Homeostasis and Its Relation to Asthma

What is homeostasis? Like most medical terms, there’s a dictionary definition, but that’s not always very helpful in understanding what a concept actually looks like and how it operates in the body. Biology dictionaries define homeostasis as “the tendency of an organism or a cell to regulate its internal conditions, usually by a system of feedback controls, so as to stabilize health and functioning, regardless of the outside changing conditions.”

In terms of asthma, homeostasis refers to your body's respiratory system functioning correctly without increases in inflammation or other parts of the pathophysiology of asthma negatively impacting you. If that definition seems overly complicated and contrived, don’t worry, we will be discussing what it means and how it relates to the body thoroughly.

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Your Body Wants to Maintain a Certain “Normal”

When you are outside and it’s raining, your body does a few things. First, a “sensor” detects what’s going on in the world around you.

When it’s raining, your “sensor” is your skin, and your skin tells your brain that it’s wet and cold out. Then, an “internal mechanism” reacts to that stimulus; in this case, your brain helps raise your skin temperature by burning fat stores and calories you’ve consumed that day to help keep your body as warm as possible.

When you are shivering, it’s actually a way for your body to warm itself up and increase circulation in order to keep your temperature high. In asthma the homeostasis of the smooth muscle in your lungs is interrupted when you are exposed to irritants such as dust or tobacco smoke or allergens such as pollen and symptoms can occur such as:

Once it’s stopped raining, your brain stops raising your body temperature with a “negative feedback mechanism” as a response to the fact that your body isn’t experiencing the same stimuli. You stop shivering as soon as you aren’t as cold.

And while some of those words and terms above might seem confusing, the way that all of it works is pretty straightforward. And it’s a perfect example of homeostasis. In asthma, it may take a rescue inhaler to revert the changes back or you may need to take a regular controller medication to try to keep homeostasis in balance.

Homeostasis is a broad term, but it relies on a few things no matter whether you are talking about asthma or something else.

In every scenario, your body needs a “sensor” (your skin in the rain scenario or smooth muscle with asthma) an “internal mechanism” (the complicated processes by which your brain raises your body temperature or the pathophysiology of asthma) and a “negative feedback mechanism” (another complicated process by which your body stops raising your temperature or in some cases a medication to reverse the process and head you back to a state of homeostasis).

You don’t have to know too much about any of the internal mechanisms to get the gist of what’s going on. When there is an outside stimulus, your body senses it and tries its best to adapt to keep things constant.

Your body will always try to keep you at the same temperature, for example, even when it’s raining. Asthma is a good example of homeostasis gone wrong and the body acts out of proportion to a stimulus starting a process that leads to symptoms.

Homeostasis as a “Mechanism” and a “State”

In the rain example above, we described homeostasis as a “mechanism,” or the way that your body reacts to a stimulus in order to achieve equilibrium. There are many different examples of homeostasis as a mechanism.

Another good one is a fluid balance. Your body always wants to keep enough fluids on hand to keep all of your organs and processes running smoothly, but it will expel more fluids through waste when you drink more water in order to maintain healthy fluid levels. This is also important to asthma as dehydration can negatively impact your respiratory status, the mechanism by which your body “senses” how much fluid you have consumed, reacts to that, and then stops reacting once you have expelled enough, is an example of homeostasis as a mechanism.

However, there’s a big caveat that throws off the “what is homeostasis” question. The term homeostasis can also be used as a state to refer to the equilibrium that your body is trying to achieve through the mechanisms discussed above. Homeostasis is the place your body wants to be; it’s 98.6, fully hydrated, well nourished, and with all of the right vitamins and nutrients.

Homeostasis is the perfect middle area, where you don’t have too much or too little of anything, and your body is able to perform all of its functions perfectly. In terms of asthma, one can think of this best in relation to your oxygen levels. If your oxygen levels, as measured by something like a pulse ox machine, drop too low, your body will seek to increase oxygen levels by either having you take bigger breaths or increase your rate of breathing.

Homeostatic Imbalance

When everything goes perfectly, your body is able to control things to maintain a perfect state of homeostasis through homeostatic mechanisms. But of course, things don’t always go perfectly, and there are a few different ways that your body can reach a homeostatic imbalance. Think asthma attack.

For one, as you age, your body's negative feedback mechanisms get worse. Your body gets worse at telling itself when it doesn’t need to strive for normalcy anymore; that’s why elderly people often shiver more than young people. As your body becomes worse at maintaining an internal balance, you will be more prone to illness and ailments as well.

Another way this is linked to age is that many elders need to take more dietary supplements because their body becomes worse at processing when they are fully nourished and maintaining a homeostatic balance. If you fail to take your asthma medication that is helping you achieve a homeostatic balance you develop increased symptoms and poor control.

Overall, homeostasis is a very complicated process. But when asking yourself what is homeostasis, just remember that it can be many things. It refers to the natural balance of your body when everything is running smoothly and your body is in harmony, and it can refer to the complicated mechanism that helps keep you thereby reacting to external stimuli.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Biology Online. Homeostasis.

  2. Ozier A - J Allergy (Cairo) (2011) The pivotal role of airway smooth muscle in asthma pathophysiology.  doi:10.1155/2011/742710

  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Asthma.

By Pat Bass, MD
Dr. Bass is a board-certified internist, pediatrician, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians.