Thermoregulation: Definition & Disorders

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

What is thermoregulation? What happens when the body loses its ability to regulate temperature properly? Read this lesson to learn the answers to these questions and more.

What Is Thermoregulation?

How can you survive a day of skiing down the slopes in 15 degree F temperatures? Or a day trekking across a dry desert on the back of a camel? You survive because your body is capable of this amazing phenomenon called thermoregulation. This means that you have the ability to regulate your body temperature even when the environmental temperatures around you are extreme. Thermoregulation is a key factor of survival and the reason you aren't confined to your house any time it's too hot or too cold outside. Maintaining an optimal temperature is called homeostasis, and humans' ability to achieve homeostasis stands in contrast to cold-blooded animals like fish, who adjust their body temperatures to match the temperatures of the waters they are living in.

Unlike reptiles, humans cannot regulate their body temperature by laying in the sun. The body has advanced ways of trying to maintain homeostasis.

When the body is cold, it can help warm itself by activating sweat glands, producing 'goose bumps,' converting fat into energy, and shivering (the back and forth convulsing of shivering gets blood circulating and produces energy). The body can help cool itself when it's too hot by sweating, dilating blood vessels to allow more blood to flow, and relaxing the muscles that control the positioning of the tiny hairs on your body.

Extreme Conditions that Affect Thermoregulation

Sometimes the body can no longer maintain its temperature when the surrounding environment is too extreme, and you have probably heard of some of these conditions. When the body gets too cold, it begins to experience hypothermia. In hypothermic stages, the body cannot function properly and metabolism decreases. In mild cases, the body will shiver and the mind may become confused, but in severe cases, eventually the mind believes the body is too hot and this can result in a person trying to cool themselves, even though their body temperature is far too low! At this point, the heart is at risk of stopping, which obviously results in death.

Another condition that results from improper thermoregulation is Reynaud's phenomenon. Here, the body does not circulate blood properly, causing regions in the extremities to turn blue due to lack of oxygen. This can be triggered by cold temperatures and the restriction of blood vessels and can be painful if it becomes a chronic condition.

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