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Homeostasis is the property of either an open system or a closed system, especially a living organism, that regulates its internal environment so as to maintain a stable, constant condition. Multiple dynamic equilibrium adjustments and regulation mechanisms make homeostasis possible. The concept was created by Claude Bernard, often considered as the father of physiology, and published in 1865. The term was coined in 1932 by Walter Bradford Cannon from the Greek homoios (same, like, resembling) and stasis (to stand, posture).

Biological homeostasis

With regard to any given life system parameter, an organism may be a conformer or a regulator. Regulators try to maintain the parameter at a constant level over possibly wide ambient environmental variations. On the other hand, conformers allow the environment to determine the parameter. For instance, endothermic animals maintain a constant body temperature, while ectothermic animals exhibit wide body temperature variation. Examples of endothermic animals include mammals and birds, examples of ectothermic animals include reptiles and some sea animals.

This is not to say that conformers don't have behavioural adaptations allowing them to exert some control over a given parameter. For instance, reptiles often rest on sun-heated rocks in the morning to raise their body temperature. Likewise, regulators' behaviors may contribute to their internal stability: The same sun-baked rock may host a ground squirrel, also basking in the morning sun.

Thermal image of a cold-blooded tarantula on a warm-blooded human hand

An advantage of homeostatic regulation is that it allows an organism to function effectively in a broad range of environmental conditions. For example, ectotherms tend to become sluggish at low temperatures, whereas a co-located endotherm may be fully active. That thermal stability comes at a price since an automatic regulation system requires additional energy. One reason snakes may eat only once a week is that they use much less energy to maintain homeostasis.

Most homeostatic regulation is controlled by the release of hormones into the bloodstream. However other regulatory processes rely on simple diffusion to maintain a balance.

Homeostatic regulation extends far beyond the control of temperature. All animals also regulate their blood glucose, as well as the concentration of their blood. Mammals regulate their blood glucose with insulin and glucagon. These hormones are released by the pancreas. If the pancreas is for any reason unable to produce enough of these two hormones diabetes results. The kidneys are used to remove excess water and ions from the blood. These are then expelled as urine. The kidneys perform a vital role in homeostatic regulation in mammals removing excess water, salt and urea from the blood. These are the body's main waste products.

Sleep timing depends upon a balance between homeostatic sleep propensity, the need for sleep as a function of the amount of time elapsed since the last adequate sleep episode, and circadian rhythms which determine the ideal timing of a correctly structured and restorative sleep episode.[1]

Control Mechanisms

All homeostatic control mechanisms have at least three interdependent components for the variable being regulated: The receptor is the sensing component that monitors and responds to changes in the environment. When the receptor senses a stimulus, it sends information to a control center, the component that sets the range at which a variable is maintained. The control center determines an appropriate response to the stimulus. The result of that response feeds to the effector, either enhancing it with positive feedback or depressing it with negative feedback [2]

Negative Feedback Mechanisms

Negative feedback mechanisms reduce or suppress the original stimulus, given the effector’s output. Most homeostatic control mechanisms require a negative feedback loop to keep conditions from exceeding tolerable limits. The purpose is to prevent sudden severe changes within a complex organism. There are hundreds of negative feedback mechanisms in the human body. Among the most important regulatory functions are thermoregulation, osmoregulation, and glucoregulation. The kidneys contribute to homeostasis in five important ways: regulation of blood water levels, re-absorption of substances into the blood, maintenance of salt and ion levels in the blood, regulation of blood pH, and excretion of urea and other wastes.

A negative feedback mechanism example is the typical home heating system. Its thermostat houses a thermometer, the receptor that senses when the temperature is too low. The control center, also housed in the thermostat, senses and responds to the thermometer when the temperature drops below a specified set point. Below that target level, the thermostat sends a message to the effector, the furnace. The furnace then produces heat, which warms the house. Once the thermostat senses a target level of heat has been reached, it will signal the furnace to turn off, thus maintaining a comfortable temperature - not too hot nor cold. [2]

Positive Feedback Mechanisms

Positive feedback mechanisms are designed to accelerate or enhance the output created by a stimulus that has already been activated.

Unlike negative feedback mechanisms that initiate to maintain or regulate physiological functions within a set and narrow range, the positive feedback mechanisms are designed to push levels out of normal ranges. To achieve this purpose, a series of events initiates a cascading process that builds to increase the effect of the stimulus. This process can be beneficial but is rarely used by the body due to risks of the acceleration becoming uncontrollable.

One positive feedback example event in the body is blood platelet accumulation, which, in turn, causes blood clotting in response to a break or tear in the lining of blood vessels. Another example is the release of oxytocin to intensify the contractions that take place during childbirth.[2]

Positive feedback can also be harmful. One particular example is when a fever causes a positive feedback within homeostasis that pushes the temperature continually higher. Body temperature can reach extremes of 45°C (113°F), at which cellular proteins denature, causing the active site in proteins to change, thus causing metabolism to stop, resulting in death.

Homeostatic Imbalance

Much disease results from disturbance of homeostasis, a condition known as homeostatic imbalance. As it ages, every organism will lose efficiency in its control systems. The inefficiencies gradually result in an unstable internal environment that increases the risk for illness. In addition, homeostatic imbalance is also responsible for the physical changes associated with aging. Even more serious than illness and other characteristics of aging, is death. Heart failure has been seen where nominal negative feedback mechanisms become overwhelmed, and destructive positive feedback mechanisms then take over.[2]

Diseases that result from a homeostatic imbalance include diabetes, dehydration, hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia, gout, and any disease caused by a toxin present in the bloodstream. All of these conditions result from the presence of an increased amount of a particular substance. In ideal circumstances, homeostatic control mechanisms should prevent this imbalance from occurring, but, in some people, the mechanisms do not work efficiently enough or the quantity of the substance exceeds the levels at which it can be managed. In these cases, medical intervention is necessary to restore the imbalance, or permanent damage to the organs may result.

Varieties of homeostasis

The dynamic energy budget theory for metabolic organisation delineates structure and (one or more) reserves in an organism. Its formulation is based on three forms of homeostasis:

  • Strong homeostasis, wherein structure and reserve do not change in composition. Since the amount of reserve and structure can vary, this allows a particular change in the composition of the whole body (as explained by the dynamic energy budget theory).
  • Weak homeostasis, wherein the ratio of the amounts of reserve and structure becomes constant as long as food availability is constant, even when the organism grows. This means that the whole body composition is constant during growth in constant environments.
  • Structural homeostasis, wherein the sub-individual structures grow in harmony with the whole individual; the relative proportions of the individuals remain constant.

Reactive homeostasis

Example of use: "Reactive homeostasis is an immediate response to a homeostatic challenge such as predation."

However, any homeostasis is impossible without reaction - because homeostasis is and must be a "feedback" phenomenon.

The phrase "reactive homeostasis" is simply short for: "reactive compensation reestablishing homeostasis", that is to say, "reestablishing a point of homeostasis." - it should not be confused with a separate kind of homeostasis or a distinct phenomenon from homeostasis; it is simply the compensation (or compensatory) phase of homeostasis.

Other fields

The term has come to be used in other fields, as well.

Metabolic homeostasis

Some herbal medicines, known as adaptogens, have been defined to function as non-toxic metabolic regulators that can enhance metabolic homeostasis during stress.[3]

See also


  1. Wyatt, James K. (1999). "Circadian temperature and melatonin rhythms, sleep, and neurobehavioral function in humans living on a 20-h day". Am J Physiol. 277 (4): R1152-R1163. Fulltext. Retrieved 2007-11-25. ... significant homeostatic and circadian modulation of sleep structure, with the highest sleep efficiency occurring in sleep episodes bracketing the melatonin maximum and core body temperature minimum Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help); Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Marieb, Elaine N. & Hoehn, Katja (2007). Human Anatomy & Physiology (Seventh ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.
  3. Winston, David & Maimes, Steven. “ADAPTOGENS: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief,” Healing Arts Press, 2007.

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