Electrolytes: Uses, imbalance, and supplementation

An electrolyte is a substance that conducts electricity when dissolved in water. They are essential for a number of bodily functions.

All humans need electrolytes to survive. Many automatic processes in the body rely on a small electric current to function, and electrolytes provide this charge.

Electrolytes interact with each other and the cells in the tissues, nerves, and muscles. A balance of different electrolytes is vital for healthy function.

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, potassium, calcium 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?

Sports drink
When people think of electrolyte, sports drinks often come to mind. However, there is far more to electrolytes than post-exercise refreshment.

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 example, a muscle needs calcium, sodium, and potassium to contract. When these substances become imbalanced, it can lead to either muscle weakness or excessive contraction.

The heart, muscle, and nerve cells use electrolytes to carry electrical impulses to other cells.

Imbalance

The level of an electrolyte in the blood can become too high or too low, leading to an imbalance. Electrolyte levels can change in relation to water levels in the body as well as other factors.

Important electrolytes are lost in sweat during exercise, including sodium and potassium. The concentration can also be affected by rapid loss of fluids, such as after a bout of diarrhea or vomiting.

These electrolytes must be replaced to maintain healthy levels. The kidneys and several hormones regulate the concentration of each electrolyte. If levels of a substance are too high, the kidneys filter it from the body, and different hormones act to balance the levels.

An imbalance presents a health issue when the concentration of a certain electrolyte becomes higher than the body can regulate.

Low levels of electrolytes can also affect overall health. The most common imbalances are of sodium and potassium.

Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance

Symptoms will depend on which electrolyte is out of balance and whether the level of that substance is too high or too low.

A harmful concentration of magnesium, sodium, potassium, or calcium can produce one or more of the following symptoms:

irregular heartbeat

weakness

bone disorders

twitching

changes in blood pressure

confusion

seizures

numbness

nervous system disorders

excessive tiredness

convulsions

muscle spasm

A calcium excess can also occur, especially in those with breast cancer, lung cancer, and multiple myeloma. This type of excess is often caused by from the destruction of bone tissue.

Signs and symptoms of excessive calcium may 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

As these symptoms can also result from cancer or cancer treatment, it can sometimes be difficult to identify high calcium levels in the first instance.

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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 screen for imbalances of electrolytes in the blood and measure acid-base balance and kidney function. This test can also monitor the progress of treatment relating to a known imbalance.

A doctor will sometimes include an electrolyte panel as part of a routine physical exam. It can be performed on its own or as part of a range of tests.

Levels are measured in millimoles per liter (mmol/L) using the concentration of electrolytes in the blood.

People are often given an electrolyte panel during a hospital stay. It is also carried out for those who are brought to the emergency room, as both acute and chronic illnesses can impact levels.

If the level of a single electrolyte is found to be either too high or too low, the doctor will keep testing this imbalance until levels are back to normal. If an acid-base imbalance is found, the doctor may carry out blood gas tests.

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