Homeostasis - It’s all about balance
Discovered in the 1990’s, the Endocannabinoid System (referred to as the ECS) is found in humans and nearly all animals (with the exception of insects). The purpose of this system is to provide homeostatic balance to the nervous and immune systems, along with many other organ systems...
Ok, I know. The very first article, the first two sentences, and I’ve already dropped two words with 5+ syllables. Unfortunately, I didn’t coin these terms. I can, however, provide you with a definition: Homeostasis refers to any process that living things use to maintain stable conditions necessary for survival.
That’s a fairly simple explanation, right? It’s also incredibly broad and not very specific, so let me elaborate. Our bodies are pretty amazing machines. There’s so many processes and activities that happen automatically, that we rarely think about them until something goes wrong (think infections, stomach aches, headaches, etc). When was the last time you told your heart to beat, or your immune system to fight an infection?
A healthy person’s body works so well, it’s easy to take for granted how much our bodies do to simply survive. There’s only a narrow window of different internal conditions we can tolerate before things start going horribly wrong. So let’s take a look at some examples of how your body balances itself in different scenarios to maintain homeostasis.
Homeostasis refers to any process that living things use to maintain stable conditions necessary for survival.
98.6 degrees. Most of us know that if your internal temperature goes too high or too low, you’re in trouble. A healthy person’s temperature only changes 1-2 degrees, whether you’re relaxing on the beach or doing the Polar Bear Plunge. Sweat is the body’s response to a rise in internal temperature. As sweat evaporates, your skin is cooled and your internal body temperature is maintained in a healthy range.
Shivering and goosebumps do the opposite, and is a response to a drop in internal temperature. Shivering is causing your muscles to contract and relax rapidly, producing heat as a result. Goosebumps form to thicken your skin, providing you with more insulation to prevent heat loss.
Even your blood vessels react. The smaller capillaries expand when you’re hot and contract when you’re cold, which either allows or prevents heat from escaping the body. It’s enough of an effect that you can see your skin turn redder when you’re hot, and paler when you’re cold.
These are all very small effects individually, but together allow us to stay near that 98.6 degree internal body temperature. Of course, there are limits to what our bodies can do when we’re exposed to extreme environments for too long. Heat stroke and hypothermia are the dangerous results of pushing our body’s mechanisms to the point of failure.
This is why there are heat stroke warnings near hot tubs
Lots of individuals are rarely concerned with this one. When blood sugar gets too high, the pancreas releases insulin to lower glucose levels. When blood sugar gets too low, the liver produces glucose to raise those levels.
In healthy individuals this balance is maintained automatically. Diabetics, however, are intimately aware of how this system works (or doesn’t work), and have to actively participate in their body’s balancing act. This can be as frequent as several times a day.
Some people can feel these effects even if you’re not diabetic. Symptoms like fatigue and brain fog can occur if you’ve skipped a meal (or are late eating it), and glucose levels are low. Maintaining proper blood sugar levels is vital for your body and brain to function properly. If blood sugar levels stay too high or low for too long, coma or death can be the result.
Not too many appropriate sugar jokes out there
Being sick isn’t fun, adults average 2-3 colds a year according to the CDC. However, your body encounters viruses and bacteria daily, and a healthy immune system typically fights those off before they have a chance to make you sick.
Individuals taking drugs that suppress the immune system (e.g. for organ transplants) or those with compromised immune systems are keenly aware of these dangers. Even experiencing high amounts of stress can weaken your immune system and cause you to get sick more frequently.
Fortunately, a healthy body will stave off these potential infections more often than not. A healthy body is a happy body, and yours seeks to keep this balance as often as possible.
xkcd.com - <3 Randall Monroe
Mmmmm, fried chicken! Deliciousness aside, this is probably something you’re more familiar with. Depending on your diet (or genetics), your doctor may have already made you aware of this topic. This system is one we have a little more direct control over, but it’s still something your body attempts to balance on it’s own.
Your blood vessels contain baroreceptors “sensors” that send information to your medulla oblongata “brain” about your current blood pressure. If it gets too high, your heart pumps with less force and your blood vessels get larger, resulting in a drop in blood pressure. If your blood pressure gets too low, the opposite happens.
High blood pressure is probably the more relatable condition. Typically, your diet and exercise are linked closely to this and your body does try to maintain that balance, even if you’re watching Netflix with a bucket of KFC and a stick of deep-fried butter. That said, every system has it’s point of failure, and your heart is not something you should push to that limit. I think we all know what happens when this system’s balance is disrupted...
... kick the bucket?
These are just a few examples of what systems your body balances to maintain homeostasis. Some of the others are electrolyte levels, digestion, oxygen levels, pain management, waste removal, and even water regulation. If any of these systems stray too far from their ideal range (and that range is fairly narrow), life threatening conditions can occur.
I know I haven’t mentioned anything about the endocannabinoid system yet, but it’s very important to understand homeostasis and how your body balances itself. This is an important concept in biology, and you will need to be familiar with the scientific, biological definitions of homeostasis and balance in order to understand how the Endocannabinoid System works. There are several other definitions for these terms, both new and ancient, that do not apply here.
And now on to the Endocannabinoid System! The ECS regulates everything we just discussed, and is responsible for your body’s balancing act that keeps it in homeostasis. In the next article, I will talk more about the ECS and how it works.
Up Next: Your Endocannabinoid System - An Overview
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