Fluids and electrolytes are both essential for the proper functioning of our cells, organs and body systems. Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals and compounds that help your body do much of its work — make energy and contract muscles, for example. Sodium, chloride, potassium and calcium are all types of electrolytes (we get them from what we eat and drink). Electrolyte levels are measured in blood tests and their levels must remain within a small enough range or serious problems can arise.
What do electrolytes do?
They regulate fluid levels in blood plasma and in the body. They keep the pH (acid/alkaline) of your blood in the normal range (7.35-7.45, slightly alkaline). They allow for muscle contractions, including the beating of your heart. They transmit nerve signals from the heart, muscles and nerve cells to other cells. They help blood clot and help build new tissue.
What can cause an electrolyte imbalance?
An electrolyte imbalance can be caused by:
- Fluid loss due to persistent vomiting or diarrhea, sweating, or fever.
- Not drinking or eating enough.
- Chronic breathing problems, such as emphysema.
- blood pH higher than normal (a condition called metabolic alkalosis).
- Medications such as steroids, diuretics and laxatives.
To make sure you're getting enough electrolytes, stay hydrated and eat electrolyte-rich foods, including spinach, turkey, potatoes, beans, avocados, oranges, soybeans (edamame), strawberries, and bananas.
With the exception of sodium, you're unlikely to get too many electrolytes from yours diet. (Your risk may be higher if your kidneys aren't working well). However, supplements can cause problems — for example, too much calcium can increase your risk of kidney stones — so always talk to your doctor before starting to take them.
What are electrolytes and where to find them
Let's find out now where you can find electrolytes and what risks you run into if they are not found in your body in the right quantities.
Low sodium, also called hyponatremia, causes water to move into cells. High sodium, or hypernatremia, causes fluid to leak out of cells. When any of these things happen in your brain cells, it can cause personality changes, headaches, confusion, and lethargy. If the sodium drop is severe, it can lead to seizures, coma and death. A key symptom of hypernatremia is thirst.
Low chloride (hypochloremia) can be due to excessive vomiting, aspiration of stomach contents, or "loop" diuretic drugs, often used to treat fluid retention caused by heart or kidney problems or high blood pressure. Elevated chloride (hyperchloremia) is often the result of diarrhea or kidney disease.
Low potassium (hypokalemia) may cause no symptoms, but it can affect the way your body stores glucogen (energy source for your muscles) or cause abnormal heart rhythms. A level below three can cause muscle weakness, spasms, cramps, paralysis and breathing problems. If it continues, kidney problems may occur. High potassium (hyperkalemia) may not cause any symptoms, although you may have muscle weakness or abnormal heart rhythms. If the level goes very high the heart can stop beating.
Low calcium (hypocalcemia) may cause no symptoms, but chronically low levels can cause changes in skin, nails and hair, yeast infections and cataracts. When levels drop, muscle irritability and cramps (particularly in the legs and back) may develop. Calcium below seven causes changes in reflexes (hyperreflexia), muscle spasms, spasms of the larynx (voice box), and seizures. Elevated calcium (hypercalcemia) may cause no symptoms. When calcium rises, constipation, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, neuromuscular symptoms, and intestinal obstruction (ileus) can occur. Above 12, emotional swings, confusion, delirium, and stupor occur. Above 18, it can lead to shock, kidney failure and death. Persistent or severe hypercalcemia can damage the kidneys and cause heart problems, including heart rhythm changes and heart attack.
Low magnesium (hypomagnesemia) can cause symptoms similar to low potassium or calcium. An extremely low level can be life threatening. A high level of magnesium (hypermagnesemia) can cause low blood pressure, breathing problems (slow, ineffective breathing), and heart problems (cardiac arrest).
Low phosphate (hypophosphatemia) can cause muscle weakness, respiratory failure, heart failure, seizures, and coma. It can be caused by very poor diet, certain diuretic drugs, diabetic ketoacidosis/DKA, alcoholism, and severe burns. (DKA is a serious complication of diabetes in which cells burn fat instead of glucose. This creates ketones, which enter the blood and turn it acidic. Normal blood is slightly alkaline.) High phosphates (hyperphosphatemia) may not cause symptoms. It may be due to tumor lysis syndrome, an overwhelming infection, chronic kidney disease, a parathyroid gland disorder, or acidosis (blood pH more acidic than normal).