What is Homeostasis?

Homeostasis, in a general sense, refers to stability, balance, or equilibrium. Physiologically, it is the body’s attempt to maintain a constant and balanced internal environment, which requires persistent monitoring and adjustments as conditions change. Adjustment of physiological systems within the body is called homeostatic regulation, which involves three parts or mechanisms:

  1. the receptor
  2. the control center
  3. the effector

The receptor receives information that something in the environment is changing. The control center or integration center receives and processes information from the receptor. The effector responds to the commands of the control center by either opposing or enhancing the stimulus. This ongoing process continually works to restore and maintain homeostasis. For example, during body temperature regulation, temperature receptors in the skin communicate information to the brain (the control center) which signals the effectors: blood vessels and sweat glands in the skin. As the internal and external environment of the body are constantly changing, adjustments must be made continuously to stay at or near a specific value: the set point.

The goal of homeostasis is the maintenance of equilibrium around a specific value of some aspect of the body or its cells called a set point. While there are normal fluctuations from the set point, the body’s systems will usually attempt to go back to this point. A change in the internal or external environment is called a stimulus and is detected by a receptor; the response of the system is to adjust the activities of the system so the value moves back toward the set point. For instance, if the body becomes too warm, adjustments are made to cool the animal. If glucose levels in the blood rise after a meal, adjustments are made to lower them and to get the nutrient into tissues that need it or to store it for later use.

When a change occurs in an animal’s environment, an adjustment must be made so that the internal environment of the body and cells remains stable. The receptor that senses the change in the environment is part of a feedback mechanism. The stimulus—temperature, glucose, or calcium levels—is detected by the receptor. The receptor sends information to a control center, often the brain, which relays appropriate signals to an effector organ that is able to cause an appropriate change, either up or down, depending on the information the sensor was sending.