Electrolytes are chemicals that carry electric charges in the nerves and muscles. For example, the heart uses electrolytes to help it beat. Electrolytes also regulate bodily hydration, control blood pressure, and help repair damaged tissue.
Electrolytes also help the body to stay properly hydrated, as hydration is essential for the muscles and nerves to function properly. Hydration is also essential for the body so that we may release internal toxic waste such as harmful chemicals and ammonia. Different electrolytes carry out different processes, so it's important to have a balance of different types in the body. Imbalances or deficiencies can cause a range of health problems.
The electrolytes in human bodies include:
Potassium, calcium, and sodium are all are necessary for muscle contraction. When these substances become imbalanced, it can lead to either muscle weakness or excessive contraction.
If there is an electrolyte imbalance, this could lead to an array of different health problems. Electrolyte levels can change in the body, in relation to water levels in the body - as well as other factors. Important electrolytes (including sodium and potassium) are lost in sweat during exercise. Other important electrolytes are lost with other health issues that result in rapid loss of fluid, like diarrhea or vomiting. These electrolytes must be replaced to maintain healthy levels. This is why you may see athletes drinking sport drinks during or after a work out - to replace their electrolytes lost in their sweat.
Each electrolyte is regulated by the kidneys and by several hormones. 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 Imbalance
Different symptoms will present, based 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
- Muscle spasm
- Bone disorders
- Changes in blood pressure
- Nervous system disorders
- Excessive tiredness
- Moodiness and irritability
- Thirst, dry mouth or throat
- Nausea, vomiting
There are many causes of electrolyte imbalance, some of which include:
- Poor diet
- Severe dehydration (failing to re-hydrate after exercise, or prolonged bouts of vomiting or diarrhea)
- An imbalance of the acid-base, or levels of acids and alkalis in the body
- Some drugs such as diuretics
- Kidney disease
Some causes of electrolyte imbalance (such as kidney disease) are inevitable and cannot be prevented. However, a healthy diet and sufficient hydration can help reduce the risk of imbalance. Keeping hydrated with fluids that contain electrolytes during and following exercise or physical exertion can help replace those electrolytes lost in perspiration.
The type of treatment will depend on the severity of the imbalance, and which electrolyte is lacking or in surplus. In general, staying hydrated with electrolytes is a simple way to stay balanced. But symptoms can sometimes be severe, and one may need to be hospitalized and monitored during treatment.
Always check with your healthcare practitioner and never self-diagnose.