Electrolytes are minerals found in bodily fluids that carry an electric charge and are essential to keeping the heart, nerves and muscles functioning properly. As such, it is important to maintain a precise and constant balance of electrolytes to stay healthy. The kidneys play an important role in ensuring that electrolyte levels remain invariant despite any changes the body may undergo. Having an excess or an insufficiency of electrolytes in the body can be dangerous and in some cases fatal.
One of the major roles of electrolytes is to ensure that fluid levels inside and outside the cell are balanced. The cell can adjust its fluid levels by changing the concentration of electrolytes. For example, an increase in electrolytes within the cell draws more fluid in whereas a decrease in electrolytes promotes an efflux of fluids. Sustaining this type of osmotic gradient is essential for nerve and muscle function, hydration, and maintaining blood pH levels. Additionally, electrolytes carry electrical impulses across the cell and to neighboring cells in order to promote muscle contractions and nerve impulses.
The most common electrolytes found in the body are calcium, sodium, potassium, phosphate, chloride and magnesium. The serum values and individual functions for these electrolytes are:
- Calcium is the most abundant electrolyte in the body. 99 percent of calcium is stored in the teeth and bones where it helps to make and keep them strong. Moreover, calcium is also critical for muscle contraction, nerve signaling, blood clotting and maintaining normal heart function. Normal serum calcium values range from 8.5 to 10.2 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
- Sodium is the major cation (positively charged ion) found outside the cell. It regulates the total amount of water in the body and plays a major role in neuronal and nerve signaling. Normal serum sodium values range from 135 to 145 milliequivalent/liter (mEq/L).
- Potassium is the major cation inside the cell. Potassium is essential for the proper functioning of the heart, kidneys, muscles, nerves, and digestive system. The normal blood potassium level is 3.5 to 5.0 mEq/L.
- Phosphate makes up one percent of a person's total body weight. A majority of the body's phosphate is found in the bones and teeth where it promotes their formation. It also plays an important role in the body's utilization of carbohydrates and fats. Phosphates are also critical to the synthesis of proteins that promote the growth, maintenance, and repair of cells and tissues. Normal values range from 2.4 to 4.1 mg/dL.
- Chloride is the major anion (negatively charged ions) found outside the cell. Chloride plays a critical role in keeping the proper balance of body fluids and maintaining the body's acid-base balance. The normal chloride values are 96 to 106 mEq/L.
- Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. Half of the body's magnesium is found in the bone and the other half is found mainly within the cells of body tissues and organs. Magnesium is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps the heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system, and keeps bones strong. Magnesium also helps regulate blood sugar levels, promotes normal blood pressure, and is also involved in energy metabolism. Normal serum values of magnesium are 1.7 to 2.2 mg/dL.
An electrolyte imbalance can develop as a result of either having excess or a deficiency of electrolytes in the body. An electrolyte imbalancemay be caused by:
- Loss of body fluids: may be caused by prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, sweating or high fever
- Poor diet
- Malabsorption: the body may be unable to absorb electrolytes due to a variety of stomach disorders
- Hormonal or endocrine disorders
- Kidney disease
- Certain medications: chemotherapy drugs, diuretics, antibiotics, and corticosteroids
A majority of the electrolyte related health problems occur when levels of sodium, potassium or calcium are unbalanced. Hypernatremia (having an excess of sodium) is the most common type of electrolyte imbalance.
Treating an Electrolyte Imbalance:
Treatment of electrolyte imbalance may vary depending on the underlying cause or which electrolyte is imbalanced. Treatments include:
- Intravenous fluids
- Dietary changes. Minor electrolyte imbalances may be remedied by dietary changes. For example, consuming more potatoes, bananas or avocados will increase potassium levels. Eating more leafy green vegetables will increase magnesium levels. Increasing your intake of celery and yogurt will increase sodium and calcium levels, respectively
In order to stay healthy, it is critical to replace electrolytes lost through sweat or as a result of a poor diet. A diet that includes whole grains, leafy greens, fresh fruits and vegetables usually provides the electrolytes your body needs. It is also important to supplement your diet with sports drinks or fruit juices when participating in strenuous activity.