What Do Electrolytes Do?

Under­stand­ing how elec­trolytes sup­port your over­all health

Elec­trolytes are chem­i­cals and min­er­als that enter your body through the food, drinks, med­ica­tions and oth­er sup­ple­ments you con­sume. The most com­mon elec­trolytes are cal­ci­um, mag­ne­sium, potas­si­um and sodi­um. Elec­trolytes are bro­ken down dur­ing diges­tion and are used to reg­u­late the flow of water to your cells, keep your body hydrat­ed, rebuild tis­sue and send nerve impuls­es to sig­nal your body to per­form var­i­ous activities.

Elec­trolyte lev­els fluc­tu­ate based on your diet, cer­tain med­ica­tions, con­di­tions includ­ing kid­ney dis­ease, car­dio­vas­cu­lar, thy­roid or adren­al dis­or­ders, rapid flu­id loss and dehy­dra­tion and phys­i­cal activ­i­ty. Ele­vat­ed or reduced elec­trolyte lev­els can impact your car­dio­vas­cu­lar, diges­tive, mus­cu­lar and ner­vous sys­tems. In order to main­tain bal­ance, your kid­neys and hor­mones work togeth­er to fil­ter and remove excess amounts from your body. An imbal­ance can impact your health when a par­tic­u­lar elec­trolyte reach­es a lev­el that is too high or too low for your body to reg­u­late. Imbal­ances become more com­mon as you age, when your kid­ney func­tion begins to decline.

Symp­toms of an elec­trolyte imbal­ance vary based on the elec­trolyte and whether it is too high or too low. Com­mon elec­trolyte imbal­ances include:

Hyper­cal­cemia (high lev­els of cal­ci­um) — may be caused by an over­ac­tive parathy­roid gland, kid­ney dis­ease, pro­longed or exces­sive use of antacids and cer­tain genet­ic factors

Hypocal­cemia (low lev­els of cal­ci­um) — may be caused by kid­ney fail­ure, thy­roid dis­or­ders, vit­a­min D defi­cien­cy or cer­tain medications

Hyper­kalemia (high lev­els of potas­si­um) — a poten­tial­ly fatal con­di­tion if left untreat­ed, which may be the result of seri­ous health con­cerns like a heart attack, kid­ney fail­ure or intesti­nal bleeding

Hypokalemia (low lev­els of potas­si­um) — may occur fol­low­ing rapid flu­id loss caused by vom­it­ing or diar­rhea, severe dehy­dra­tion, kid­ney dis­ease, eat­ing dis­or­ders, adren­al gland con­di­tions and cer­tain med­ica­tions. As with high lev­els of potas­si­um, if left untreat­ed, hypokalemia can be life-threatening

Hyper­na­trem­ia (high lev­els of sodi­um) — may be caused by increased salt con­sump­tion, inad­e­quate free water intake or dehy­dra­tion and exces­sive flu­id loss

Hypona­trem­ia (low lev­els of sodi­um) — may be caused by increased sweat­ing or dehy­dra­tion, exces­sive free water intake, pro­longed diuret­ic use, cer­tain anti-depres­sant med­ica­tions or hypothy­roidism (when your thy­roid gland pro­duces too lit­tle of the thy­roid hormone)

Symp­toms vary depend­ing on the type of imbal­ance, how­ev­er, com­mon symp­toms include:

  • Changes with your blood pres­sure or an irreg­u­lar heartbeat
  • Diges­tive changes includ­ing diar­rhea or constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches, men­tal con­fu­sion or irritability
  • Mus­cle pain or weakness
  • Nau­sea and/​or vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Stom­ach pain and cramping
  • Uri­nary changes includ­ing fre­quen­cy and appearance

If an imbal­ance is sus­pect­ed, your doc­tor can order a blood test to mea­sure your elec­trolyte lev­els. Your doc­tor will also per­form a phys­i­cal exam which may include a pinch” test to check your skin’s elas­tic­i­ty and your reflex­es for signs of an imbalance.

Treat­ment for an elec­trolyte imbal­ance depends upon the cause and sever­i­ty of the issue. Low lev­els may be treat­ed with sup­ple­ments to return elec­trolyte lev­els with­in a nor­mal range over time. In more severe cas­es, you may need to be hos­pi­tal­ized and mon­i­tored while your elec­trolyte lev­els are restored. Intra­venous (IV) flu­ids and oral med­ica­tions may be giv­en to help rehy­drate your body and remove excess min­er­als from your body quick­ly. If the imbal­ance is the result of kid­ney dis­ease or anoth­er health con­di­tion, it is impor­tant to main­tain a well-bal­anced diet to keep your lev­els under con­trol. Stay­ing hydrat­ed and drink­ing plen­ty of flu­ids, includ­ing sports drinks con­tain­ing elec­trolytes fol­low­ing stren­u­ous phys­i­cal activ­i­ty, helps restore bal­ance and replaces the elec­trolytes you lost through sweat.

Once your elec­trolyte lev­els have been restored, your doc­tor will con­tin­ue to mon­i­tor your lev­els and devel­op a treat­ment plan to reduce your risk of future imbal­ances. If you are expe­ri­enc­ing symp­toms that may be caused by an elec­trolyte imbal­ance, con­sult with your pri­ma­ry care provider. If you have an imbal­ance that is relat­ed to a chron­ic health con­di­tion like kid­ney dis­ease, heart fail­ure or a thy­roid issue, you may be referred to a spe­cial­ist who can help you select a treat­ment plan that best fits your needs.

For more infor­ma­tion on main­tain­ing good over­all health, and our expe­ri­enced team of pri­ma­ry care and spe­cial­ty physi­cians, vis­it duly​healthand​care​.com

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