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Body Functions and Life Process

Body Functions

Body functions are the physiological or psychological functions of body systems. The body's functions are ultimately its cells' functions. Survival is the body's most important business. Survival depends on the body's maintaining or restoring homeostasis, a state of relative constancy, of its internal environment.

More than a century ago, French physiologist, Claude Bernard (1813-1878), made a remarkable observation. He noted that body cells survived in a healthy condition only when the temperature, pressure, and chemical composition of their environment remained relatively constant. Later, an American physiologist, Walter B. Cannon (1871-1945), suggested the name homeostasis for the relatively constant states maintained by the body. Homeostasis is a key word in modern physiology. It comes from two Greek words - "homeo," meaning the same, and "stasis," meaning standing.

Claude Bernard

"Standing or staying the same" then is the literal meaning of homeostasis. However, as Cannon emphasized, homeostasis does not mean something set and immobile that stays exactly the same all the time. In his words, homeostasis "means a condition that may vary, but which is relatively constant."

Homeostasis depends on the body's ceaselessly carrying on many activities. Its major activities or functions are responding to changes in the body's environment, exchanging materials between the environment and cells, metabolizing foods, and integrating all of the body's diverse activities.

The body's ability to perform many of its functions changes gradually over the years. In general, the body performs its functions least well at both ends of life - in infancy and in old age. During childhood, body functions gradually become more and more efficient and effective. During late maturity and old age the opposite is true. They gradually become less and less efficient and effective. During young adulthood, they normally operate with maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

Life Process

All living organisms have certain characteristics that distinguish them from non-living forms. The basic processes of life include organization, metabolism, responsiveness, movements, and reproduction. In humans, who represent the most complex from of life, there are additional requirements such as growth, differentiation, respiration, digestion, and excretion. All of these processes are interrelated. No part of the body, from the smallest cell to a complete body system, works in isolation. All function together, in fine-tuned balance, for the well being of the individual and to maintain life. Disease such as cancer and death represent a disruption of the balance in these processes.

The following is a brief description of the life process:

At all levels of the organizational scheme, there is a division of labor. Each component has its own job to perform in cooperation with others. Even a single cell, if it loses its integrity or organization, will die.

Metabolism is a broad term that includes all the chemical reactions that occur in the body. One phase of metabolism is catabolism in which complex substances are broken down into simpler building blocks and energy is released.

Responsiveness or irritability is concerned with detecting changes in the internal or external environments and reacting to that change. It is the act of sensing a stimulus and responding to it.

There are many types of movement within the body. On the cellular level, molecules move from one place to another. Blood moves from one part of the body to another. The diaphragm moves with every breath. The ability of muscle fibers to shorten and thus to produce movement is called contractility.

For most people, reproduction refers to the formation of a new person, the birth of a baby. In this way, life is transmitted from one generation to the next through reproduction of the organism. In a broader sense, reproduction also refers to the formation of new cells for the replacement and repair of old cells as well as for growth. This is cellular reproduction. Both are essential to the survival of the human race.

Growth refers to an increase in size either through an increase in the number of cells or through an increase in the size of each individual cell. In order for growth to occur, anabolic processes must occur at a faster rate than catabolic processes.

Differentiation is a developmental process by which unspecialized cells change into specialized cells with distinctive structural and functional characteristics. Through differentiation, cells develop into tissues and organs.

Respiration refers to all the processes involved in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the cells and the external environment. It includes ventilation, the diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and the transport of the gases in the blood. Cellular respiration deals with the cell's utilization of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide in its metabolism.

Digestion is the process of breaking down complex ingested foods into simple molecules that can be absorbed into the blood and utilized by the body.

Excretion is the process that removes the waste products of digestion and metabolism from the body. It gets rid of by-products that the body is unable to use, many of which are toxic and incompatible with life.

The ten life processes described above are not enough to ensure the survival of the individual. In addition to these processes, life depends on certain physical factors from the environment. These include water, oxygen, nutrients, heat, and pressure.


David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015