Respiratory Alkalosis: Causes and Regulation

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  • 0:02 Breathing In and Out
  • 0:46 A Few Simplifications
  • 1:33 Respiratory Alkalosis
  • 4:57 Causes and Treatment
  • 5:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will discuss a condition called respiratory alkalosis. We'll define and compare alkalosis vs. alkalemia as well as what may cause respiratory alkalosis and how it may be controlled.

Breathing In and Out

I think you know that you breathe in oxygen and you breathe out carbon dioxide. This is the opposite of what the beautiful trees outside your home do. They breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Some of us who love trees, nature, and the great outdoors also enjoy the thrill of mountain climbing. The problem with mountain climbers is that they tend to hyperventilate, meaning they breathe more quickly than normal, to the point of causing an improper acid/base balance within the body, which is what we'll be talking about in just a bit.

A Few Simplifications

But before then, I want to simplify some very complex processes in the body in order to help you understand the important fundamental aspects of this lesson's discussion. Alkalemia refers to an abnormally high pH of the blood. The pH is a measurement of the acidic hydrogen ion (H+, a.k.a. proton) concentration of your body. The higher the pH, the fewer hydrogen ions there are and, therefore, the more basic the blood becomes. A pathological state or process that leads to alkalemia is called alkalosis. Examples of common basic substances you may have heard of include household bleach, baking soda, and milk of magnesia.

Respiratory Alkalosis

Be that as it may, a specific form of alkalosis is known as respiratory alkalosis. This is an alkaline state of the body generated as a result of decreased levels of carbon dioxide from increased expiration of CO2. Your body at all times tries to maintain an acid/base balance. Another way of thinking about this is that if you took out a scale and put a weight on one side, you'd want to put an equal amount of weight on the other side to balance everything out. Your body does this same thing but with acids and bases within your body. One way of looking at how your body does this is through this reaction:

CO2 + H2O <-- --> H2CO3 <-- --> (H+) + HCO3-

If the CO2 levels in the body decrease as a result of hyperventilation, then the left side of this reaction becomes too light because CO2 levels have dropped. It's like taking a weight off of the left side of a scale, tipping the scale too much to the right because that side is now heavier since we took off the weight of the CO2 on the left side when we hyperventilated. Therefore, the right side of the reaction (the protons and bicarbonate) gets busy, meaning the hydrogen ion combines with the bicarbonate ions (HCO3-) in order to generate CO2.

This occurs, again, because CO2 levels dropped due to hyperventilation and our body wants to maintain a state of equilibrium. Since CO2 levels dropped, the H+ and HCO3- combine to make CO2 and balance everything out. Because the combination of H+ and HCO3- consumes a lot of acidic hydrogen ions in order to generate more CO2, we know that pH will have to increase. Again, the pH increases because there are now fewer hydrogen ions, and this causes a basic or alkaline environment as opposed to an acidic one.

An alkaline environment in the body is not conducive to life. Therefore, something must give! Since we are hyperventilating, our body can't rely on our lungs to do something about this problem; instead, the body relies on the kidneys. The kidneys control the retention and excretion of the bicarbonate ion in the body, which is a basic substance. In order to bring pH back down to normal, the kidneys excrete as much basic bicarbonate out of the body as necessary.

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