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What is Upregulation?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Upregulation is a process that makes cells more responsive to stimuli like hormones by increasing the number of receptors on the surface of the cell. It occurs in response to environmental cues that can vary from changes in hormone levels associated with pregnancy to exposure to toxins. The opposite of upregulation is downregulation, where cells become less sensitive to stimuli. These downregulated cells may be said to be “desensitized,” reflecting the fact that more hormones are needed to stimulate the cells.

The body is in a constant state of change and the sensitivity of cells increases and decreases on a regular basis to address environmental factors and regulate physical processes. Upregulation and downregulation keep the cells flexible so they can respond to changing conditions. However, they can also work against the body in some cases, especially when the body is exposed to toxins that it does not recognize.

One example of upregulation can be seen when people exercise more, increasing the sensitivity of cells to insulin. Cells that have become downregulated and are less responsive to insulin can be upregulated through regular exercise to make them more sensitive. This is why exercise is recommended to patients who are developing type two diabetes. In some cases, changing diet and exercise habits can resolve the issue, allowing the patient to make a full recovery. In others, exercising to encourage the cells to upregulate can help the patient control the diabetes.

Pregnant women also undergo upregulation. As pregnancy hormones move through the body, cellular changes occur to prepare for labor and delivery. Cells in the uterus become more sensitive to oxytocin, for example. This increased sensitivity can also happen when people are exposed to certain toxins, or when levels of a hormone are lower than they should be and the body increases the number of receptors for them.

This process reflects one of many tactics the body can use to adapt to changes in its environment. When all of the systems in the body are healthy and working in harmony, upregulation and downregulation can be used to adjust sensitivity to compounds that enter the body or are created by it. In some cases, this creates unintended consequences. For example, patients who use narcotic drugs to manage chronic pain conditions experience downregulation, a decrease in sensitivity caused by the exposure, and as a result, they must increase their dosages in order to have the same effect.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By titans62 — On Sep 02, 2011

Thinking about the pregnancy example from the article, what is the timeline for how fast upregulation happens? How soon before labor would the body start increasing oxytocin receptors?

My other question is, after labor happens and the child is born, how long does it take for the mother's body to return to normal? Is upregulation a quick process that takes effect over the course of a couple of days, or does it take weeks or months?

By jmc88 — On Sep 02, 2011

Has anyone here ever heard of the upregulation of genes? I'm wondering if that is related to upregulation in the context it is talked about in this article.

I don't know a lot about it, but I know in some cases, geneticists are able to make genes overexpress their characteristics, which would have varying results depending on the fuction of the gene. I see how this could be used to make the cells in a certain gland produce more of a hormone that the body needs. I think it could also apply to other things that aren't hormone related, even though I can't think of a good example off the top of my head.

When geneticists do get involved with upregulating genes, how do they do it? Is it always with drugs, or are there physical ways to change how cells act?

By kentuckycat — On Sep 01, 2011

@JimmyT - You do make a good point that even with increased hormones, the cells would still need more receptors. I'd be interested to hear someone's take that might know more about this.

Along the same lines, do all drugs specifically increase hormones or only certain ones? For example, if you took a stimulant like cocaine, does it work because it tells the body to increase certain hormones, or does it work some other way like telling the brain to process things faster? I suppose the same reasoning would apply to downregulation.

By JimmyT — On Aug 31, 2011

The article sort of touches on it, but I was wondering how different drugs affect upregulation or downregulation in our bodies. The article says upregulation happens when our bodies become more sensitive to stimuli because the cells have more receptors, but how are the extra receptors actually formed?

I am not a biologst, so this is just a guess, but I would say the receptors themselves are some type of enzyme that is able to join with the hormones which I think are usually some type of protein. Even if a drug was able to stimulate more hormones being formed, the body would still need to have more receptors.

I guess my real question then is whether the receptors form as a direct result of the body noticing more of a certain hormone in the system. Does anyone else have an idea about how this might work?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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