Blood / HematologyEndocrinologySports Medicine / FitnessUrology / Nephrology

Everything you need to know about electrolytes

An electrolyte is a material that conducts electricity when dissolved in water. They are important for a variety of bodily functions.

To live all humans need electrolytes. Many automated processes in the body depend on a small electric current to operate, and this charge is given by electrolytes.

Electrolytes communicate in the tissues, nerves, and muscles, with each other and the cells. For good operation a combination of different electrolytes is important.

Fast facts on electrolytes

  • Electrolytes are vital for the normal functioning of the human body.
  • Fruits and vegetables are good sources of electrolytes.
  • Common electrolytes include sodium, potassiumcalcium and bicarbonate.
  • The symptoms of electrolyte imbalance can include twitching, weakness and, if unchecked, seizures and heart rhythm disturbances.
  • Older adults are particularly at risk of electrolyte imbalance

What are electrolytes?

A sports girl drinking electrolytes drink
Sports drinks always come to mind when people talk of an electrolyte. Electrolytes, however, have much more to do than refreshment following exercise.

Electrolytes are chemicals that conduct electricity when mixed with water.

They regulate nerve and muscle function, hydrate the body, balance blood acidity and pressure, and help rebuild damaged tissue.

The muscles and neurons are sometimes referred to as the “electric tissues” of the body. They rely on the movement of electrolytes through the fluid inside, outside, or between cells.

The electrolytes in human bodies include:

  • sodium
  • potassium
  • calcium
  • bicarbonate
  • magnesium
  • chloride
  • phosphate

For instance a muscle needs to contract calcium, sodium, and potassium. This can contribute to either muscle fatigue or excessive contraction when such substances are imbalanced.

Electrolytes are used by the heart, muscle, and nerve cells to pass electrical impulses to other cells.

Imbalance

The electrolyte level in the blood may get too high or too low, resulting in an imbalance. The levels of electrolytes can vary in relation to body water levels and other factors.

During exercise, essential electrolytes, including sodium and potassium, get lost in sweat. Rapid loss of fluids, such as after a bout of diarrhea or vomiting, can also impair the concentration.

To maintain safe amounts these electrolytes have to be replaced. The concentration of each electrolyte is controlled by the renals and several hormones. When a substance’s levels are too high, it’s removed from the body by the kidneys and various hormones work to regulate the levels.

An excess poses a health issue when a specific electrolyte concentration is higher than the body can control.

Low electrolyte levels can affect overall safety, too. Sodium and potassium are the most common of the imbalances.

Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance

Symptoms may depend on the electrolyte is out of control and whether it is too high or too small for that material.

Any or more of the following symptoms may result from a dangerous concentration of magnesium, sodium, potassium or calcium:

  • irregular heartbeat
  • weakness
  • bone disorders
  • twitching
  • changes in blood pressure
  • confusion
  • seizures
  • numbness
  • nervous system disorders
  • excessive tiredness
  • convulsions
  • muscle spasm

There may also be an excess of calcium, especially in those with breast cancer, lung cancer and multiple myeloma. This sort of excess is also caused by bone tissue degradation.

Excessive Calcium signs and symptoms can include:

  • frequent urination
  • irregular heartbeat
  • lethargy
  • fatigue
  • moodiness and irritability
  • nausea
  • stomach pain
  • vomiting
  • extreme muscle weakness
  • thirst
  • dry mouth or throat
  • total loss of appetite
  • coma
  • confusion
  • constipation

Although such symptoms can also arise from cancer or cancer treatment, first-instance elevated calcium levels may often be hard to distinguish.

Causes

There are several reasons for an electrolyte imbalance, including:

  • kidney disease
  • not replenishing electrolytes or staying hydrated after exercise
  • prolonged periods of vomiting or diarrhea
  • poor diet
  • severe dehydration
  • an imbalance of the acid-base, or the proportion of acids and alkalis in the body
  • congestive heart failure
  • cancer treatment
  • some drugs, such as diuretics
  • bulimia
  • age, as the kidneys of older adults become less efficient over time

Monitoring

An electrolyte panel is used to detect electrolyte imbalances in the blood, and to measure acid-base balance and function of the kidney. This examination can also track treatment progress linked to a known imbalance.

Sometimes a doctor may have a plate of electrolytes as part of a regular physical examination. It can be achieved either alone or as part of a series of studies.

The amounts are calculated using the concentration of electrolytes in the blood in millimoles per liter (mmol / L).

In a hospital stay people are also given an electrolyte stand. It is also performed for those who are taken to the emergency room, as both acute and chronic diseases can impact levels.

When it is found that the amount of a single electrolyte is either too high or too low, the doctor will continue to check the imbalance until levels return to normal. If there is an acid-base imbalance, the doctor can do blood gas tests.

Which calculate the levels of acidity, oxygen, and carbon dioxide in a blood sample from an artery. They also decide how serious the imbalance is, and how the individual responds to treatment.

Levels can also be checked if a doctor prescribes other drugs believed to influence the concentration of electrolytes, such as diuretics or ACE inhibitors.

Treatment

Drinking water during sports
One solution to a mild electrolyte imbalance involves simply drinking more water.

Treating an electrolyte deficit requires either restoring levels when they are too low, or rising too high concentrations.

When the rates are too high, the treatment depends on the excess causes. Low levels are usually treated with the appropriate electrolyte supplement.
The type of treatment will depend on the severity of the unbalance as well. Occasionally, it is safe to replenish electrolyte levels of an organism over time without continuous monitoring.

Symptoms may often be serious, however, and a person can need to be admitted to hospital and monitored during care.

Oral rehydration therapy

This procedure is primarily used by people suffering from a lack of electrolytes alongside dehydration, usually following extreme diarrhea.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has approved a solution for oral rehydration therapy which includes:

  • 2.6 grams (g) of sodium
  • 1.5 g of potassium chloride
  • 2.9 g of sodium citrate

These are dissolved in 1 liter (l) of water and given orally.

Electrolyte replacement therapy

In more serious cases of shortage of electrolytes, the drug may be supplied to the patient either orally or by an intravenous (IV) drip.

For example, a shortage of sodium can be offset by an infusion of saltwater solution or sodium lactate compound.

The excess can happen when the body loses water without losing electrolytes. In these cases, a water and blood sugar solution, or glucose, is given.

Prevention

Can not be removed from other causes of electrolyte deficiency, such as kidney disease. A well-managed diet will also help to reduce the possibility of a shortage. Following physical activity or workout, drinking a small amount of a sports drink will help reduce the effect of losing electrolytes in sweat.

Sources

A doctor can prescribe dietary changes or supplements to control electrolyte concentrations for people who don’t need a hospital stay.

When an electrolyte levels are too small, it is important to make food options that have the substance in large quantities. Below are several sources of food for each of the principal electrolytes:

Electrolyte neededSources
Sodiumdill pickles
tomato juices, sauces, and soups
table salt
Chloridetomato juices, sauces, and soups
lettuce
olives
table salt
Potassiumpotatoes with skin
plain yogurt
banana
Magnesiumhalibut
pumpkin seeds
spinach
Calciumyogurt
milk
ricotta
collard greens
spinach
kale
sardines

It is necessary to keep in mind how much of each electrolyte is contained in a food supply. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides a valuable tool for testing the nutritional value of foods.

Supplements also include an option for controlling low electrolyte levels. Older adults, for example, often don’t absorb enough potassium, and rates can also be lowered by corticosteroid or diuretic treatments. Potassium tablets in these instances will improve blood concentration.

During and after exercise, some sports drinks, gels, and candies were recommended for restocking electrolyte levels. These help to recover the sodium and potassium lost, and to preserve oxygen.

Such beverages usually contain high electrolyte content, however, and too much consumption can lead to an excess. Most also have a high sugar content.

It is necessary to follow on an ongoing basis any suggested electrolyte supplementation courses, and to adhere to the prescribed treatment plan.

Recommended intake

Eating the required amount of an imbalanced electrolyte will result in symptoms improving. If not, further research may be necessary to determine any other underlying factors which can trigger the imbalance.

ElectrolyteRecommended intake in milligrams (mg)Recommended intake for people aged over 50 years (mg)Recommended intake for people aged over 70 years
Sodium1,5001,3001,200
Potassium4,700
Calcium1,0001,200
Magnesium320 for men, 420 for women
Chloride2,3002,0001,800

Takeaway

Electrolytes are an integral part of the chemical composition of a individual and an imbalance can affect daily function. When after a workout you feel tired, that may be the cause.

Regular monitoring and intake of electrolytes following vigorous exercise or profusely sweating may help maintain levels. Be sure to always keep hydrated.

Back to top button