind up 85 percent of the body’s phosphate as part of calcium-phosphate salts. Phosphate is found in phospholipids, such as those that make up the cell membrane, and in ATP, nucleotides, and buffers.

Hypophosphatemia, or abnormally low phosphate blood levels, occurs with heavy use of antacids, during alcohol withdrawal, and during malnourishment. In the face of phosphate depletion, the kidneys usually conserve phosphate, but during starvation, this conservation is impaired greatly. Hyperphosphatemia, or abnormally increased levels of phosphates in the blood, occurs if there is decreased renal function or in cases of acute lymphocytic leukemia. Additionally, because phosphate is a major constituent of the ICF, any significant destruction of cells can result in dumping of phosphate into the ECF.

Regulation of Sodium and Potassium

Sodium is reabsorbed from the renal filtrate, and potassium is excreted into the filtrate in the renal collecting tubule. The control of this exchange is governed principally by two hormones—aldosterone and angiotensin II.


This flow chart shows how potassium and sodium ion concentrations in the blood are regulated by aldosterone. Rising K plus and falling NA plus levels in the blood trigger aldosterone release from the adrenal cortex. Aldosterone targets the kidneys, causing a decrease in K plus release from the kidneys, which reduces the amount of K plus in the blood back to homeostatic levels. Aldosterone also increases sodium reabsorption by the kidneys, which increases the amount of NA plus in the blood back to homeostatic levels.

Figure 4. Aldosterone, which is released by the adrenal gland, facilitates reabsorption of Na+ and thus the reabsorption of water.

Recall that aldosterone increases the excretion of potassium and the reabsorption of sodium in the distal tubule. Aldosterone is released if blood levels of potassium increase, if blood levels of sodium severely decrease, or if blood pressure decreases. Its net effect is to conserve and increase water levels in the plasma by reducing the excretion of sodium, and thus water, from the kidneys. In a negative feedback loop, increased osmolality of the ECF (which follows aldosterone-stimulated sodium absorption) inhibits the release of the hormone.

Angiotensin II

Angiotensin II causes vasoconstriction and an increase in systemic blood pressure. This action increases the glomerular filtration rate, resulting in more material filtered out of the glomerular capillaries and into Bowman’s capsule. Angiotensin II also signals an increase in the release of aldosterone from the adrenal cortex.

In the distal convoluted tubules and collecting ducts of the kidneys, aldosterone stimulates the synthesis and activation of the sodium-potassium pump. Sodium passes from the filtrate, into and through the cells of the tubules and ducts, into the ECF and then into capillaries. Water follows the sodium due to osmosis. Thus, aldosterone causes an increase in blood sodium levels and blood volume. Aldosterone’s effect on potassium is the reverse of that of sodium; under its influence, excess potassium is pumped into the renal filtrate for excretion from the body.

This figure shows the hormone cascade that that increases kidney reabsorption of NA plus and water. In the first step, the kidneys release renin into the blood stream. The blood stream is depicted with a red arrow pointing from left to right. At the same time, the liver releases angiotensinogen into the blood, which combines with the renin, yielding angiotensin one. The blood flow then leads to the lungs. Within the pulmonary blood, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) converts angiotensin one to angiotensin two. The blood then flows to the adrenal cortex, where angiotensin two stimulates the adrenal cortex to secrete aldosterone. Aldosterone causes the kidney tubules to increase reabsorption of NA plus and water into the blood.

Figure 5. Angiotensin II stimulates the release of aldosterone from the adrenal cortex.

Regulation of Calcium and Phosphate

Calcium and phosphate are both regulated through the actions of three hormones: parathyroid hormone (PTH), dihydroxyvitamin D (calcitriol), and calcitonin. All three are released or synthesized in response to the blood levels of calcium.

PTH is released from the parathyroid gland in response to a decrease in the concentration of blood calcium. The hormone activates osteoclasts to break down bone matrix and release inorganic calcium-phosphate salts. PTH also increases the gastrointestinal absorption of dietary calcium by converting vitamin D into dihydroxyvitamin D (calcitriol), an active form of vitamin D that intestinal epithelial cells require to absorb calcium.

PTH raises blood calcium levels by inhibiting the loss of calcium through the kidneys. PTH also increases the loss of phosphate through the kidneys.

Calcitonin is released from the thyroid gland in response to elevated blood levels of calcium. The hormone increases the activity of osteoblasts, which remove calcium from the blood and incorporate calcium into the bony matrix.

Blood Pressure Regulation

Due to osmosis, water follows where Na+ leads. Much of the water the kidneys recover from the forming urine follows the reabsorption of Na+. ADH stimulation of aquaporin channels allows for regulation of water recovery in the collecting ducts. Normally, all of the glucose is recovered, but loss of glucose control (diabetes mellitus) may result in an osmotic dieresis severe enough to produce severe dehydration and death. A loss of renal function means a loss of effective vascular volume control, leading to hypotension (low blood pressure) or hypertension (high blood pressure), which can lead to stroke, heart attack, and aneurysm formation.

Regulation of Osmolarity

Blood pressure and osmolarity are regulated in a similar fashion. Severe hypo-osmolarity can cause problems like lysis (rupture) of blood cells or widespread edema, which is due to a solute imbalance. Inadequate solute concentration (such as protein) in the plasma results in water moving toward an area of greater solute concentration, in this case, the interstitial space and cell cytoplasm. If the kidney glomeruli are damaged by an autoimmune illness, large quantities of protein may be lost in the urine. The resultant drop in serum osmolarity leads to widespread edema that, if severe, may lead to damaging or fatal brain swelling. Severe hypertonic conditions may arise with severe dehydration from lack of water intake, severe vomiting, or uncontrolled diarrhea. When the kidney is unable to recover sufficient water from the forming urine, the consequences may be severe (lethargy, confusion, muscle cramps, and finally, death) .

pH Regulation

Proper kidney function is essential for pH homeostasis.

Vitamin D Synthesis

In order for vitamin D to become active, it must undergo a hydroxylation reaction in the kidney, that is, an –OH group must be added to calcidiol to make calcitriol (1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol). Activated vitamin D is important for absorption of Ca++ in the digestive tract, its reabsorption in the kidney, and the maintenance of normal serum concentrations of Ca++ and phosphate. Calcium is vitally important in bone health, muscle contraction, hormone secretion, and neurotransmitter release. Inadequate Ca++ leads to disorders like osteoporosis and osteomalacia in adults and rickets in children. Deficits may also result in problems with cell proliferation, neuromuscular function, blood clotting, and the inflammatory response. Recent research has confirmed that vitamin D receptors are present in most, if not all, cells of the body, reflecting the systemic importance of vitamin D. Many scientists have suggested it be referred to as a hormone rather than a vitamin.

Erythropoiesis: control by EPO hormone.

EPO is a 193-amino acid protein that stimulates the formation of red blood cells in the bone marrow. The kidney produces 85 percent of circulating EPO; the liver, the remainder. If you move to a higher altitude, the partial pressure of oxygen is lower, meaning there is less pressure to push oxygen across the alveolar membrane and into the red blood cell. One way the body compensates is to manufacture more red blood cells by increasing EPO production. If you start an aerobic exercise program, your tissues will need more oxygen to cope, and the kidney will respond with more EPO. If erythrocytes are lost due to severe or prolonged bleeding, or under produced due to disease or severe malnutrition, the kidneys come to the rescue by producing more EPO. Renal failure (loss of EPO production) is associated with anemia, which makes it difficult for the body to cope with increased oxygen demands or to supply oxygen adequately even under normal conditions. Anemia diminishes performance and can be life threatening.