An electrolyte is a substance that produces an electrically conducting solution when dissolved in water. Electrolytes carry a charge and are essential for life. All higher forms of life need electrolytes to survive.
In our bodies, electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, and hydrogen phosphate.
These are the most important functions of electrolytes in our body:
- Magnesium– assists in muscle contraction, proper heart rhythm, bone strength and building, nerve functioning, reducing anxiety, digestion, and keeping a stable balance of the protein fluid.
- Calcium– it assists with muscle contraction, nerve signaling, blood clotting, forming and maintaining bones and teeth, and cell division;
- Potassium– controls blood pressure, heart contractions, helps with the function of muscles;
- Sodium – maintains fluid balance, helps with nerve signaling, and helps with muscle contractions;
- Chloride – preserves fluid balance;
How the electrolytes actually work and what causes the imbalance?
Electrolytes are usually found in all our bodily fluids like blood, sweat and urine and they are electrically charged, separating positively and negatively charged ions when dissolved in water. The nerves signal other nerves through chemical exchanges dependent on oppositely charged ions, inside and outside the cells.
Electrolyte imbalance can be caused by many things like:
- Kidney damage or disease (kidneys are essential when it comes to regulating chloride in the blood and flushing out potassium, magnesium, and sodium);
- Chemotherapy treatments (they can cause calcium deficiency, disruption in potassium levels, and other electrolyte deficiencies);
- Other medications (for cancer, hormonal disorders, or heart disease);
- Antibiotics use(medications and diuretics and even corticosteroid hormones);
- Improper absorption of food nutrients (malabsorption – because of digestive or intestinal problems);
- Endocrine disorders or hormonal imbalance;
- Sickness (especially accompanied by symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, or high fevers which cause dehydration and fluid loss);
- Unhealthy diet.
If you suspect you might have an electrolyte imbalance you should look for the following symptoms:
- Frequent headaches;
- Feeling thirsty;
- Fluctuations in weight and appetite;
- Muscle aches, spasms, twitches, and weakness;
- Joint pain and numbness;
- Irregular blood pressure;
- Difficulties concentrating and an overall feeling of confusion;
- Bones issues;
- Irregular heartbeats or heart palpitations;
- Cramps, constipation, or diarrhea;
- Fatigue (including chronic fatigue symptom);
- Dizziness, especially when standing up suddenly.
If you experience any of the above mentioned symptoms you should definitely consult with a doctor and do a couple of medical test to determine your electrolyte levels. You should discuss your medical history; perform blood and urine tests and EKG test to determine any irregularities. Sometimes further tests like ultrasounds and X-rays on your kidneys are necessary to see if there are severe deficiencies.
The electrolyte levels are measured per liter of blood, if the values are higher or lower than the normal ranges you’re diagnosed with an electrolyte deficiency.
- Magnesium: 1.5-2.5 mEq/L
- Potassium: 5-5.3 mEq/L
- Calcium: 5-5.5 mEq/L
- Sodium: 136-145 mEq/L
- Chloride: 97-107 mEq/L
Common signs of electrolyte imbalance
- Anxiety and trouble sleeping – low magnesium levels can make you feel tired while low potassium levels can make it harder for you to fall asleep, leading to muscle spasms, night sweats and increased heartbeats.
- Heartbeat changes– hyperkalemia develops when the potassium levels rise very high. The condition interferes with the normal signals from nerves and muscles, resulting in weak, tingly, or numb muscles. High potassium impacts the heartbeat, causing you feel anxious, while high calcium levels affect the cardiovascular system and electrical transmission pathways of the heart, causing heartbeat changes.
- Muscle spasms – if you’re dehydrated your potassium and magnesium levels decrease, leading to muscle weakness and spasms.
- Digestive problems – irregular electrolyte levels, high or low, can cause digestive issues like diarrhea, constipation, cramping, and hemorrhoids
- Bone pain – very high calcium levels may result in bone fractures, painful kidney stones, constipation, and vomiting. This eventually leads to feeling tired and weak and concentration issues.
- Confusion, dizziness, and irritability – if you have very high sodium amount in your body it ca make you feel weak and dizzy. If left untreated you can become more delirious, experience a seizure and even fall into a coma.
How to resolve your electrolyte imbalance?
- Monitor your sodium intake– always check the sodium content when you’re consuming packaged or processed food because they can be loaded with sodium. Sodium controls the water retention and release so if your diet is high in sodium it can cause kidney problems and an imbalance in the other electrolytes. Keeping your sodium level in check should eliminate bloating, lethargy, dehydration, weakness, irritability, and muscle twitching. Focus on drinking more water, eating healthier and keeping the other electrolytes in check.
- Adjust your diet– the first thing you should do is determine how progressed is the imbalance. Next you should adjust your diet accordingly. You should start consuming more home-cooked meals and eliminate junk food. Try eating more leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, sweet potatoes, squash, bananas, and avocados. You can also include coconut water, cucumber, watermelon, celery, pineapple, amasai, kefir, yogurt, carrots, citrus fruits, bell peppers, and kiwi to prevent dehydration. If your calcium levels are off you should consume more high quality dairy products (probiotic yogurt, cultured raw cheese, raw milk), and leafy greens, vegetables, beans, and legumes.
- Check your medications –certain medications can influence your electrolyte levels, like antibiotics, diuretics, hormonal pills, blood pressure medications, and cancer treatments. Chemotherapy has the most influence, so cancer patients should especially on the lookout. Laxatives and diuretics change potassium and sodium levels in the blood and urine. There are certain diuretics which can cause potassium levels stay very high, while other electrolytes very low, resulting in anxiety, fast heartbeats, digestive issues, and trouble sleeping. Hormonal interactions from anti-diuretic hormone medications, aldosterone and thyroid hormones can develop electrolyte imbalances, too.
- Drink enough water – when the amount of water in your body changes, electrolyte imbalance changes. You need to drink enough water in order to keep them in balance!
- Consider supplementing– sometimes it’s not enough just to make lifestyle changes and supplements should be taken. Consult with your doctor and determine which ones you should take.
- Refuel after exercising –if you exercise regularly you should hydrate your organism properly, drinking plenty of water before, during and after training to avoid dehydration.