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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

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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.

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.

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

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.

These measure the acidity, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels in a sample of blood from an artery. They also determine the severity of the imbalance and how the person is responding to treatment.

Levels may also be tested if a doctor prescribes certain drugs known to affect electrolyte concentration, such as diuretics or ACE inhibitors.

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

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. Various electrolyte supplements are available to purchase online.

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.

Oral rehydration therapy





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


Electrolyte replacement therapy

In more severe cases of electrolyte shortage, the substance can be given to the individual either orally or through an intravenous (IV) drip.

A shortage of sodium, for example, can be supplemented with an infusion of saltwater solution or compound sodium lactate.

An excess can occur if the body loses water without losing electrolytes. In these cases, a solution of water and blood sugar, or glucose, is given.

Prevention

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.

For people that do not require a hospital stay, a doctor may recommend dietary changes or supplements to balance electrolyte concentrations.

When levels of an electrolyte are too low, it is important to include food choices that have high quantities of the substance. Here are some food sources for each of the main 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 important to have in mind how much of each electrolyte is provided in a food source. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a useful resource for checking the nutritional content of foods.

Supplements are also an option for managing low levels of an electrolyte. For example, older adults often do not consume enough potassium, and levels may also be reduced by treatments with corticosteroid or diuretic medication. In these instances, potassium tablets can boost the concentration in the blood.

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Sports drinks can help replenish lost electrolytes, but consuming them too often can lead to an excess.

Some sports drinks, gels, and candies have been recommended for restocking levels of electrolytes during and after exercise. These help restore lost sodium and potassium and retain water.

However, these drinks typically contain high electrolyte content and consuming too much can lead to an excess. Many also contain high levels of sugar.

It is important to follow any suggested courses of electrolyte supplementation on an ongoing basis and to stick to the advised treatment plan.

Recommended intake

Consuming the correct amount of an imbalanced electrolyte should lead to an improvement in symptoms. If it does not, further tests may be required to identify any other underlying conditions that may be causing the imbalance.

Normal intakes for some of the most common electrolytes are as follows:

Electrolyte Recommended 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-
Magnesium
320 for men, 420 for women
--
Chloride2,3002,0001,800

Electrolytes are a vital part of a person's chemical makeup, and an imbalance can affect regular function. If you feel faint after a workout, this could be why.

Regular monitoring and consuming electrolytes after intense exercise or sweating profusely can help to preserve levels. Be sure to stay hydrated at all times.