OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology
The respiratory system contributes to the balance of acids and bases in the body by regulating the blood levels of carbonic acid. CO2 in the blood readily reacts with water to form carbonic acid, and the levels of CO2 and carbonic acid in the blood are in equilibrium. When the CO2 level in the blood rises (as it does when you hold your breath), the excess CO2 reacts with water to form additional carbonic acid, lowering blood pH. Increasing the rate and/or depth of respiration (which you might feel the “urge” to do after holding your breath) allows you to exhale more CO2. The loss of CO2 from the body reduces blood levels of carbonic acid and thereby adjusts the pH upward, toward normal levels. As you might have surmised, this process also works in the opposite direction. Excessive deep and rapid breathing (as in hyperventilation) rids the blood of CO2 and reduces the level of carbonic acid, making the blood too alkaline. This brief alkalosis can be remedied by rebreathing air that has been exhaled into a paper bag. Rebreathing exhaled air will rapidly bring blood pH down toward normal.
The chemical reactions that regulate the levels of CO2 and carbonic acid occur in the lungs when blood travels through the lung’s pulmonary capillaries. Minor adjustments in breathing are usually sufficient to adjust the pH of the blood by changing how much CO2 is exhaled. In fact, doubling the respiratory rate for less than 1 minute, removing “extra” CO2, would increase the blood pH by 0.2. This situation is common if you are exercising strenuously over a period of time. To keep up the necessary energy production, you would produce excess CO2 (and lactic acid if exercising beyond your aerobic threshold). In order to balance the increased acid production, the respiration rate goes up to remove the CO2. This helps to keep you from developing acidosis.
The body regulates the respiratory rate by the use of chemoreceptors, which primarily use CO2 as a signal. Peripheral blood sensors are found in the walls of the aorta and carotid arteries. These sensors signal the brain to provide immediate adjustments to the respiratory rate if CO2 levels rise or fall. Yet other sensors are found in the brain itself. Changes in the pH of CSF affect the respiratory center in the medulla oblongata, which can directly modulate breathing rate to bring the pH back into the normal range.
Hypercapnia, or abnormally elevated blood levels of CO2, occurs in any situation that impairs respiratory functions, including pneumonia and congestive heart failure. Reduced breathing (hypoventilation) due to drugs such as morphine, barbiturates, or ethanol (or even just holding one’s breath) can also result in hypercapnia. Hypocapnia, or abnormally low blood levels of CO2, occurs with any cause of hyperventilation that drives off the CO2, such as salicylate toxicity, elevated room temperatures, fever, or hysteria.
Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology