Movement of water between body compartments

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Movement of water between body compartments


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Movement of water between body compartments

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Water is the key to life - It has very unique properties like being an amazing solvent, which means that it’s easy for solutes to dissolve into water.

As a result, water can carry essential nutrients to our cells as well as toxins or waste products away from our cells to be excreted out of our system.

Total body water can be subdivided into two major compartments, intracellular fluid (ICF) and extracellular fluid (ECF).

On average total body water in a person is about 60% of their body weight.

From the total body water, 2/3 of that, or 40% of body weight is intracellular fluid. The other 1/3 or 20% of body weight is extracellular fluid. This is also known as the 60-40-20 rule.

Intracellular fluid is the fluid which is inside the cell and extracellular fluid is the fluid outside of the cell.

Extracellular fluid can be further subdivided into interstitial fluid, which is the fluid surrounding the cell and plasma which is the fluid that circulates within blood vessels.

Extracellular fluid is the first to be lost and makes up fluids like gut fluids, sweat and other secretions.

The extracellular fluid is made up of different solutes, the major cation being sodium (Na+) and the major anions being chloride (Cl-) and bicarbonate (HCO3-).

Each compartment has a specific solute concentration measured in mOsm/L or osmolarity, which is the number of osmoles within a liter of solution.

Now remember that an osmole refers to the individual ions within a solution. So for example, NaCl splits apart in water to become Na+ and Cl-, so a solution of 1 mmol/L of NaCl is actually 2 mOsm/L. Normally, osmolarity in the intracellular fluid and extracellular fluid is equal.

If either side ever has a few more solutes, than water will flow in that direction to lower the concentration slightly and maintain the balance. This process is called osmosis.

Now, some solutes like NaHCO3 (sodium bicarbonate) as well as large sugars like mannitol, are too large to cross cellular membranes and they’re basically trapped in the extracellular fluid.


  1. "Medical Physiology" Elsevier (2016)
  2. "Physiology" Elsevier (2017)
  3. "Human Anatomy & Physiology" Pearson (2018)
  4. "Principles of Anatomy and Physiology" Wiley (2014)
  5. "I. THEORY OF SOLUTIONS" Circulation (1960)
  6. "Five popular misconceptions about osmosis" American Journal of Physics (2012)
  7. "Osmosis is not driven by water dilution" Trends in Plant Science (2013)

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