Osmoregulation is the process of maintaining salt and water balance (osmotic balance) across membranes within the body. The fluids inside and surrounding cells are composed of water, electrolytes, and nonelectrolytes. An electrolyte is a compound that dissociates into ions when dissolved in water. A nonelectrolyte, in contrast, does not dissociate into ions in water. The body’s fluids include blood plasma, fluid that exists within cells, and the interstitial fluid that exists in the spaces between cells and tissues of the body. The membranes of the body (both the membranes around cells and the “membranes” made of cells lining body cavities) are semipermeable membranes. Semipermeable membranes are permeable to certain types of solutes and to water, but typically cell membranes are impermeable to solutes.
The body does not exist in isolation. There is a constant input of water and electrolytes into the system. Excess water, electrolytes, and wastes are transported to the kidneys and excreted, helping to maintain osmotic balance. Insufficient fluid intake results in fluid conservation by the kidneys. Biological systems constantly interact and exchange water and nutrients with the environment by way of consumption of food and water and through excretion in the form of sweat, urine, and feces. Without a mechanism to regulate osmotic pressure, or when a disease damages this mechanism, there is a tendency to accumulate toxic waste and water, which can have dire consequences.
Mammalian systems have evolved to regulate not only the overall osmotic pressure across membranes, but also specific concentrations of important electrolytes in the three major fluid compartments: blood plasma, interstitial fluid, and intracellular fluid. Since osmotic pressure is regulated by the movement of water across membranes, the volume of the fluid compartments can also change temporarily. Since blood plasma is one of the fluid components, osmotic pressures have a direct bearing on blood pressure.