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1.3 – Homeostasis

The content of this chapter was adapted from the Concepts of Biology-1st Canadian Edition open textbook by Charles Molnar and Jane Gair (Chapter 11.1 – Homeostasis and Osmoregulation) and Anatomy and Physiology open textbook (Chapter 1.5 – Homeostasis).

Learning Outcomes

1.3. Provide a general description of and some examples of homeostasis. 

In order to function properly, cells require appropriate conditions such as proper temperature, pH, and appropriate concentration of diverse chemicals. These conditions may, however, change from one moment to the next. Organisms are able to maintain internal conditions within a narrow range almost constantly, despite environmental changes, through homeostasis (literally, “steady state”). For example, an organism needs to regulate body temperature through the thermoregulation process. Organisms that live in cold climates, such as the polar bear, have body structures that help them withstand low temperatures and conserve body heat. Structures that aid in this type of insulation include fur, feathers, blubber, and fat. In hot climates, organisms have methods (such as perspiration in humans or panting in dogs) that help them to shed excess body heat.
Homeostasis refers to the relatively stable state inside the body of an animal. Animal organs and organ systems constantly adjust to internal and external changes in order to maintain this steady state. Examples of internal conditions maintained homeostatically are the level of blood glucose, body temperature, blood calcium level. These conditions remain stable because of physiologic processes that result in negative feedback relationships. If the blood glucose or calcium rises, this sends a signal to organs responsible for lowering blood glucose or calcium. The signals that restore the normal levels are examples of negative feedback. When homeostatic mechanisms fail, the results can be unfavorable for the animal. Homeostatic mechanisms keep the body in dynamic equilibrium by constantly adjusting to the changes that the body’s systems encounter. Even an animal that is apparently inactive is maintaining this homeostatic equilibrium. Two examples of factors that are regulated homeostatically are temperature and water content. The processes that maintain homeostasis of these two factors are called thermoregulation and osmoregulation.


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.


Animals can be divided into two groups: those that maintain a constant body temperature in the face of differing environmental temperatures, and those that have a body temperature that is the same as their environment and thus varies with the environmental temperature. Animals that do not have internal control of their body temperature are called ectotherms. The body temperature of these organisms is generally similar to the temperature of the environment, although the individual organisms may do things that keep their bodies slightly below or above the environmental temperature. This can include burrowing underground on a hot day or resting in the sunlight on a cold day. The ectotherms have been called cold-blooded, a term that may not apply to an animal in the desert with a very warm body temperature.

An animal that maintains a constant body temperature in the face of environmental changes is called an endotherm. These animals are able to maintain a level of activity that an ectothermic animal cannot because they generate internal heat that keeps their cellular processes operating optimally even when the environment is cold.

Watch Video Watch this Discovery Channel video on thermoregulation to see illustrations of the process in a variety of animals.

Animals conserve or dissipate heat in a variety of ways. Endothermic animals have some form of insulation. They have fur, fat, or feathers. Animals with thick fur or feathers create an insulating layer of air between their skin and internal organs. Polar bears and seals live and swim in a subfreezing environment and yet maintain a constant, warm, body temperature. The arctic fox, for example, uses its fluffy tail as extra insulation when it curls up to sleep in cold weather. Mammals can increase body heat production by shivering, which is an involuntary increase in muscle activity. In addition, arrector pili muscles can contract causing individual hairs to stand up when the individual is cold. This increases the insulating effect of the hair. Humans retain this reaction, which does not have the intended effect on our relatively hairless bodies; it causes “goose bumps” instead. Mammals use layers of fat as insulation also. Loss of significant amounts of body fat will compromise an individual’s ability to conserve heat.

Ectotherms and endotherms use their circulatory systems to help maintain body temperature. Vasodilation, the opening up of arteries to the skin by relaxation of their smooth muscles, brings more blood and heat to the body surface, facilitating radiation and evaporative heat loss, cooling the body. Vasoconstriction, the narrowing of blood vessels to the skin by contraction of their smooth muscles, reduces blood flow in peripheral blood vessels, forcing blood toward the core and vital organs, conserving heat. Some animals have adaptions to their circulatory system that enable them to transfer heat from arteries to veins that are flowing next to each other, warming blood returning to the heart. This is called a countercurrent heat exchange; it prevents the cold venous blood from cooling the heart and other internal organs. The countercurrent adaptation is found in dolphins, sharks, bony fish, bees, and hummingbirds.

Some ectothermic animals use changes in their behavior to help regulate body temperature. They simply seek cooler areas during the hottest part of the day in the desert to keep from getting too warm. The same animals may climb onto rocks in the evening to capture heat on a cold desert night before entering their burrows.

Thermoregulation is coordinated by the nervous system (Figure 1.2). The processes of temperature control are centered in the hypothalamus of the advanced animal brain. The hypothalamus maintains the set point for body temperature through reflexes that cause vasodilation or vasoconstriction and shivering or sweating. The sympathetic nervous system under control of the hypothalamus directs the responses that effect the changes in temperature loss or gain that return the body to the set point. The set point may be adjusted in some instances. During an infection, compounds called pyrogens are produced and circulate to the hypothalamus resetting the thermostat to a higher value. This allows the body’s temperature to increase to a new homeostatic equilibrium point in what is commonly called a fever. The increase in body heat makes the body less optimal for bacterial growth and increases the activities of cells so they are better able to fight the infection.


Question 1.5

When bacteria are destroyed by leukocytes, pyrogens are released into the blood. Pyrogens reset the body’s thermostat to a higher temperature, resulting in fever. How might pyrogens cause the body temperature to rise?
Note: Pyrogens increase body temperature by causing the blood vessels to constrict, inducing shivering, and stopping sweat glands from secreting fluid

Questions Question 1.6

What is homeostasis?

Questions Question 1.7

Describe a thermoregulatory homeostatic loop.

Questions Question 1.8

Describe an osmoregulatory homeostatic loop.

Examples of maintenance of homeostasis through negative feedback

Negative feedback is a mechanism that reverses a deviation from the set point. Therefore, negative feedback maintains body parameters within their normal range. The maintenance of homeostasis by negative feedback goes on throughout the body at all times, and an understanding of negative feedback is thus fundamental to an understanding of human physiology. A negative feedback system has three basic components (Figure 1.3a). A sensor, also referred to a receptor, is a component of a feedback system that monitors a physiological value. This value is reported to the control center. The control center is the component in a feedback system that compares the value to the normal range. If the value deviates too much from the set point, then the control center activates an effector. An effector is the component in a feedback system that causes a change to reverse the situation and return the value to the normal range.

This figure shows three flow charts labeled A, B, and C. Chart A shows a general negative feedback loop. The loop starts with a stimulus. Information about the stimulus is perceived by a sensor which sends that information to a control center. The control center sends a signal to an effector, which then feeds back to the top of the flow chart by inhibiting the stimulus. Part B shows body temperature regulation as an example of negative feedback system. Here, the stimulus is body temperature exceeding 37 degrees Celsius. The sensor is a set of nerve cells in the skin and brain and the control center is the temperature regulatory center of the brain. The effectors are sweat glands throughout the body which inhibit the rising body temperature.

Figure 1.3. Negative feedback loop. In a negative feedback loop, a stimulus—a deviation from a set point—is resisted through a physiological process that returns the body to homeostasis. (a) A negative feedback loop has four basic parts. (b) Body temperature is regulated by negative feedback.

In order to set the system in motion, a stimulus must drive a physiological parameter beyond its normal range (that is, beyond homeostasis). This stimulus is “heard” by a specific sensor. For example, in the control of blood glucose, specific endocrine cells in the pancreas detect excess glucose (the stimulus) in the bloodstream. These pancreatic beta cells respond to the increased level of blood glucose by releasing the hormone insulin into the bloodstream. The insulin signals skeletal muscle fibers, fat cells (adipocytes), and liver cells to take up the excess glucose, removing it from the bloodstream. As glucose concentration in the bloodstream drops, the decrease in concentration—the actual negative feedback—is detected by pancreatic alpha cells, and insulin release stops. This prevents blood sugar levels from continuing to drop below the normal range.

Humans have a similar temperature regulation feedback system that works by promoting either heat loss or heat gain (Figure 1.3b). When the brain’s temperature regulation center receives data from the sensors indicating that the body’s temperature exceeds its normal range, it stimulates a cluster of brain cells referred to as the “heat-loss center.” This stimulation has three major effects:

  • Blood vessels in the skin begin to dilate allowing more blood from the body core to flow to the surface of the skin allowing the heat to radiate into the environment.
  • As blood flow to the skin increases, sweat glands are activated to increase their output. As the sweat evaporates from the skin surface into the surrounding air, it takes heat with it.
  • The depth of respiration increases, and a person may breathe through an open mouth instead of through the nasal passageways. This further increases heat loss from the lungs.

In contrast, activation of the brain’s heat-gain center by exposure to cold reduces blood flow to the skin, and blood returning from the limbs is diverted into a network of deep veins. This arrangement traps heat closer to the body core and restricts heat loss. If heat loss is severe, the brain triggers an increase in random signals to skeletal muscles, causing them to contract and producing shivering. The muscle contractions of shivering release heat while using up ATP. The brain triggers the thyroid gland in the endocrine system to release thyroid hormone, which increases metabolic activity and heat production in cells throughout the body. The brain also signals the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (adrenaline), a hormone that causes the breakdown of glycogen into glucose, which can be used as an energy source. The breakdown of glycogen into glucose also results in increased metabolism and heat production.

Watch Video Watch this video to learn more about water concentration in the body.

Water concentration in the body is critical for proper functioning. A person’s body retains very tight control on water levels without conscious control by the person. Watch this video to learn more about water concentration in the body. Which organ has primary control over the amount of water in the body?

Positive feedback

Positive feedback intensifies a change in the body’s physiological condition rather than reversing it. A deviation from the normal range results in more change, and the system moves farther away from the normal range. Positive feedback in the body is normal only when there is a definite end point. Childbirth and the body’s response to blood loss are two examples of positive feedback loops that are normal but are activated only when needed.

Childbirth at full term is an example of a situation in which the maintenance of the existing body state is not desired. Enormous changes in the mother’s body are required to expel the baby at the end of pregnancy. And the events of childbirth, once begun, must progress rapidly to a conclusion or the life of the mother and the baby are at risk. The extreme muscular work of labor and delivery are the result of a positive feedback system (Figure 1.4).

This diagram shows the steps of a positive feedback loop as a series of stepwise arrows looping around a diagram of an infant within the uterus of a pregnant woman. Initially the head of the baby pushes against the cervix, transmitting nerve impulses from the cervix to the brain. Next the brain stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete oxytocin which is carried in the bloodstream to the uterus. Finally, the oxytocin simulates uterine contractions and pushes the baby harder into the cervix. As the head of the baby pushes against the cervix with greater and greater force, the uterine contractions grow stronger and more frequent. This mechanism is a positive feedback loop.

Figure 1.4. Positive feedback loop. Normal childbirth is driven by a positive feedback loop. A positive feedback loop results in a change in the body’s status, rather than a return to homeostasis.

The first contractions of labor (the stimulus) push the baby toward the cervix (the lowest part of the uterus). The cervix contains stretch-sensitive nerve cells that monitor the degree of stretching (the sensors). These nerve cells send messages to the brain, which in turn causes the pituitary gland at the base of the brain to release the hormone oxytocin into the bloodstream. Oxytocin causes stronger contractions of the smooth muscles in the uterus (the effectors), pushing the baby further down the birth canal. This causes even greater stretching of the cervix. The cycle of stretching, oxytocin release, and increasingly more forceful contractions stops only when the baby is born. At this point, the stretching of the cervix halts, stopping the release of oxytocin.

A second example of positive feedback centers on reversing extreme damage to the body. Following a penetrating wound, the most immediate threat is excessive blood loss. Less blood circulating means reduced blood pressure and reduced perfusion (penetration of blood) to the brain and other vital organs. If perfusion is severely reduced, vital organs will shut down and the person will die. The body responds to this potential catastrophe by releasing substances in the injured blood vessel wall that begin the process of blood clotting. As each step of clotting occurs, it stimulates the release of more clotting substances. This accelerates the processes of clotting and sealing off the damaged area. Clotting is contained in a local area based on the tightly controlled availability of clotting proteins. This is an adaptive, life-saving cascade of events.

Quiz Question 1.9

After you eat lunch, nerve cells in your stomach respond to the distension (the stimulus) resulting from the food. They relay this information to ________.
a. a control center
b. a set point
c. effectors
d. sensors

Quiz Question 1.10

Stimulation of the heat-loss center causes ________.
a. blood vessels in the skin to constrict
b. breathing to become slow and shallow
c. sweat glands to increase their output
d. All of the above.

Quiz Question 1.11

Which of the following is an example of a normal physiologic process that uses a positive feedback loop?
a. blood pressure regulation
b. childbirth
c. regulation of fluid balance
d. temperature regulation

Think Question 1.12

Identify the four components of a negative feedback loop and explain what would happen if secretion of a body chemical controlled by a negative feedback system became too great.

Think Question 1.13

What regulatory processes would your body use if you were trapped by a blizzard in an unheated, uninsulated cabin in the woods?


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1.3 - Homeostasis by Sanja Hinic-Frlog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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