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Acid-Base Balance Tutorial

by "Grog" (Alan W. Grogono), Professor Emeritus, Tulane University Department of Anesthesiology

Acid-Base Balance: Production of Acid

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Acid Production Icon"...organism's metabolism produces all its heat and mechanical energy..." – Helmholtz 1845

Acid Production

The body's metabolism produces acid - which is released into the capillaries and makes the blood slightly more acidic. The blood arrives in the arterioles with a pH of 7.4 (equivalent to [H+] = 40 nMol/L) and leaves the venules with an average pH of 7.36 (equivalent to [H+] = 44 nMol/L).

Normal pH Hydrogen ions have been added to the blood from the interior of the cell which has an average pH around 6.8 (equivalent to [H+] = 160 nMol/L). It is as though hydrogen ions fall down the steep gradient from the higher concentration in the cell to the more alkaline plasma outside.

The acids produced are: respiratory acid (CO2); and all the non-respiratory acids, by definition metabolic. The body's principle regulators of acid-base balance are the lungs and the kidneys which excrete the respiratory and metabolic acids respectively.

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Acid Elimination.

Respiratory Acid. The quantity of respiratory acid produced per day is easily calculated. Two hundred milliliters of carbon dioxide per minute is (0.2 * 60 * 24)= 288 liters per day. Since each gram molecule of gas occupies 22.4 liters at STP, approximately 12 moles of carbon dioxide are produced daily. This enormous quantity matches an appropriately powerful means of elimination - our lungs.

Metabolic Acid. By contrast very little metabolic acid is produced - normally only about 0.1 moles (100 mEq) of acid per day. This production is eliminated by the kidney or metabolized by the liver and, appropriately, their capacity is less than that of the lungs. Metabolic acids include lactic, pyruvic, and the keto-acids of diabetic acidosis.

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Contrasts in Compensation.

Rapid Respiratory Compensation. The power of the lungs to excrete large quantities of carbon dioxide enables them to compensate rapidly. Unless the respiratory system is diseased or depressed, metabolic acidosis and metabolic alkalosis normally elicit prompt partial respiratory compensation.

Slow Metabolic Compensation. The smaller capacity of the kidneys explains a relatively slower rate of compensation; a patient can be ventilated at an abnormal PCO2 for a day or two before any characteristic, partial compensation develops. In the operating room or emergency room, therefore, an abnormal PCO2 is not usually associated with a metabolic "compensation": a metabolic acidosis or alkalosis reflects a metabolic disturbance or, possibly, compensation for a long-term chronic respiratory problem.

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Acid-Base Tutorial
Alan W. Grogono
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