The Human Body

Circulatory System: Additional Functions

In addition to oxygen, the circulatory system also transports nutrients derived from digested food to the body. These nutrients enter the bloodstream by passing through the walls of the intestine. The nutrients are absorbed through a network of capillaries and veins that drain the intestines, called the hepatic portal circulation. The hepatic portal circulation carries the nutrients to the liver for further metabolic processing. The liver stores a variety of substances, such as sugars, fats, and vitamins, and releases these to the blood as needed. The liver also cleans the blood by removing waste products and toxins. After hepatic portal blood has crossed the liver cells, veins converge to form the large hepatic vein that joins the vena cava near the right atrium.

The circulatory system plays an important role in regulating body temperature. During exercise, working muscles generate heat. The blood supplying the muscles with oxygen and nutrients absorbs much of this heat and carries it away to other parts of the body. If the body gets too warm, blood vessels near the skin enlarge to disperse excess heat outward through the skin. In cold environments, these blood vessels constrict to retain heat.

The circulatory system works in tandem with the endocrine system, a collection of hormone-producing glands. These glands release chemical messengers, called hormones, directly into the bloodstream to be transported to specific organs and tissues. Once they reach their target destination, hormones regulate the body’s rate of metabolism, growth, sexual development, and other functions.

The circulatory system also works with the immune system and the coagulation system. The immune system is a complex system of many types of cells that work together to combat diseases and infections. Disease-fighting white blood cells and antibodies circulate in the blood and are transported to sites of infection by the circulatory system. The coagulation system is composed of special blood cells, called platelets, and special proteins, called clotting factors, that circulate in the blood. Whenever blood vessels are cut or torn, the coagulation system works rapidly to stop the bleeding by forming clots.

Other organs support the circulatory system. The brain and other parts of the nervous system constantly monitor blood circulation, sending signals to the heart or blood vessels to maintain constant blood pressure. New blood cells are manufactured in the bone marrow. Old blood cells are broken down in the spleen, where valuable constituents, such as iron, are recycled. Metabolic waste products are removed from the blood by the kidneys, which also screen the blood for excess salt and maintain blood pressure and the body’s balance of minerals and fluids.