The functions of homeostasis in our bodies can be broken down into 3 smaller groups:
- The repurposing and recycling of dead cells
- The communication between different operating levels in our body
- Maintaining the different rhythmic oscillations in our body, like the circadian rhythm
Reuse and Recycle
Our body undergoes constant renovations, from our skin to the lining of our stomach, there is a continuous turnover of cells to keep our body functioning optimally. However, to ensure the clearance of these dead cells and organelles, our body uses several processes to clear out what’s been used and make room for new cells and organelles to be created. One of these processes is called Autophagy, which works to promote cell renewal by clearing out organelles, typically mitochondria, that are no longer functioning properly. These damaged organelles are then digested in what’s called an autophagosome and their components used to fuel other cellular processes. Autophagy is a natural process occurring daily throughout our entire life, however it begins to slow as we age. The accumulation of damaged cellular material can lead to health problems like cancer, cardiac damage, advanced aging, organ damage and age-related diseases. When functioning properly, however, autophagy prevents premature cell death, reduces inflammation, fights several forms of cancer and also helps prevent several neurodegenerative disorders.
Communication is Key
Another important function of homeostasis is the communication between all levels of physiology in our body. This communication helps keep all of our functions in sync and ensures the stability of our system. From metabolites that carry information between the organelles within the cells to the sensory organs that let us know whether something is hot, there is communication through all levels of our body. Additionally, the communication between the colonies of bacteria that live in our gut to our body is just as important as the communication within the body system itself. The traditional idea of a linear pathway of communication has become outdated because we now know that each of the distinct areas in our physiology are constantly communicating with other areas at several different levels. While this communication helps fortify our systems, it also leads us to the conclusion that “there is no localized illness”, meaning that to find the root cause of an issue, we have to follow the complex web all the way back to the origin, treating the cause of a disease rather than the symptom.
The third piece of Homeostasis is ensuring the regularity of the various rhythms and oscillations in our body. Many of our physiological functions operate on some kind of repetitive clock, including our sleep/wake cycle, respiration, heart rate and menstrual cycle for women. The most well-known of these cycles is our circadian rhythm, which controls when we sleep and wake up. If any of these are thrown out of sync, it can trigger a domino effect of health problems. The master clock in our body is composed of around 20,000 individual neurons in our hypothalamus. It uses outside information, like the light levels detected by the rods and cones in our eyes, to instruct the brain, heart, lungs, stomach and intestines when it is time to conserve energy for bed. When this rhythm is interrupted, typically from unhealthy sleep hygiene, it can negatively affect our metabolism, damage our DNA and also result in a lowered immune response. Additionally, disrupted circadian rhythms can lead to depression, diabetes, increased risk for heart attack and cancer as well.
Fear not, while this may seem daunting, there are things we can do easily everyday to help aid our bodies' continued struggle to remain at equilibrium, from promoting autophagy to simply sleeping well, we hold the power to keep our body happy and healthy. While autophagy is constantly operating at a baseline level, caloric restriction, fasting cycles and various pharmacological agents have been shown to effectively increase autophagy levels, therefore increasing the benefits seen from elevated autophagy. Furthermore, these fasting cycles can help keep our circadian rhythms operating in a healthy pattern as well by regulating certain genes that affect our metabolism and ultimately restoring the pattern of feed-to-fast and sleep-to-wake.
Maintaining homeostasis, similar to autophagy, is something our body already constantly works for so there aren’t any crazy changes that need to be made to achieve this goal, only ensuring a healthy diet full of essential vitamins and minerals as well as staying hydrated helps our body keep its set point in check. In addition to eating well, staying hydrated and good sleep hygiene, regular exercise has been shown to help amplify the effects from these lifestyle choices, keeping our body in fighting shape to take on whatever life throws at us.