Electrolytes are defined as inorganic substances that form ions in an aqueous solution. Your body needs electrolytes; when these substances are present in sufficient quantities your body functions normally. Your heart beats, your muscles contract, normal blood pressure is maintained, you’re alert and mentally ready. During electrolyte imbalance normal cellular functions are impaired. The degree of impairment, the symptoms and the severity of this depends on whether you have too much or too little of something and to the degree that you have exceeded the normal limits.
The hyper and hypo prefixes are used to denote whether someone has an excess or deficit of a specific electrolyte. For example: someone who is hypernatremic has an above average concentration of sodium ions and a person suffering from hypokalemia requires more potassium ions than are currently available to them. For the average person a normal well balanced diet is sufficient to maintain electrolyte balances but there are several conditions and diseases that can adversely affect the electrolyte balance. These include but are not limited to breast and prostate cancers, digestive disorders including celiac disease, impaired renal function and inherited genetic disorders.
Generally electrolyte imbalances are not life threatening and are usually treated with intravenous solutions or simple dietary changes. Non-disease states may also affect electrolyte imbalances. Routine abuse of antacids, alcohol and other drugs, pregnancy, abnormal stress and injuries can cause electrolyte balances to be disrupted. Depending on the severity of the imbalance it may be asymptomatic and remain undetected. Hypocalcemia is typically asymptomatic and the danger here is that your skeletal system may be under attack as cells harvest the calcium stored within the bone matrix to meet their electrolytic needs. Other complications include congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmias, muscle spasms, intestinal cramps and convulsions, in rare cases this can even lead to death.
Electrolytes have several functions: they are used to conduct electricity, the central nervous system sends electrical impulses throughout the body, they can act as secondary messengers, skeletal muscle fibers will respond to a larger than normal electrical stimulus and electrolytes can serve also as catalysts for enzymatic reactions. They also play a critical role in the regulation of fluid balances. There are two separate fluid compartments in your body intracellular fluid and extracellular fluid. Intracellular fluid is the fluid that resides in within your cells and extracellular fluid is the remaining balance.
Changes in electrolytic concentrations in and around cells affects them and their ability to function normally. Unusually high or very low concentrations can alter and damage cells. Your cells have limited mitochondrial energy to function and if they’re expending energy to remove unwanted positively charged electrolytes their energy stores are unnecessarily depleted. Electrolytes travel in and out of cells in different ways. Some electrolytes leak through channels in cell walls, some are actively transported in and others are exchanged for those that the cell needs.
Fluid and electrolyte shifts are constant. Your kidneys are constantly filtering out unwanted ions but they also have the power to capture or recall ions before they are excreted. Excess ions are excreted as waste products but if there is a demand for a certain electrolyte the kidneys may be able to prevent elimination by pulling electrolytes from the filtrate. Electrolytes do not work independently and the fate of one may affect the availability of another. Iron and magnesium ions interfere with the body’s ability to absorb calcium.
One symptom of an inadequate supply of magnesium is hypocalcemia and a symptom of hyperchloremia is hyperkalemia. Chlorine is the most prevalent anion in the body. It has a -1 charge and your body depends on primarily on chlorine ions to maintain a negative cellular environment. The negatively charged internal environment gives cells a resting potential. Potential energy can be converted into actual energy and your cells are able to perform work.
Cellular function varies from cell to cell but without electrolytic harmony any cell is unable to function optimally. Suboptimal function is possible. Who among us has the perfect diet and exercise regime, but your body has a built in coping mechanism to deal with us as inhabitants. Normal cellular functions will continue as long as electrolyte concentrations remain within a range of normal values. Electrolytes are lost through sweat, urine, feces and bile. They are gained when you eat, drink and breathe. When considering how to replace lost electrolytes a simple well balanced meal is generally sufficient to restore electrolytic homeostasis although special conditions such as illness or extremely strenuous exercise may require electrolytic supplementation.
A quick word about sports drinks and vitamin waters. They do contain electrolytes but they are a poor choice for electrolyte replacement as they typically contain excessive amounts of sugar and many are artificially colored and flavored to increase palatability. The importance of a well balanced diet cannot be over emphasized, taking great care of your body on a daily basis means you will have electrolyte reserves to restore normal losses so eat, drink and be merry. Laughter is the best medicine even if it has nothing to do with electrolytes.
Fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology
Thanks to nocte, Tem42, Albert Herring, and auraseer for corrections on 4/29/8, 5/19/9, 5/26/9 and 2/3/10 .