Articles > An introduction to Homeostasis

An introduction to Homeostasis

Researched and Written by Jonjo Minns

Submitted to on February 25, 2009.

Published in on March 29, 2009.


Homeostasis is defined
as “the condition of equilibrium (balance) in the bodies internal environment
due to the consistent interaction of the body’s main regulatory processes”
Tortora and Derrickson [2009:8].  The
scope of this essay is that it will describe the concept of homeostasis, in
addition to the homeostatic mechanisms of which regulate heart rate, breathing
rate, body temperature, and blood glucose levels.  In addition to this, the importance of
homeostasis in maintaining healthy functioning of the body will be explained.


The maintenance
of body temperature is the responsibility of a team of structures within the
body.  Temperature control is vital to
the maintenance of homeostasis within the body. 
Heat is sensed by thermo-regulators in both the skin and the
hypothalamus.  The difference is,
internal temperature (temperature inside the body) is sensed by thy hypothalamus,
and external temperature (temperature outside the body) is sensed by the skin.


When the
external temperature outside is too cold, messages are sent from the many
thermo-receptors located within the skin (or from thermo-receptors located
either deep in the muscle or in the blood), to the cerebellum leading to the
hypothalamus.  The role of the cerebellum
is to make the individual aware of feeling cold, of which may cause voluntary behavioural
changes such as putting on more layers of clothing or a coat. 


Once the message
is received by the hypothalamus, a series of reactions follow.  The first of which is by the hypothalamus, of
which secretes thyroid releasing hormone (TRH). 
This hormone’s target is the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland.  When the TRH reaches its target, it releases
Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) of when then enters the blood stream.  The target of this hormone is the thyroid


Once the TSH is
received by the thyroid gland, thyroxin is produced.  The role of thyroxin is to increase cellular
metabolism in order to generate heat. 
This hormone also inhibits vasoconstriction, the process whereas blood
is diverted from the skin in order to conserve heat by keeping it deep within
the body.  Sweating is also reduced to
keep the surface of the skin dry, thus preventing heat loss.  In addition to all of these processes, the
erector pilli muscles contract, causing the skin hairs to stand erect.  This traps air between the hairs and the skin
and creates a layer of insulation, therefore keeping the body warmer.  In addition, the phenomenon of shivering is
displayed and the bodies’ metabolic rate is increased.


One of the
effects of the body becoming too cold is hypothermia.  This occurs when the body’s core temperature
falls from the norm, 37 degrees (98F) to an abnormal temperature below 35
degrees (95F).  This is usually the
response to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures.  As was mentioned above, the normal response
of the body in such situations is to take preventative action for example
applying more layers or going out indoors. 
However if this is not possible, such as in hill walking, then
hypothermia can ensue.  When an
individual is presented with a cold environment, the normal response would be
shivering, vasoconstriction, and endocrine activity (where the body releases
hormones in order to promote the generation of heat), however in hypothermia,
these are not substantial enough to maintain the normal core temperature of the


There are
multiple symptoms to hypothermia; these include excessive shivering, feeling
cold, and lethargy, less tolerable of the cold, pale skin with any accompanying
cyanosis (blue skin).  These are the
symptoms of a mild case of hypothermia. 
In the moderate case, the symptoms are as follows; extremely violent
shivering of which cannot be controlled, cognitive difficulties, confusion,
loss of fine motor skills, sleepiness, shallow, slow breathing rate.  These are just a selection of the symptoms
typically seen from a moderate case of hypothermia, of course there are
more.  These extend more seriously into a
severe case if hypothermia symptoms include loss of gross motor skills,
cessation of shivering, unconsciousness, dilated pupils, weak pulse, weak
breathing rate, and cardio-respiratory arrest. 
There may also be a degree of cyanosis present due to the lack of blood
to the superficial layers of the skin.


Hypothermia is
treated by slow re-warming of the individual. 
This is done within the acute care setting for the moderate and severe
cases.  The warming of the individual’s
body takes place from the inside, mainly by using warm intravenous fluids.


When the body is
too warm, messages are sent in the same way as if the body is cold to the
hypothalamus, this causes an increase in the amount of sweating, this is
releasing heat via water, and the water on the skin evaporates, cooling the
body down.  Vasodilatation is also
apparent, in this instance, blood is diverted to the skin in order to loose
heat, the erector pilli muscles relax, allowing the skin hairs to be lowered,
and the bodies’ metabolic rate is reduced. 
The reactions are different for each of the environmental states as the
messages of which are sent are different. 
There is one message for cold and a different one for hot.


Water balance is
another very important aspect of homeostasis of which needs to be controlled
within narrow limits.  The control of
water balance is conducted using the following series of events.  The osmoreceptors located within the
hypothalamus detect the condition of fluid balance within the body.  In the event of the fluid balance dropping
too low, then the hypothalamus will act to bring the level back up by keeping
more water within the body. 


If the
concentration of water within the body is too high, then the hypothalamus will
react to excrete more water from the body. 
In the event of the hypothalamus sensing a change in fluid balance,
messages are sent to the cerebellum, of where a feeling of thirst is produced,
this is only when there is there is not enough water within the body.  In addition, the hypothalamus sends a message
also to the posterior pituitary gland to induce the secretion of ADH, the
action of the ADH in this instance is to increase the permeability of the
kidney’s collecting duct.  Therefore,
increasing the amount of water of which is reabsorbed into the body.  On the contrary, if there is too much water
within the body then the pituitary gland secretes no ADH, therefore more water
leaves the body in the urine.


Blood glucose is
another contributing factor to homeostasis. 
The blood glucose concentration in the blood is vital to the functioning
of cells within the body and is controlled by a number of internal structures
and external influence (food and drink). 
If too much glucose is present within the blood, then specific receptors
located within the pancreas detect this. 
These receptors then send messages to the cerebellum, feelings of
satiety (feeling full) are induced, and therefore the individual’s intake of
food is decreased.  Messages are also
sent to the islets of Langerhans for the production of insulin to
commence.  Once insulin is produced, it
is secreted into the capillary circulation and eventually into the systemic
blood stream.  The insulin has many
effects, mainly consisting of increasing the intake of glucose by all the cells
of the body.  This action uses up surplus
glucose and brings back a stable equilibrium. 
The insulin also aids in the conversion of glucose into a substance
called glycogen in the liver, thus lowering the level of glucose in the blood
and restoring equilibrium. 


On the other
hand, if there is not enough glucose in the bloodstream, then the very same
receptors, of which are located in the pancreas detect the change.  Once again, a message is sent to the cerebellum,
of which brings around feelings of hunger, therefore increasing the consumption
of food and drink.  Messages are also
sent to cells in the islets of langerhans to start the production of glucagon.  This glucagon is released by the islets of
langerhans into the capillary circulation. 
In turn the systemic blood stream, and stimulates the liver to convert
stored glycogen into glucose.  In
addition, the liver is stimulated also to start the conversion of amino acids
into glucose, therefore the levels of glucose in the bloodstream rise and
equilibrium is achieved.


Homeostasis is
also heavily involved with the control of the respiratory rate.  In the norm, individuals are not conscious of
their respiration.  This is because the
act of respiration is involuntary. 
Respiration is under involuntary control through an area of the brain
termed the medulla.  Within the medulla
is an area known as the breathing centre. 
The breathing centre is composed into sections, allowing each to tackle
an alternate aspect to respiration.  Both
the dorsal and the lateral areas assist with inspiration and provide
stimulation for respiration.  In
addition, the ventral area increases both the depth and rate of
respiration.  The centre is linked with
the intercostals nerves and the phrenic nerves, leading to the diaphragm.  Theses routes provide a method of
communication between the thorax, the respiratory system, and the medulla. 


The medulla is
chief in maintaining a constant rate of respiration and depth.  However, both external and internal stimuli
can alter the rate of respiration, making it higher or lower than the
norm.  The main influence to this is the
level of carbon dioxide in the blood stream. 
If the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood stream increases, then
chemoreceptors located within both aortic and carotid bodies become aroused.  This causes messages to be sent to the
medulla of which send nerve impulses back down the phrenic and intercostals
nerves to the intercostals muscles and the diaphragm.  This causes them to contract and relax more
quickly and therefore increasing the breathing rate.  In order to introduce more oxygen to the
blood stream and bring back equilibrium of both oxygen and carbon dioxide
levels in the blood stream.  This process
is an example of negative feedback.


As for the
control of the breathing rate, the medulla also controls the heart rate.  The set process for the regulation of the
heart rate is rather complex and is as follows. 
As an individual exercises, special receptors located within the muscles
send impulses to the medulla.  Once these
messages are received, the medulla secretes epinephrine and
norepinephrine.  The combination of these
two chemicals proceed through pathways within the nervous system until they
reach the Sino-atrial node, located within the myocardium it acts like a
pacemaker, controlling its electrical activity. 
These chemicals arouse the Sino-atrial node, making it produce more
electrical energy, thus making the heart rate increase.


On the other
hand, when exercise is ceased, the muscles send additional impulses to the
medulla of which responds by secreting the hormone acetylcholine, this hormones
decreases the heart rate by slowing down the electrical impulses from the
Sino-atrial node and therefore, decreasing the heart rate.  In addition, the medulla can also recognize
other factors of which cause an increase in heart rate.  These include emotional stress.  In this instance, the medulla also takes
information from the thalamus, which informs the medulla of the stressor.  This is with the addition of information
received from the nervous system.  The
combination of the two would enable the best response possible to be triggered. 




Books Used


D.J Taylor,
N.P.O Green, G.W Stout, 1997, Biological
Science 1 & 2,
3rd Ed,Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge,


Tortora G. T,
Derrickson B. H, 2009, Principles of
Anatomy and Physiology: Volume 1: Organisation, Support, Movement, and Control
Systems of the Human Body,
12th Ed, John Wiley and Sons, Pte.  Ltd, Asia


W Gordon Sears,
R S Winwood, 1974, Anatomy and Physiology
for Nurses and other students of human biology,
5th Ed, Edward
Arnold Publishers, London


Stretch B and
Whitehouse M, 2007, BTEC National Health
and Social Care Book 1,
Heinemann, Oxford


Web Pages Used
– BBC Bite size –
Revision Notes ( – Google – How
Stuff Works UK
– Springer Link – Home – Yahoo! Directory
– Wiley Interscience – Karger Search
– BBC Health – NHS Choices


Journals, newspapers and magazines (either print or
online) Used – International
Journal of Biological Sciences – New
Scientist – Nursing
Times Online


Computer Software Used


Encarta 2002 – CD-ROM


Reference List


Tortora G. T,
Derrickson B. H, 2009, Principles of
Anatomy and Physiology: Volume 1: Organisation, Support, Movement, and Control
Systems of the Human Body,
12th Ed, John Wiley and Sons, Pte.  Ltd, Asia
[Page 8]



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