The term adjustment refers to an organism’s nongenetic way of coping with the stressors of its environment. Although adjustments themselves are nongenetic in nature, the ability of an organism to experience or develop an adjustment is based on its phenotypic plasticity, which is linked to its evolutionarily guided genetic potential. Adjustments occur exclusively on the individual level. As such, different individuals within a population may experience a wide range of possible adjustments in response to a similar stressor. In general, the three main forms of adjustment are: behavioral, acclimatory, and developmental.
When you are cold, do you reach for a blanket? When you are warm, do you seek out shelter cooled by an air-conditioning system? If so, you have likely been influenced to do so by the culture in which you were raised. As noted earlier in this textbook, the term culture refers to a collection of shared, learned beliefs and behaviors among individuals within a discrete population. Behavioral adjustments are regarded as cultural responses to environmental stressors. These adjustments are temporary in nature and, since they are nongenetic, must be constantly altered to meet novel situations posed by the environment. For example, divers are able to reach extraordinary depths (in excess of 300 meters below the surface) within the water through the use of a specialized mixture of gasses for breathing, an apparatus for the delivery of the gasses, protective clothing, and gear to increase visibility. The deeper a diver descends, the more atmospheric pressure the diver experiences, resulting in increased levels of potentially toxic byproducts of respiration within the body. In addition, with increased depth there is a decrease in the ambient temperature of the water and a decrease in the availability of light within the visible spectrum. Deep-water divers are well-versed in the environmental stressors of open waters and employ a variety of strategies based on behavioral adjustments to meet such demands. From wearing protective clothing to help maintain the body’s core temperature to waiting at a specific depth for a prescribed period of time to facilitate the expulsion of nitrogen gas that may have accumulated within the bloodstream, divers employ numerous behavioral adjustments to ensure their safety (Figure 14.1). Without these culturally mediated behavioral adjustments, a deep-water diver’s first dive would also be their last.
In many developing countries, the use of refrigeration for the storage of perishable food products is uncommon; therefore, individuals within these cultures have developed a variety of behavioral adjustment strategies related to food preparation to address possible food spoilage. Through a cross-cultural analysis of spice use in recipes, Paul Sherman and Jennifer Billing (1999) determined that cultures closest to the equator, where temperatures are hotter, tend to use both a greater number and a wider variety of plant-based spices with bacteria-inhibiting phytochemical properties (e.g., garlic and onion). Antimicrobial properties of spices permits the consumption of foods, particularly animal-based protein sources, for a period of time beyond that which would be considered safe. There are some acclimatory adjustment benefits to the use of some pungent spices as well, which are explored in the following section.
Acclimatory Adjustments: Thermal Stressors
Acclimatory adjustments are temporary, reversible changes in an organism’s physiology in response to environmental stressors. Although they are not genetically determined, the range of acclimatory adjustments that an organism is capable of producing is linked to its underlying phenotypic plasticity and the duration and severity of the stressor. A good example of this is the human response to varying ambient temperatures.
To understand human adjustments, we must first understand the thermodynamic mechanisms through which heat may be gained or lost. The four pathways for this are conduction, convection, evaporation, and radiation (Figure 14.2).
Through conduction processes, heat will move from a warmer body to a cooler one through direct contact. An example of this is when you accidentally touch a hot cooktop with your hand and the heat is transferred from the cooktop to your skin.
With convection, when a warm body is surrounded by a cooler fluid (e.g., air or water), heat will be transferred from the warmer body to the cooler fluid. This is why we will often employ the behavioral adjustment of wearing multiple layers of clothing during the winter in an effort to prevent heat loss to the cooler atmosphere. Conversely, if your body temperature is cooler than that of the air surrounding you, your body will absorb heat.
Depending on your physical condition, most people will begin to sweat around 37.2℃ to 37.7℃ (98.9℉–99.9℉). Sweating is an example of evaporation, which occurs when a liquid, such as the water within our bodies, is converted to a gas. Phase conversions, such as those underlying the evaporative processes of transforming liquids to gasses, require energy. In evaporation, this energy is in the form of heat, and the effect is to cool the body.
The final mechanism for heat loss within the human body is radiation, through which energy in the form of electromagnetic waves is produced at a wavelength that typically lies below that which is visible to the human eye. Although humans gain and lose heat from their bodies through radiation, this form of heat transfer is not visible. Humans are capable of losing and gaining heat through conduction, convection, and radiation; however, heat may not be gained through evaporation.
As the ambient temperature decreases, it becomes increasingly difficult for the human body to regulate its core temperature, which is central to the maintenance of homeostasis. When an individual’s body temperature falls below 34.4℃ (93.9°F), the brain’s hypothalamus becomes impaired, leading to issues with body temperature control. A total loss of the ability to regulate body temperature occurs around 29.4℃ (84.9°F), which may result in death. When the ambient temperature falls below the critical temperature of 31℃ (87.8°F), a nude human body that is at rest will respond with a series of physiological changes to preserve homeostasis (Figure 14.3).
The human body experiences two main types of physiological responses to colder temperatures: those that increase the production of heat and those that seek to retain heat. The production of heat within the body is accomplished through short-term increases in the body’s basal metabolic rate, such as shivering to increase muscular metabolism. An organism’s basic metabolic rate is a measure of the energy required to maintain necessary body processes when the organism is at rest. Increases in basal metabolic rates, such as when we shiver from the cold, require increased consumption of energy-providing nutrients. Of course, such increases in metabolic rates are not infinite, as we may only consume a finite amount of nutrients. As with all acclimatory adjustments, an increase in the basal metabolic rate is merely temporary.
Of the physiological mechanisms to preserve heat already in the body, the most notable is vasoconstriction, or the constriction of peripheral capillaries in the skin. The decreased surface area of the capillaries through vasoconstriction results in less heat reaching the surface of the skin where it would be dissipated into the atmosphere. Vasoconstriction also leads to the maintenance of heat near the core of the body where the vital organs are located. As a trade-off, though, individuals are more at risk of cold-related injuries, such as frost-bite, which can lead to tissue necrosis (tissue death) in regions of the body that are most distant from the core (e.g., fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, chin, etc.).
Just as cold stress presents challenges to maintaining homeostasis, heat does as well. In hot climates, the body will absorb heat from its surroundings (through conduction, convection, and radiation), resulting in potential heat-related disorders, such as heat exhaustion. When the human body is exposed to ambient temperatures above 35℃ (95°F), excess body heat will be lost primarily through evaporative processes, specifically through sweating. All humans, regardless of their environment, have approximately the same number of sweat glands within their bodies. Over time, individuals living in hot, arid environments will develop more sensitive forms of sweat glands resulting in the production of greater quantities of sweat (Best, Lieberman, and Kamilar 2019; Pontzer et al. 2021). In an effort to prevent dehydration due to this form of acclimatory adjustment, there will be an additional reduction in the volume of urine produced by the individual (Pontzer et al. 2021).
As noted in the previous section, some cultural groups, particularly those in equatorial regions, add pungent spices to their foods to inhibit the colonization of bacteria (Sherman and Billing 1999). Although adding spices to decrease spoilage rates is a behavioral adjustment, the application of some forms of peppers triggers an acclimatory adjustment as well. Compounds referred to as capsaicinoids are the secondary byproducts of chili pepper plants’ metabolism and are produced to deter their consumption by some forms of fungi and mammals. When mammals, such as humans, consume the capsaicinoids from chili peppers, a burning sensation may occur within their mouths and along their digestive tracts. This burning sensation is the result of the activation of capsaicin receptors along the body’s nerve pathways. Although the peppers themselves may be at ambient temperature so their consumption is not causing any form of body temperature increase, the human body perceives the pepper as elevating its core temperature due to the activation of the capsaicin receptors. This causes the hypothalamus to react, initiating sweating in an attempt to lower body temperature and maintain homeostasis. The increased piquancy (application of pungent spices to food) as a means of inhibiting food-borne bacterial colonization in warm climates, as well as spices’ ability to trigger sweating processes as a method for cooling the body, is an example of the intersection between behavioral and acclimatory adjustments that utilized within certain populations.
In addition to increased sweat production to maintain homeostasis in excess heat, vasodilation may occur (Figure 14.4). Vasodilation is an expansion of the capillaries within the skin leading to a more effective transfer of heat from within the body to the exterior to allow conductive, convective, radiative, and evaporative (sweating) processes to occur.
Physiologically based acclimatory adjustments to hot, dry climates may be complemented by behavioral adjustments as well. For example, individuals in such climates may limit their physical activity during the times of day when the temperature is typically the hottest. Additionally, these individuals may wear loose-fitting clothing that covers much of their skin. The looseness of the clothing allows for air to flow between the clothing and the skin to permit the effective evaporation of sweat. Although it may seem counterintuitive to cover one’s body completely in a hot climate, the covering of the skin keeps the sun’s rays from directly penetrating the skin and elevating the body’s core temperature.
Acclimatory Adjustments: Altitudinal Stressors
The challenges posed by thermal conditions are but one form of environmental stressor humans must face. High-altitude environments, which are defined as altitudes in excess of 2,400 meters above sea level (masl) or 7,874 feet above sea level (fasl), pose additional challenges to the maintenance of homeostasis in humans. Some of the main stressors encountered by those living within high-altitude environments include decreased oxygen availability, cold temperatures, low humidity, high wind speed, a reduced nutritional base, and increased solar radiation levels. Of these challenges, the most significant is the decreased availability of oxygen.
To visualize how altitude affects the availability of oxygen, imagine two balloons that are each filled with the same quantity of oxygen molecules. One of these balloons is positioned at sea-level and the other is placed high upon a mountain peak. For the balloon at sea level, there is more atmospheric pressure pressing down on the molecules within this balloon. This leads to the oxygen molecules within the sea level balloon being forced into a more compact organization. In contrast, the mountain peak balloon has less atmospheric pressure pressing down on it. This leads to the oxygen molecules within that balloon spreading out from each other since they are not being forced together quite as strongly. This example highlights the availability of oxygen molecules in each breath than we take in low- versus high-altitude environments. At 5,500 masl (approximately 18,000 fasl), the atmospheric pressure is approximately 50% of its value at sea level (Peacock 1998). At the peak of Mount Everest (8,900 masl or approximately 29,200 fasl), the atmospheric pressure is equivalent to only about 30% of their sea level amounts (Peacock 1998; Figure 14.5).
Due to decreased availability of oxygen at higher altitudes, certain acclimatory adjustments are required to ensure the maintenance of homeostasis for individuals other than those who were gestated, born, and raised at high altitude. For these people, their rate of breathing will increase to permit greater quantities of air containing oxygen into the lungs when they ascend into higher altitude environments. An increased speed and depth of breathing, which is referred to as hyperpnea, is not sustainable indefinitely; thus, the rate of breathing begins to decrease as the person becomes acclimatized to the altitude. During the initial phases of high-altitude-related hyperpnea, the heart begins to beat faster but the amount of blood pushed through during each beat decreases slightly. In addition, the body will divert energy from noncritical bodily functions, such as digestive processes.
Once the atmospheric oxygen reaches the alveoli (small air sacs) in the lungs, it spreads across the alveolar membrane and enters erythrocytes (red blood cells). As oxygen reaches the alevoli’s erythrocytes, it loosely binds with hemoglobin (an iron-rich protein) contained in the erythrocytes. When the erythrocytes carrying the hemoglobin-bound oxygen molecules reach capillaries where the partial pressure of oxygen is relatively low, oxygen will be released by the hemoglobin so that it is free for diffusion into body cells. Similar to acclimatory adjustments related to thermal conditions (e.g., shivering or sweating), those related to high altitude may not be infinitely sustained due to their energetically expensive nature.
Although the long-term acclimatory adjustments that an individual from low altitude experiences in a high-altitude environment may permit them to reside there successfully, reproduction within such settings is frequently complicated. With increased altitude comes an increased risk of miscarriage, lower birth weights, and higher infant mortality rates. As the pregnant person’s body seeks to preserve its own homeostasis, there is often a decreased rate and volume of blood flow to the uterus as compared to a pregnant person of similar physiological condition at a lower altitude (Moore, Niermeyer, and Zamudio 1998). This results in a decrease in the amount of oxygen that will be passed through the uterus and placenta to the developing fetus. In addition, pregnant people who experience pregnancy at higher altitudes are more prone to developing preeclampsia (severe elevation of blood pressure), which is linked to increased rates of both fetal and maternal death (Moore, Niermeyer, and Zamudio 1998; Figure 14.6).
Developmental adjustments occur only in individuals who spent their developmental period (i.e., childhood and adolescence) within a high-altitude environment; they do not apply to those who moved into these environments in the post developmental (i.e., adult) phase. Furthermore, the degree of developmental adjustment within an individual is directly related to their underlying phenotypic plasticity as well as the amount of time during the crucial growth and development period that the individual resides within the challenging environment. Although humans have the remarkable capacity to develop and survive within environments that are not overly conducive to the successful maintenance of homeostasis, there are definitely physiological costs associated with this ability.
In general, high-altitude natives tend to grow more slowly and physically mature later than their low-altitude counterparts (Figure 14.7). Lowered growth and maturity rates are linked not only to the increased physiological demands placed on the body due to the decreased partial pressure of oxygen but also to reductions in the quality of the nutritional base at higher altitudes. Increased terrain complexity, elevated solar radiation levels, and higher wind speeds coupled with the lower temperatures and humidity levels found at high altitudes leads to difficulties with growing and maintaining crops and raising livestock. Overall, as altitude rises, the quality of the available nutritional base goes down, which is correlated to a lack of the nutrients necessary to ensure proper physiological growth and development in humans. Thus, even though individuals may be able to develop and grow within high-altitude environments, they may not reach their full genetically mediated growth potential as they would in a lower-altitude environment.
Not all developmental adjustments are linked to environmental pressures such as climate or altitude; rather, some of these adjustments are correlated to sociocultural or behavioral practices. Some of these adjustments may affect the physiological appearance of an individual when they are practiced consistently during the development and growth phases.
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) has no definitive cause; however, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report in 1992 linking SIDS to infants (under the age of one) sleeping on their stomachs. The “Back to Sleep” campaign championed by the American Academy of Pediatrics helped educate members of the medical community as well as the public that the best sleep position for infants is on their backs (American Academy of Pediatrics 2000).
Placing infants on their backs to sleep has led to decreased infant mortality (death) rates due to SIDS; however, it has led to an unintended consequence: infant cranial deformation. The cranial deformations experienced by infants who sleep solely on their back tend to manifest in one of two forms: brachycephaly and plagiocephaly (Roby et al. 2012; Figure 14.8). With positional brachycephaly, the back of the infant’s head appears rather uniformly flattened due to repetitive contact with a flat surface, such as a crib mattress or car seat back. In cases of positional plagiocephaly, the back of the infant’s head appears asymmetrically flattened. This asymmetry is typically due to an uneven distribution of mechanical forces resulting from the manner in which the infant’s head is in contact with a flat surface. The forms of cranial deformation resulting from sleep positioning do not affect the infant’s brain development. For many individuals, the appearance of the deformation is minimized during later development. Still, some individuals will maintain the pattern of cranial deformation acquired during their infancy throughout their lives. The unintentional cranial deformation resulting from placing infants on their backs to sleep as a means of preventing SIDS-related deaths is a physiological indicator of a behavioral adjustment.