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For example, if you are sweating, you will lose water through your skin. Sweating depletes your tissues of water and increases the solute concentration in those tissues. As this happens, water diffuses from your blood into sweat glands and surrounding skin tissues that have become dehydrated because of the osmotic gradient. Additionally, as water leaves the blood, it is replaced by the water in other tissues throughout your body that are not dehydrated. If this continues, dehydration spreads throughout the body. When a dehydrated person drinks water and rehydrates, the water is redistributed by the same gradient, but in the opposite direction, replenishing water in all of the tissues.

Solute movement between compartments

The movement of some solutes between compartments is active, which consumes energy and is an active transport process, whereas the movement of other solutes is passive, which does not require energy. Active transport allows cells to move a specific substance against its concentration gradient through a membrane protein, requiring energy in the form of ATP. For example, the sodium-potassium pump employs active transport to pump sodium out of cells and potassium into cells, with both substances moving against their concentration gradients.

Passive transport of a molecule or ion depends on its ability to pass through the membrane, as well as the existence of a concentration gradient that allows the molecules to diffuse from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. Some molecules, like gases, lipids, and water itself (which also utilizes water channels in the membrane called aquaporins), slip fairly easily through the cell membrane; others, including polar molecules like glucose, amino acids, and ions do not. Some of these molecules enter and leave cells using facilitated transport, whereby the molecules move down a concentration gradient through specific protein channels in the membrane. This process does not require energy. For example, glucose is transferred into cells by glucose transporters that use facilitated transport ( [link] ).

Facilitated diffusion

This diagram shows a carrier protein embedded in the plasma membrane between the cytoplasm and the extracellular fluid. There are several glucose molecules in the extracellular fluid. In the first step, the carrier protein is open to the extracellular fluid and closed to the cytosol. One of the glucose molecules travels from the extracellular fluid into the carrier protein. The protein then changes shape, closing at both ends. This pushes the glucose down into the carrier protein, closer to the cytosol end. The protein then opens on the cytosol side and closes on the extracellular fluid side, allowing the glucose to enter the cytosol.
Glucose molecules use facilitated diffusion to move down a concentration gradient through the carrier protein channels in the membrane. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal)

Disorders of the…

Fluid balance: edema

Edema is the accumulation of excess water in the tissues. It is most common in the soft tissues of the extremities. The physiological causes of edema include water leakage from blood capillaries. Edema is almost always caused by an underlying medical condition, by the use of certain therapeutic drugs, by pregnancy, by localized injury, or by an allergic reaction. In the limbs, the symptoms of edema include swelling of the subcutaneous tissues, an increase in the normal size of the limb, and stretched, tight skin. One quick way to check for subcutaneous edema localized in a limb is to press a finger into the suspected area. Edema is likely if the depression persists for several seconds after the finger is removed (which is called “pitting”).

Pulmonary edema is excess fluid in the air sacs of the lungs, a common symptom of heart and/or kidney failure. People with pulmonary edema likely will experience difficulty breathing, and they may experience chest pain. Pulmonary edema can be life threatening, because it compromises gas exchange in the lungs, and anyone having symptoms should immediately seek medical care.

In pulmonary edema resulting from heart failure, excessive leakage of water occurs because fluids get “backed up” in the pulmonary capillaries of the lungs, when the left ventricle of the heart is unable to pump sufficient blood into the systemic circulation. Because the left side of the heart is unable to pump out its normal volume of blood, the blood in the pulmonary circulation gets “backed up,” starting with the left atrium, then into the pulmonary veins, and then into pulmonary capillaries. The resulting increased hydrostatic pressure within pulmonary capillaries, as blood is still coming in from the pulmonary arteries, causes fluid to be pushed out of them and into lung tissues.

Other causes of edema include damage to blood vessels and/or lymphatic vessels, or a decrease in osmotic pressure in chronic and severe liver disease, where the liver is unable to manufacture plasma proteins ( [link] ). A decrease in the normal levels of plasma proteins results in a decrease of colloid osmotic pressure (which counterbalances the hydrostatic pressure) in the capillaries. This process causes loss of water from the blood to the surrounding tissues, resulting in edema.


This photo shows the dorsal surfaces of a person’s right and left hands. The left hand is normal, with the several blood vessels visible under the skin. However, the top of the right hand is swollen and no blood vessels are visible.
An allergic reaction can cause capillaries in the hand to leak excess fluid that accumulates in the tissues. (credit: Jane Whitney)

Mild, transient edema of the feet and legs may be caused by sitting or standing in the same position for long periods of time, as in the work of a toll collector or a supermarket cashier. This is because deep veins in the lower limbs rely on skeletal muscle contractions to push on the veins and thus “pump” blood back to the heart. Otherwise, the venous blood pools in the lower limbs and can leak into surrounding tissues.

Medications that can result in edema include vasodilators, calcium channel blockers used to treat hypertension, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, estrogen therapies, and some diabetes medications. Underlying medical conditions that can contribute to edema include congestive heart failure, kidney damage and kidney disease, disorders that affect the veins of the legs, and cirrhosis and other liver disorders.

Therapy for edema usually focuses on elimination of the cause. Activities that can reduce the effects of the condition include appropriate exercises to keep the blood and lymph flowing through the affected areas. Other therapies include elevation of the affected part to assist drainage, massage and compression of the areas to move the fluid out of the tissues, and decreased salt intake to decrease sodium and water retention.

Chapter review

Your body is mostly water. Body fluids are aqueous solutions with differing concentrations of materials, called solutes. An appropriate balance of water and solute concentrations must be maintained to ensure cellular functions. If the cytosol becomes too concentrated due to water loss, cell functions deteriorate. If the cytosol becomes too dilute due to water intake by cells, cell membranes can be damaged, and the cell can burst. Hydrostatic pressure is the force exerted by a fluid against a wall and causes movement of fluid between compartments. Fluid can also move between compartments along an osmotic gradient. Active transport processes require ATP to move some solutes against their concentration gradients between compartments. Passive transport of a molecule or ion depends on its ability to pass easily through the membrane, as well as the existence of a high to low concentration gradient.

Watch this video to learn more about body fluids, fluid compartments, and electrolytes. When blood volume decreases due to sweating, from what source is water taken in by the blood?

The interstitial fluid (IF).

Watch this video to see an explanation of the dynamics of fluid in the body’s compartments. What happens in tissues when capillary blood pressure is less than osmotic pressure?

Fluid enters the capillaries from interstitial spaces.

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology: energy, maintenance and environmental exchange. OpenStax CNX. Aug 21, 2014 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11701/1.1
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