Electrolytes are minerals in bodily fluid, including the blood. They separate in this fluid and become electrically charged elements called ions, which can conduct electric currents. Ions are either positively or negatively charged. Electrolyte balance is vital to many bodily functions.[1,4]
Electrolytes in the body include:
- Sodium: Sodium is a positive ion residing in fluid outside the cells. It is the body's water regulator. Electrical signals required for proper function of and communication among the brain, nervous system, and muscles are produced by sodium's cellular movement. Cells can malfunction due to an imbalance of sodium, and an individual can die if there's a sodium imbalance in the blood.
- Potassium: Potassium isa positive ion residing in fluid inside the cells.It controls the heartbeat, muscle function, and other processes. A potassium imbalance can harm the nervous system and increase your risk of developing an irregular heartbeat.
- Chloride: Chloride is a negative ion residing in fluid outside the cells and in the blood. It helps regulate bodily fluids — keeping them balanced. A chloride imbalance can cause serious health problems, or even death.
- Bicarbonate: Bicarbonate is a negative ion that has a hand in maintaining the body's acid-base balance. It is produced in the pancreas. Signs of imbalance include weakness, muscle spasms, and changes in blood pressure.
Other positive ions are calcium and magnesium. Phosphate and sulfate are negative ions.
- Tomato products
- Table salt
- Dill pickles
- Table salt
- Plain yogurt
- Potatoes (with skin)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dairy products
- Leafy greens (spinach, kale, and collard greens)
- Milk products
Electrolytes help to maintain your body's fluid levels during exercise as well as downtime. The main way of losing electrolytes is through sweat. The rate of sweat loss depends on:
- How long you exercise
- How hard you exercise
- Clothing you wear during exercise
- Your body composition
- The exercise environment
Avoid starting a workout when you're dehydrated or thirsty. The color of your urine can tell you if you're dehydrated. If it's light yellow, you're good to go. If you move to a hot climate, you might sweat more, but as you get used to the temperatures, you'll be better able to reserve sodium and chloride, so you won't lose so many electrolytes.
Salty sweaters should eat a small salty snack or drink before exercise, but consuming salt before workouts isn't generally recommended. For exercise lasting about 60 to 90 minutes, sports drinks with carbohydrates and electrolytes are recommended. Endurance-specific sports drinks with more electrolytes are recommended for salty sweaters and individuals exercising for more than two to three hours. Following a heavy workout, grab some sodium-rich mixed nuts, pickles, crackers, sports bar or drink.
Electrolyte balance is aided by the kidneys, which filter electrolytes from the blood. If an imbalance occurs, the culprit is usually one of the following:
- Disorders (kidney, heart, liver and others)
- Diuretics, antibiotics, corticosteroids and chemotherapy medications
- Low electrolyte-rich food intake
- Loss of fluid during illness due to vomiting, sweating, diarrhea, or high fever
To find out if you have an electrolyte imbalance, talk to your doctor. A physical exam, urine, and blood tests will provide some answers.Treatment may include IV fluids or altering your diet.
Signs and symptoms of electrolyte imbalance
Symptoms depend upon what electrolyte is off kilter.
- Muscle spasms, twitching, convulsions, and weakness stem from potassium, magnesium, sodium, and calcium imbalance.
- Irregular heartbeat, changes in blood pressure, confusion, and disorders of the bone or nervous system stem from an overall low level of electrolytes.
- Muscle weakness or twitching, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, changes in blood pressure, and numbness stem from high levels of electrolytes.
- "Electrolytes;" MedicineNet.com
- The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook for Parents & Caregivers; "Electrolytes;" Reviewed July 2013
- U.S. National Library of Medicine; "Electrolytes;" Updated September 2011
- The Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative; Chemocare.com; "Electrolyte Imbalance"
- Shawn H. Dolan, PhD; ACE Fitness; "Electrolytes: Understanding Replacement Options"