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.
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 and 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.
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, and 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, and 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.
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, and age - as the kidneys of older adults become less efficient over time.
Treating an electrolyte imbalance involves either restoring levels if they are too low or reducing concentrations that are too high.
If levels are too high, the treatment will depend on the cause of the excess. Low levels are normally treated by supplementing the needed electrolyte.
The type of treatment will also depend on the severity of the imbalance. It is sometimes safe for an individual’s electrolyte levels to be replenished over time without ongoing monitoring.
However, symptoms can sometimes be severe, and a person may need to be hospitalized and monitored during treatment.
Some causes of electrolyte shortage, such as kidney disease, cannot be prevented. However, a well-managed diet can help reduce the risk of a shortage. Consuming a moderate amount of a sports drink following physical exertion or exercise can help limit the impact of losing electrolytes in the sweat.