What is Homeostasis?
Homeostasis is one of the most basic concepts of biology, human physiology, medicine. Without its proper understanding and appreciation, one cannot understand how the human body works. Knowledge of homeostasis may help understand what happens during the disease conditions, and how recovery can be fastened.
Homeostasis is made of two Greek words “homeo” and “stasis,” where homeo means similar and stasis means maintaining stability. Thus, the word homeostasis means trying to maintain a certain status within the system.
Although the concept of homeostasis is not new and many old or traditional physicians described it, but their understanding was vague and limited. Walter Cannon is credited with introducing the term “homeostasis” in human physiology. By the mid of 1960s, researchers started to apply many mathematical/engineering theories to the working of the human body, this led to a better understanding of how homeostasis works and how the body maintains the constant internal environment.
We live in an environment that is continuously changing, but for good health, our body needs to maintain a constant state. Of course, there is some range within which things can keep turning. Thus, the environmental temperature may vary, but our body holds its temperature within a certain limit.
If you drink a lot of water, it does not mean that you get inflated like a balloon. Even if you try to drink as much water as you can during the day, it will still not cause any changes in your body, as your body will efficiently remove the surplus water.
Similarly, if you eat lots of glucose or salt, it does not mean that your body will become salty or sweet. Neither it says that the composition of your blood will change. Your body will remove excess of glucose by storing it in the liver or converting it to the fat tissues. It will get rid of the extra salt with the help of kidneys.
By the time you can guess that homeostasis mechanisms also have limits, and if you abuse it regularly, it may breakdown, start working poorly, leading to various disease conditions. So, eating lots of sugars regularly will make the process of homeostasis less reliable, which may lead to diabetes. Overconsuming salt may exhaust the homeostatic processes causing hypertension and kidney disease.
Homeostasis is essential for us to stay healthy, and any breakdown in homeostatic processes leads to disease conditions. We have the ability to improve or weaken homeostatic processes, various body buffers. Faulty lifestyle over the years reduces the ability of the body to maintain homeostasis, and a healthy lifestyle enhances these abilities.
How Does Homeostasis Work?
For each body function or parameter, there is a set point. The set point can be regarded as an ideal value, like for a body temperature; it is about 37 degrees Celsius. Or resting heart rate on average should be around 72 beats per minute. But in most cases, there are no strict boundaries, and things can vary within certain limits, meaning that the body has the flexibility to a degree. Such flexibility is necessary for the efficient working of the body. The range within which changes are tolerable is called normal range. Thus, resting heart rate could be 80 beats per minute or 68; both these values are within the normal range.
One of the fundamental mechanisms through which the human body can maintain homeostasis is called negative feedback. Our body is full of various sensors to keep track of the things. These sensors keep sending information to the control centers for further evaluation and comparing the data with the normal range. If the control center feels that things are getting out of control, it activates the effector mechanism to bring back the things within a normal range.
Homeostasis in Action
So, you start running, which results in an increased demand for oxygen, and it also results in higher production of carbon dioxide. It also means increased body temperature, changes in energy needs, and so on.
Sensors in muscles, the brain, and various body parts start sending information of the control center in the brain regarding the changes in the level of various gases, pH, water level, temperature, and so on – an excellent example of negative feedback in action. The Control center in the brain acts briskly by stimulating the effector mechanisms to bring back the things within normal range.
Thus, effector mechanisms increase the respiration rate to increase oxygen intake and carbon dioxide removal. Heartbeat is increased to improve energy supplies and blow flow to muscles and lungs. Sweat production is raised for temperature control. Further, steps are taken to maintain energy supplies (e.g., increased burning of fats), pH balance, water balance, and so on.
So, you see that homeostasis process can work at a breakneck pace, and generally, hundreds or thousands of operations are occurring parallelly to maintain the homeostasis or things within a normal range and as close as possible to a set point.
Factors Affecting Homeostasis and Our Body’s Capabilities to Maintain It
Understanding the importance of homeostasis, how it works, and why it breaks down may help us prevent many diseases and stay healthy for longer. Most lifestyle diseases are the result of changes in homeostasis due to faulty lifestyles.
Type 2 diabetes is an excellent example of how a breakdown in homeostasis may lead to disease conditions. In diabetes, there is an excess of energy supply and a low expenditure of it. Initially, homeostatic mechanisms work quite well. When a person eats more food than needed, and does not move much (lack of physical activity), it results in increased blood glucose levels (also increased levels of fats, and other nutrients)
Negative feedback informs the brain about such changes and effector mechanisms start working. One of the things that the body does in reaction to high-calorie intake is starting to produce lots of insulin. Insulin, on the other hand, starts telling body cells to consume more glucose and fats. The body starts accumulating extra calories in the form of body fat. Thus, the level of blood glucose level, lipids, and other nutrients are brought back to normal.
However, if someone continues to abuse the homeostatic system for long enough, the body becomes exhausted. Insulin-producing cells in the pancreas cannot keep over-working all the time, and they start dying of the workload. The resulting insulin deficiency means that the remaining insulin-producing cells in the pancreas need to work even harder, thus accelerating their death.
Finally, effector mechanisms start to fail; the body cannot keep producing enough insulin. This means that blood glucose levels start going out of normal ranges. Once the homeostatic mechanisms start failing, the body starts suffering. High blood glucose levels start damaging various organs, blood vessels, and so on.
Another, good example of disease due to the failure of the homeostatic system is hypertension. If a person does not move enough and consumes too much salt, several things happen. Lack of physical activity means stiffening of arteries, reduction in cardiovascular capabilities. High salt intake means the continuous load on kidneys. Finally, compensatory mechanisms start giving up, causing an elevation in the blood pressure.
It is entirely possible that with a better understanding of homeostasis we may find the treatment of many disease conditions. Researchers think that the epidemic of neurodegenerative disease could be a result of disturbed homeostasis. Thus, multiple sclerosis may be due to disturbances in the homeostatic mechanism of the immune system. Same is true for autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatic diseases, skin eruptions. New research suggests that rise in heart diseases could be a result of disturbed redox homeostasis.
Aging considerably reduces the body’s ability to handle changes; it reduces the efficiency of homeostatic mechanisms, body buffers. Thus, older adults are more prone to the breakdown of the homeostatic system, which increases the risk of various diseases.
Homeostatic mechanism helps keep control of various chronic diseases. But if for any reason these mechanisms fail, exacerbations or eruptions of chronic diseases occur. Thus, stress may lead to worsening of asthma, rheumatic arthritis, or lupus flares.
Improving Your Homeostatic Capabilities
This logically leads to the next question that is there any way to enhance homeostasis or increase homeostatic capabilities of the body? Yes, better stress management, dietary changes, and exercise are some of the right ways to improve homeostasis.
Stress management normalizes the level of stress hormones like cortisol and vasopressin. It increases levels of endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and so on. All this means that the body can tackle the environment changes more efficiently.
Diet is another good way to increase your body buffers. No single food item will improve homeostasis, but a balanced diet will work. A balanced diet reduces stress on your body systems and prevents exhaustion. Thus, a low sugar diet, low salt-intake, adequate fat intake, may all help in the long run. Micronutrients have a unique role in helping boost the homeostatic abilities of the body, thus pay attention to vitamins, minerals, and so on.
Exercise is the single best way to boost your homeostatic abilities. Increased physical activity stimulates all the body processes. When you exercise intensively like running or cycling, it forces you to breath faster, and your heart to work more quickly. Over time, it increases your cardiovascular capabilities and improves lung volume. All this means that during the adverse events your heart and lungs are better prepared to handle the stress.
Similarly, exercise improves energy metabolism in the body. It helps the body to burn energy better. Enhances the ability of cells to burn glucose, fats, more efficiently. It also improves cellular respiration, arterial blood flow, oxygen saturation of the blood. It positively impacts on an energy balance.
Understanding of homeostasis also helps understand the underlying principles of many traditional medicines. Just take an example of conventional Chinese medicine which claims to correct Yin-Yang balance. Modern medicine does not believe in Yin-Yang since they just failed to understand the concept.
Yin-Yang concept in Chinese traditional medicine is just about improving the compensatory hemostasis. The whole medical system is based on helping the body to correct its balance towards the setpoint, bring back the body functions within a normal range. That is why the traditional form of medicines has a special place in the treatment of metabolic disorders, various chronic ailments like hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, and so on.
Despite so much stress on homeostasis in pre-clinical subjects in medical school, the concept is somehow lost during the later years of modern medical education. A better study of homeostasis may help manage difficult to treat conditions. It may help understand chronic ailments like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome. It may help tackle epidemics of metabolic diseases, autoimmune disorders, and many other poorly understood chronic diseases.
There is a need for health and fitness specialists to understand the concept of homeostasis and its role in wellbeing. There is a need to know how homeostatic disturbances lead to various disease conditions. The aim of any fitness or lifestyle modification program is nothing but to improve homeostasis, boost the abilities of the body to maintain such a balance.
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