How can organisms whose bodies require a near-neutral pH ingest acidic and basic substances (a human drinking orange juice, for example) and survive? Buffers are the key. Buffers usually consist of a weak acid and its conjugate base; this enables them to readily absorb excess H+ or OH–, keeping the system’s pH within a narrow range.
Maintaining a constant blood pH is critical to a person’s well-being. The buffer that maintains the pH of human blood involves carbonic acid (H2CO3), bicarbonate ion (HCO3–), and carbon dioxide (CO2). When bicarbonate ions combine with free hydrogen ions and become carbonic acid, hydrogen ions are removed, moderating pH changes. Similarly, excess carbonic acid can be converted into carbon dioxide gas and exhaled through the lungs; this prevents too many free hydrogen ions from building up in the blood and dangerously reducing its pH; likewise, if too much OH– is introduced into the system, carbonic acid will combine with it to create bicarbonate, lowering the pH. Without this buffer system, the body’s pH would fluctuate enough to jeopardize survival.
Buffers in the body: This diagram shows the body’s buffering of blood pH levels: the blue arrows show the process of raising pH as more CO2 is made; the purple arrows indicate the reverse process, lowering pH as more bicarbonate is created.
Antacids, which combat excess stomach acid, are another example of buffers. Many over-the-counter medications work similarly to blood buffers, often with at least one ion (usually carbonate) capable of absorbing hydrogen and moderating pH, bringing relief to those that suffer “heartburn” from stomach acid after eating.