Osmoregulation and Osmotic Balance

Explain why osmoregulation and osmotic balance are important body functions

Osmoregulation and osmotic balance are important bodily functions, resulting in water and salt balance. This regulation equalizes the number of solute molecules across a semi-permeable membrane by the movement of water to the side of higher solute concentration.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain why osmoregulation and osmotic balance are important body functions
  • Explain osmolarity and the way in which it is measured
  • Describe osmoregulators or osmoconformers and how these tools allow animals to adapt to different environments
  • Explain how hormonal cues help the kidneys synchronize the osmotic needs of the body

Osmosis is the diffusion of water across a membrane in response to osmotic pressure caused by an imbalance of molecules on either side of the membrane. Osmoregulation is the process of maintenance of salt and water balance (osmotic balance) across membranes within the body’s fluids, which are composed of water, plus electrolytes and non-electrolytes. An electrolyte is a solute that dissociates into ions when dissolved in water. A non-electrolyte, in contrast, doesn’t dissociate into ions during water dissolution. Both electrolytes and non-electrolytes contribute to the osmotic balance. The body’s fluids include blood plasma, the cytosol within cells, and interstitial fluid, the fluid that exists in the spaces between cells and tissues of the body. The membranes of the body (such as the pleural, serous, and cell membranes) are semi-permeable membranes. Semi-permeable membranes are permeable (or permissive) to certain types of solutes and water. Solutions on two sides of a semi-permeable membrane tend to equalize in solute concentration by movement of solutes and/or water across the membrane.

The left part of this illustration shows shriveled red blood cells bathed in a hypertonic solution. The middle part shows healthy red blood cells bathed in an isotonic solution, and the right part shows bloated red blood cells bathed in a hypotonic solution. One of the bloated cells in the hypotonic solution bursts.

Figure 1. Cells placed in a hypertonic environment tend to shrink due to loss of water. In a hypotonic environment, cells tend to swell due to intake of water. The blood maintains an isotonic environment so that cells neither shrink nor swell. (credit: Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

As seen in Figure 1, a cell placed in water tends to swell due to gain of water from the hypotonic or “low salt” environment. A cell placed in a solution with higher salt concentration, on the other hand, tends to make the membrane shrivel up due to loss of water into the hypertonic or “high salt” environment. Isotonic cells have an equal concentration of solutes inside and outside the cell; this equalizes the osmotic pressure on either side of the cell membrane which is a semi-permeable membrane.

The body does not exist in isolation. There is a constant input of water and electrolytes into the system. While osmoregulation is achieved across membranes within the body, excess electrolytes and wastes are transported to the kidneys and excreted, helping to maintain osmotic balance.

Need for Osmoregulation

Biological systems constantly interact and exchange water and nutrients with the environment by way of consumption of food and water and through excretion in the form of sweat, urine, and feces. Without a mechanism to regulate osmotic pressure, or when a disease damages this mechanism, there is a tendency to accumulate toxic waste and water, which can have dire consequences.

Mammalian systems have evolved to regulate not only the overall osmotic pressure across membranes, but also specific concentrations of important electrolytes in the three major fluid compartments: blood plasma, extracellular fluid, and intracellular fluid. Since osmotic pressure is regulated by the movement of water across membranes, the volume of the fluid compartments can also change temporarily. Because blood plasma is one of the fluid components, osmotic pressures have a direct bearing on blood pressure.

Osmolality and Milliequivalent

Transport of Electrolytes

Electrolytes, such as sodium chloride, ionize in water, meaning that they dissociate into their component ions. In water, sodium chloride (NaCl), dissociates into the sodium ion (Na+) and the chloride ion (Cl). The most important ions, whose concentrations are very closely regulated in body fluids, are the cations sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca+2), magnesium (Mg+2), and the anions chloride (Cl), carbonate (CO3–2), bicarbonate (HCO3), and phosphate(PO3). Electrolytes are lost from the body during urination and perspiration. For this reason, athletes are encouraged to replace electrolytes and fluids during periods of increased activity and perspiration.

Osmotic pressure is influenced by the concentration of solutes in a solution. It is directly proportional to the number of solute atoms or molecules and not dependent on the size of the solute molecules. Because electrolytes dissociate into their component ions, they, in essence, add more solute particles into the solution and have a greater effect on osmotic pressure, per mass than compounds that do not dissociate in water, such as glucose.

Water can pass through membranes by passive diffusion. If electrolyte ions could passively diffuse across membranes, it would be impossible to maintain specific concentrations of ions in each fluid compartment therefore they require special mechanisms to cross the semi-permeable membranes in the body. This movement can be accomplished by facilitated diffusion and active transport. Facilitated diffusion requires protein-based channels for moving the solute. Active transport requires energy in the form of ATP conversion, carrier proteins, or pumps in order to move ions against the concentration gradient.

Osmolality and Milliequivalent

In order to calculate osmotic pressure, it is necessary to understand how solute concentrations are measured. The unit for measuring solutes is the mole. One mole is defined as the gram molecular weight of the solute. For example, the molecular weight of sodium chloride is 58.44. Thus, one mole of sodium chloride weighs 58.44 grams. The molarity of a solution is the number of moles of solute per liter of solution. The molality of a solution is the number of moles of solute per kilogram of solvent. If the solvent is water, one kilogram of water is equal to one liter of water. While molarity and molality are used to express the concentration of solutions, electrolyte concentrations are usually expressed in terms of milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L): the mEq/L is equal to the ion concentration (in millimoles) multiplied by the number of electrical charges on the ion. The unit of milliequivalent takes into consideration the ions present in the solution (since electrolytes form ions in aqueous solutions) and the charge on the ions.

Thus, for ions that have a charge of one, one milliequivalent is equal to one millimole. For ions that have a charge of two (like calcium), one milliequivalent is equal to 0.5 millimoles. Another unit for the expression of electrolyte concentration is the milliosmole (mOsm), which is the number of milliequivalents of solute per kilogram of solvent. Body fluids are usually maintained within the range of 280 to 300 mOsm.

Osmoregulators and Osmoconformers

Persons lost at sea without any fresh water to drink are at risk of severe dehydration because the human body cannot adapt to drinking seawater, which is hypertonic in comparison to body fluids. Organisms such as goldfish that can tolerate only a relatively narrow range of salinity are referred to as stenohaline. About 90 percent of all bony fish are restricted to either freshwater or seawater. They are incapable of osmotic regulation in the opposite environment. It is possible, however, for a few fishes like salmon to spend part of their life in fresh water and part in sea water. Organisms like the salmon and molly that can tolerate a relatively wide range of salinity are referred to as euryhaline organisms. The opposite of euryhaline organisms are stenohaline ones, which can only survive within a narrow range of salinities. Most freshwater organisms are stenohaline, and will die in seawater, and similarly most marine organisms are stenohaline, and cannot live in fresh water.

Osmoconformers match their body osmolarity to their environment actively or passively. Most marine invertebrates are osmoconformers, although their ionic composition may be different from that of seawater. Osmoregulators tightly regulate their body osmolarity, which always stays constant, and are more common in the animal kingdom. Osmoregulators actively control salt concentrations despite the salt concentrations in the environment. An example is freshwater fish.

Some fish have evolved osmoregulatory mechanisms to survive in all kinds of aquatic environments. When they live in fresh water, their bodies tend to take up water because the environment is relatively hypotonic, as illustrated in Figure 2. In such hypotonic environments, these fish do not drink much water. Instead, they pass a lot of very dilute urine, and they achieve electrolyte balance by active transport of salts through the gills.

Illustration A shows a fish in a freshwater environment, where water is absorbed through the skin. To compensate, the fish drinks little water and excretes dilute urine. Sodium, potassium and chlorine ions are lost through the skin, and the fish actively transports these same ions into its gills to compensate for this loss.

Figure 2. Osmoregulation in a freshwater environment. (credit: modification of work by Duane Raver, NOAA)

When they move to a hypertonic marine environment, these fish start drinking sea water; they excrete the excess salts through their gills and their urine, as illustrated in Figure 3. Most marine invertebrates, on the other hand, may be isotonic with sea water (osmoconformers). Their body fluid concentrations conform to changes in seawater concentration. Cartilaginous fishes’ salt composition of the blood is similar to bony fishes; however, the blood of sharks contains the organic compounds urea and trimethylamine oxide (TMAO). This does not mean that their electrolyte composition is similar to that of sea water. They achieve isotonicity with the sea by storing large concentrations of urea. These animals that secrete urea are called ureotelic animals. TMAO stabilizes proteins in the presence of high urea levels, preventing the disruption of peptide bonds that would occur in other animals exposed to similar levels of urea. Sharks are cartilaginous fish with a rectal gland to secrete salt and assist in osmoregulation.

Illustration B shows a fish in a saltwater environment, where water is lost through the skin. To compensate, the fish drinks ample water and excretes concentrated urine. It absorbs sodium, potassium, and chlorine ions through its skin, and excretes them through its gills.

Figure 3. Osmoregulation in a saltwater environment. (credit: modification of work by Duane Raver, NOAA)

Dialysis Technician

Dialysis is a medical process of removing wastes and excess water from the blood by diffusion and ultrafiltration. When kidney function fails, dialysis must be done to artificially rid the body of wastes. This is a vital process to keep patients alive. In some cases, the patients undergo artificial dialysis until they are eligible for a kidney transplant. In others who are not candidates for kidney transplants, dialysis is a life-long necessity.

Dialysis technicians typically work in hospitals and clinics. While some roles in this field include equipment development and maintenance, most dialysis technicians work in direct patient care. Their on-the-job duties, which typically occur under the direct supervision of a registered nurse, focus on providing dialysis treatments. This can include reviewing patient history and current condition, assessing and responding to patient needs before and during treatment, and monitoring the dialysis process. Treatment may include taking and reporting a patient’s vital signs and preparing solutions and equipment to ensure accurate and sterile procedures.

Hormonal Cues

Hormonal cues help the kidneys synchronize the osmotic needs of the body. Hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, renin-angiotensin, aldosterone, anti-diuretic hormone, and atrial natriuretic peptide help regulate the needs of the body as well as the communication between the different organ systems.

While the kidneys operate to maintain osmotic balance and blood pressure in the body, they also act in concert with hormones. Hormones are small molecules that act as messengers within the body. Hormones are typically secreted from one cell and travel in the bloodstream to affect a target cell in another portion of the body. Different regions of the nephron bear specialized cells that have receptors to respond to chemical messengers and hormones. Table 1 summarizes the hormones that control the osmoregulatory functions.

Table 1. Hormones That Affect Osmoregulation
Hormone Where produced Function
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine Adrenal medulla Can decrease kidney function temporarily by vasoconstriction
Renin Kidney nephrons Increases blood pressure by acting on angiotensinogen
Angiotensin Liver Angiotensin II affects multiple processes and increases blood pressure
Aldosterone Adrenal cortex Prevents loss of sodium and water
Anti-diuretic hormone (vasopressin) Hypothalamus (stored in the posterior pituitary) Prevents water loss
Atrial natriuretic peptide Heart atrium Decreases blood pressure by acting as a vasodilator and increasing glomerular filtration rate; decreases sodium reabsorption in kidneys

Epinephrine and Norepinephrine

Epinephrine and norepinephrine are released by the adrenal medulla and nervous system respectively. They are the flight/fight hormones that are released when the body is under extreme stress. During stress, much of the body’s energy is used to combat imminent danger. Kidney function is halted temporarily by epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones function by acting directly on the smooth muscles of blood vessels to constrict them. Once the afferent arterioles are constricted, blood flow into the nephrons stops. These hormones go one step further and trigger the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system.


The renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, illustrated in Figure 4 proceeds through several steps to produce angiotensin II, which acts to stabilize blood pressure and volume. Renin (secreted by a part of the juxtaglomerular complex) is produced by the granular cells of the afferent and efferent arterioles. Thus, the kidneys control blood pressure and volume directly. Renin acts on angiotensinogen, which is made in the liver and converts it to angiotensin I. Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) converts angiotensin I to angiotensin II. Angiotensin II raises blood pressure by constricting blood vessels. It also triggers the release of the mineralocorticoid aldosterone from the adrenal cortex, which in turn stimulates the renal tubules to reabsorb more sodium. Angiotensin II also triggers the release of anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) from the hypothalamus, leading to water retention in the kidneys. It acts directly on the nephrons and decreases glomerular filtration rate. Medically, blood pressure can be controlled by drugs that inhibit ACE (called ACE inhibitors).

The renin-angiotensin-aldosterone pathway involves four hormones: renin, which is made in the kidney, angiotensin, which is made in the liver, aldosterone, which is made in the adrenal glands, and ADH, which is made in the hypothalamus and secreted by the posterior pituitary. The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys, and the hypothalamus and pituitary are in the brain. The pathway begins when renin converts angiotensin into angiotensin I. An enzyme called ACE then converts angiotensin I into angiotensin II. Angiotensin II has several direct effects. These include arterial constriction, which increases blood pressure, decreasing the glomerular filtration rate, which results in water retention, and increasing thirst. Angiotensin II also triggers the release of two other hormones, aldosterone and ADH. Aldosterone causes nephron distal tubules to reabsorb more sodium and water, which increases blood volume. ADH moderates the insertion of aquaporins into the nephridial collecting ducts. As a result, more water is reabsorbed by the blood. ADH also causes arteries to constrict. The hormone ANP is antagonistic to the angiotensin pathway. ANP decreases blood pressure and volume by increasing the glomerulus filtration rate, increasing reabsorption of sodium ions by the nephron, and by inhibiting the release of renin from the kidney and aldosterone from the adrenal gland.

Figure 4. The renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system increases blood pressure and volume. The hormone ANP has antagonistic effects. (credit: modification of work by Mikael Häggström)


Mineralocorticoids are hormones synthesized by the adrenal cortex that affect osmotic balance. Aldosterone is a mineralocorticoid that regulates sodium levels in the blood. Almost all of the sodium in the blood is reclaimed by the renal tubules under the influence of aldosterone. Because sodium is always reabsorbed by active transport and water follows sodium to maintain osmotic balance, aldosterone manages not only sodium levels but also the water levels in body fluids. In contrast, the aldosterone also stimulates potassium secretion concurrently with sodium reabsorption. In contrast, absence of aldosterone means that no sodium gets reabsorbed in the renal tubules and all of it gets excreted in the urine. In addition, the daily dietary potassium load is not secreted and the retention of K+ can cause a dangerous increase in plasma K+ concentration. Patients who have Addison’s disease have a failing adrenal cortex and cannot produce aldosterone. They lose sodium in their urine constantly, and if the supply is not replenished, the consequences can be fatal.

Antidiurectic Hormone

As previously discussed, antidiuretic hormone or ADH (also called vasopressin), as the name suggests, helps the body conserve water when body fluid volume, especially that of blood, is low. It is formed by the hypothalamus and is stored and released from the posterior pituitary. It acts by inserting aquaporins in the collecting ducts and promotes reabsorption of water. ADH also acts as a vasoconstrictor and increases blood pressure during hemorrhaging.

Atrial Natriuretic Peptide Hormone

The atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) lowers blood pressure by acting as a vasodilator. It is released by cells in the atrium of the heart in response to high blood pressure and in patients with sleep apnea. ANP affects salt release, and because water passively follows salt to maintain osmotic balance, it also has a diuretic effect. ANP also prevents sodium reabsorption by the renal tubules, decreasing water reabsorption (thus acting as a diuretic) and lowering blood pressure. Its actions suppress the actions of aldosterone, ADH, and renin.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.