Buffer Systems in the Body


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OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The buffer systems in the human body are extremely efficient, and different systems work at different rates. It takes only seconds for the chemical buffers in the blood to make adjustments to pH. The respiratory tract can adjust the blood pH upward in minutes by exhaling CO2 from the body. The renal system can also adjust blood pH through the excretion of hydrogen ions (H+ ) and the conservation of bicarbonate, but this process takes hours to days to have an effect.

The buffer systems functioning in blood plasma include plasma proteins, phosphate, and bicarbonate and carbonic acid buffers. The kidneys help control acid-base balance by excreting hydrogen ions and generating bicarbonate that helps maintain blood plasma pH within a normal range. Protein buffer systems work predominantly inside cells.

Protein Buffers in Blood Plasma and Cells

Nearly all proteins can function as buffers. Proteins are made up of amino acids, which contain positively charged amino groups and negatively charged carboxyl groups. The charged regions of these molecules can bind hydrogen and hydroxyl ions, and thus function as buffers. Buffering by proteins accounts for two-thirds of the buffering power of the blood and most of the buffering within cells.

Hemoglobin as a Buffer

Hemoglobin is the principal protein inside of red blood cells and accounts for one-third of the mass of the cell. During the conversion of CO2 into bicarbonate, hydrogen ions liberated in the reaction are buffered by hemoglobin, which is reduced by the dissociation of oxygen. This buffering helps maintain normal pH. The process is reversed in the pulmonary capillaries to re-form CO2, which then can diffuse into the air sacs to be exhaled into the atmosphere. This process is discussed in detail in the chapter on the respiratory system.

Phosphate Buffer

Phosphates are found in the blood in two forms: sodium dihydrogen phosphate ( Na2 H2 PO4 ), which is a weak acid, and sodium monohydrogen phosphate ( Na2 HPO4 2- ), which is a weak base. When Na2 HPO4 2- comes into contact with a strong acid, such as HCl, the base picks up a second hydrogen ion to form the weak acid Na2 H2 PO4 and sodium chloride, NaCl. When Na2 HPO42 −(the weak acid) comes into contact with a strong base, such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH), the weak acid reverts back to the weak base and produces water. Acids and bases are still present, but they hold onto the ions.

Bicarbonate-Carbonic Acid Buffer

The bicarbonate-carbonic acid buffer works in a fashion similar to phosphate buffers. The bicarbonate is regulated in the blood by sodium, as are the phosphate ions. When sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), comes into contact with a strong acid, such as HCl, carbonic acid (H2CO3), which is a weak acid, and NaCl are formed. When carbonic acid comes into contact with a strong base, such as NaOH, bicarbonate and water are formed.

As with the phosphate buffer, a weak acid or weak base captures the free ions, and a significant change in pH is prevented. Bicarbonate ions and carbonic acid are present in the blood in a 20:1 ratio if the blood pH is within the normal range. With 20 times more bicarbonate than carbonic acid, this capture system is most efficient at buffering changes that would make the blood more acidic. This is useful because most of the body’s metabolic wastes, such as lactic acid and ketones, are acids. Carbonic acid levels in the blood are controlled by the expiration of CO2 through the lungs. In red blood cells, carbonic anhydrase forces the dissociation of the acid, rendering the blood less acidic. Because of this acid dissociation, CO2 is exhaled. The level of bicarbonate in the blood is controlled through the renal system, where bicarbonate ions in the renal filtrate are conserved and passed back into the blood. However, the bicarbonate buffer is the primary buffering system of the IF surrounding the cells in tissues throughout the body.


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