Our tiny capillaries are the most important blood vessels in the body, responsible for supplying virtually all the oxygen and nutrients that our organs depend on. So how do they behave, under the immense burden of this great responsibility? They never even climb out of bed!
A capillary bed is the name for a group of capillaries that all receive blood from the same source. The source vessel is called a metarteriole, and from there, a branching network of capillaries originates. The large number of branches provides a huge surface area across which diffusion can rapidly deliver the materials demanded by the surrounding tissues.
But there’s something else going on in most capillary beds – they’re leaky. But don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal! There are holes in the capillary walls, allowing the fluid component of blood (plasma) to leak out, and this is how the body’s interstitial fluid is produced. The bulk flow of fluid across the capillary wall, back and forth between the blood and surrounding tissues, permits more rapid exchange than diffusion alone can provide.
Capillary leakiness varies greatly from one organ to the next, depending on the need for exchange. The liver is the “water purification plant” of the body, and requires tremendous amounts of exchange to do its job – it therefore has among the leakiest capillaries. At the other extreme, the brain is like a “cleanroom” where contaminants are excluded to prevent “misfires” of the delicate neural machinery – so its capillaries are almost watertight (the blood-brain barrier).
Given that most capillaries are leaky, what happens to all that water? Does the bedroom flood completely, until a plumber is called to the scene? Well, not quite. The answer to this problem is the lymphatic system – it’s the storm drain of the body, which collects all the excess interstitial fluid of the body, and carries it right back to the blood…to be leaked out, all over again, by our hard-working capillaries.