How Negative Feedback Loops Work in the Body

Negative feedback loops play an important role in regulating health in the human body. A negative feedback loop, also known as an inhibitory loop, is a type of self-regulating system. In a negative feedback loop, increased output from the system inhibits future production by the system. The body reduces its own manufacturing of certain proteins or hormones when their levels get too high.

Negative feedback systems work to maintain relatively constant levels of output. For example, the body maintains its temperature, calorie consumption, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rate based on negative feedback loops.

Woman talking to doctor
David P. Hall / Getty Images

Negative Feedback Loops Manage Production

Imagine that the body is a factory making Product X. Furthermore, imagine that making too much Product X is expensive, wasteful, and harmful. This means that the body needs a way to slow down the factory when enough Product X has been made. It does this through a negative feedback loop. What that means is that the speed of production is sensitive to the amount of Product X. When it starts to build up, production slows.

It might help to think of the factory as a great big assembly line that feeds shelves at the end. When the shelves get full, the line has to slow down. There's nowhere to put the product—and it might be used to make other products that can damage the body. However, if the shelves are empty, there's plenty of space. The assembly line can speed up until the shelves are full again with the goal of keeping the shelves filled at the right level all the time.

The opposite of this would be a positive feedback loop. In that case, the more Product X there was, the faster the plant would make more.

Examples

Several well-understood negative feedback loops control a variety of different functions in the body.

The female menstrual cycle operates through a negative feedback loop that involves structures in the brain, as well as reproductive organs.

  • The hypothalamus is a gland in the brain that produces gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH).
  • The GnRH signals the pituitary gland in the brain to produce follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
  • FSH triggers the ovaries to produce estrogen.
  • High levels of estrogen (as well as progesterone and testosterone, which are regulated through similar loops) inhibit the production of GnRH. This causes the pituitary to make less FSH, which causes ovaries to make less estrogen.

The male reproductive axis is set up in a similar manner to the female axis, with luteinizing hormone (LH), FSH, and testosterone in a negative feedback loop associated with fertility.

Another negative feedback loop regulates vaginal acidity. The pH of the vagina varies depending on the specific bacteria that are present.

  • The normal vaginal pH is approximately 4—mildly acidic. This helps prevent the growth of problematic bacteria, including those that cause sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
  • The lactic acid that maintains this pH is made by lactobacilli—part of the normal vaginal flora. These bacteria grow faster and produce more acid at higher pH.
  • One of the hallmarks of bacterial vaginosis is a pH of above 5—which will trigger the normal flora to produce acid that prevents the infectious bacteria from thriving.
  • When the pH gets close to 4, the lactobacilli can slow down the production of lactic acid.

Seeking Homeostasis

One keyword that is important in understanding negative feedback loops is homeostasis. Homeostasis is defined as a system's tendency towards stability. Homeostasis is very important in the human body. Many systems have to self regulate in order for the body to stay in optimal ranges for health.

Some systems that regulate through negative feedback to achieve homeostasis include:

  • Blood pressure
  • Body temperature
  • Blood sugar

When individuals have problems maintaining these systems, it can involve dysregulation of a negative feedback loop.

For example, in diabetes, the pancreas does not respond properly to high blood sugar by producing more insulin. In type 1 diabetes, this is because there are fewer cells available to make insulin. A person's immune system has damaged the insulin-producing cells.

Similarly, breathing regulates the body's oxygen and carbon dioxide levels—which are tightly controlled by the mechanisms in the brain that mediate respiration.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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. Thiyagarajan DK, Basit H, Jeanmonod R. Physiology, Menstrual Cycle. [Updated 2019 Apr 24]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-.

  2. Amabebe E, Anumba DOC. The Vaginal Microenvironment: The Physiologic Role of Lactobacilli. Front Med (Lausanne). 2018;5:181. doi:10.3389/fmed.2018.00181

  3. Garzilli I, Itzkovitz S. Design principles of the paradoxical feedback between pancreatic alpha and beta cells. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):10694. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-29084-4

Additional Reading