Swimming in H2O: Fluid Balance in the Body

By Maggie Norris, Donna Rae Siegfried

A watery environment is a requirement for a great proportion of your body’s metabolic reactions (the rest need a lipid, or fatty, environment). The body contains a lot of water: in your blood, in your cells, in the spaces between your cells, in your digestive organs, here, there, and everywhere.

Not pure water, though. The water in your body is a solvent for thousands of different ions and molecules (solutes). The quantity and quality of the solutes change the character of the solution. Because solutes are constantly entering and leaving the solution as they participate in or are generated by metabolic reactions, the characteristics of the watery solution must remain within certain bounds for the reactions to continue happening.

  • Changes in the composition of urine: The kidney is a complex organ that has the ability to measure the concentration of many solutes in the blood, including sodium, potassium, and calcium. Very importantly, the kidney can measure the volume of water in the body by sensing the pressure of the blood as it flows through (the greater the volume of water, the higher the blood pressure). If changes must be made to bring the volume and composition of the blood back into the ideal range, the various structures of the kidney incorporate more or less water, sodium, potassium, and so on into the urine. That’s why your urine is paler or darker at different times.
  • The thirst reflex: Water passes through your body constantly: mainly, in through your mouth and out through various organ systems, including the skin, the digestive system, and the urinary system. If the volume of water falls below the optimum level (dehydration), and the kidneys alone can’t regain the balance, the mechanisms of homeostasis intrude on your conscious brain to make you uncomfortable. You feel thirsty. You ingest something watery. Your fluid balance is restored and your thirst reflex leaves you alone.