You have doubtless heard about electrolytes and their importance to the body but what exactly are they and how can you tell if you are lacking in them or if there is some sort of imbalance?
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes is the term used to describe certain nutrients present in the body that play a range of important roles. These include regulating the heartbeat and aiding in movement by allowing the muscles to properly contract.
So which nutrients are considered to be electrolytes? The body’s major electrolytes include potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, chloride and phosphate. These vital nutrients help to stimulate the nerves throughout our body while also helping to balance our fluid levels. Because they play such a critical role, an imbalance in electrolytes can cause some extremely adverse symptoms and may have a severe impact on your health.
How Do we get Electrolytes?
Before we go on to look at the symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance or deficiency, let us take a more specific look at the nutrients that provide you with electrolytes. You get electrolytes into your system by eating certain foods and consuming various fluids. You lose your electrolytes when you sweat, exercise or urinate. Poor diets, sickness and getting too much or too little exercise are major causes of an imbalance.
What Roles do Specific Electrolytes Play?
As we have already mentioned, electrolytes play a significant role in a wide variety of bodily functions. These include the following:
- Calcium: Helps allow the contraction of muscles, aids blood clotting, nerve signaling and cell division. It also plays an important role in bone and teeth formation and maintenance.
- Magnesium: Is necessary for the contraction of muscles, heart rhythm, proper nerve function, bone development and digestion. It can also help maintain the balance of protein-fluid and ease anxiety.
- Potassium: Helps to regulate heartbeat and blood pressure as well as aiding muscle function.
- Chloride: Is necessary to maintain proper fluid balance in the body.
- Sodium: Also maintains fluid balance and is also important for nerve signaling and proper muscle contractions.
How do Electrolytes Work?
Electrolytes are present in the bodily fluids throughout your body including your blood, urine and sweat. They are so called because they have an actual electric charge and separate into either negatively or positively charged ions if they are dissolved on contact with water. This is an important factor because of the way your nerve reactions occur. They signal each other through a chemical exchange process that relies on ions being charged the opposite way both within and outside the cells.
An imbalance in your electrolytes can occur for a variety of reasons. These include chronic disease, shorter term illnesses, certain medications and dehydration. Many of the causes of an electrolyte deficiency are caused by fluid loss. This can occur for a number of different reasons including the following:
- Sicknesses that cause diarrhea, fever, sweating and vomiting may result in your body becoming dehydrated.
- Poor quality diets lacking in essential nutrients.
- Certain medications including those prescribed for heart disease, cancer or hormonal issues.
- Other medications like antibiotics, diuretics or corticosteroids.
- Conditions that cause problems absorbing nutrients.
- Kidney disease and kidney damage.
- Chemotherapy treatment for cancer can cause a calcium deficiency and changes in potassium levels.
Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance
So now that you know how important electrolytes are, how can you recognize an imbalance in your electrolyte levels. Because of their importance to so many bodily functions, a deficiency or imbalance in electrolytes will typically cause a variety of noticeable symptoms. These include the following:
- Constant or frequent headaches
- Feelings of anxiety
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Constant thirst
- Irregular heartbeat or palpitations
- Changes in blood pressure
- Confusion and difficulty retaining focus
- Bone and joint pain
- Digestive difficulties such as diarrhea, cramp and constipation
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Chronic fatigue
We will take a more detailed look at some of these major symptoms a little later in the article.
An electrolyte imbalance can normally be diagnosed by your doctor who will typically perform several tests. After describing your symptoms, blood tests and urine tests can determine whether or not you have an imbalance or deficiency. It may also be necessary to perform an EKG, x-ray or ultrasound to determine whether you have a severe electrolyte imbalance which can increase the risk of heart problems.
You should definitely speak to your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
1) Changes in your Heartbeat
One of the major symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance is a noticeable change in your heartbeat or palpitations. When potassium levels in the body are very high, it can result in a condition known as hyperkalemia. This condition causes a disruption in the signals sent from the nerves to your muscles. This condition can result in your muscles feeling weak, numb and tingly. High potassium levels also disturb your heartbeat and rhythm. This can have other knock-on effects like raising your levels of anxiety.
It is not only a potassium imbalance that can lead to irregular heartbeats. High levels of calcium can also impact the electrical transmissions of your heart and cause a noticeable change in rhythm like palpitations or a racing heartbeat.
2)) Muscle Weakness and Spasms
Anybody that has ever been dehydrated will know that it can have a major impact on your muscles. It can cause your muscles to feel weaker and fatigued but can also result in cramping and spasms. This can be the result of very low levels of potassium or hypokalemia – a condition that can also lead to constipation.
Low levels of calcium in the system can also result in muscle cramps and spasms as well as abdominal pains and even convulsions.
3) Digestive Health Problems
It is essential that the muscles inside the digestive tract are working efficiently and contracting properly to help with your bathroom visits. Low levels of electrolytes as well as levels that are too high can cause problems for your digestive muscles. This can lead to a range of conditions including constipation, diarrhea, cramps and hemorrhoids.
Low levels of sodium in the system can also result in feelings of nausea and if left untreated may lead to headaches, confusion and respiratory difficulties.
4) Bone Pain and Weakness
An imbalance in electrolytes can also cause bone weakness and pain. An excess of calcium can have severe effects including bone fracture, kidney stones, constipation, nausea and vomiting. The condition which is known as hypercalcemia can also cause fatigue, physical weakness and concentration issues.
5) Anxiety and Insomnia
It is not only physical problems that are caused by an imbalance in electrolytes. Anybody that has suffered from palpitations or an irregular heartbeat will be familiar with the anxiety it causes. This anxiety can cause even greater physical symptoms creating a vicious circle that is very difficult to break.
An irregular heartbeat, muscle spasms and feverish sweats can also lead to trouble getting to sleep and insomnia. Low levels of magnesium and high potassium or calcium levels can cause a great deal of anxiety because of the physical symptoms they cause.
6) Dizziness and Confusion
Dehydration can cause difficulties concentrating and may also result in dizziness and weakness. High levels of sodium in your system can also cause similar symptoms.
If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should see your doctor for a medical diagnosis.