What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are substances in the human body that contain an electric charge. They are fundamental elements for the normal functioning of the organism, and they can be lost and replaced.
Athletes are probably the group of people most familiar with electrolytes. It’s also to do with hydration, and there’s much publicity about these substances. So, what are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are mineral substances found in the blood and also in other body fluids, as well as inside cells. The great thing is that they can carry electric charges. That means the electrolyte can dissolve in water and conduct electricity.
They are very important for the organism. As we’ll see, an imbalance in electrolytes can be lethal. These substances are linked to the flow of water within the body. They’re also linked to the pH of the blood – its acidity – and to the activity of the muscles.
The main electrolytes of the human body are sodium, chlorine, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium. For each of these there are blood concentration values which we can consider normal. For example:
- In potassium, normal values range between 3.5-5.3 mEq/L
- Sodium has normal values between 136-145 mEq/L
- For Chlorine, it’s between 97-107 mEq/L
Causes of electrolyte imbalance
That normal electrolyte balance within the body that fluctuates between certain values can be altered. Hormonal changes, diseases of the organs such as the kidneys or liver and even the use of medications can affect them. Among the most common causes of electrolyte imbalance are:
- Dehydration: when the body enters a period of dehydration it loses fluid. Furthermore, it also loses these electrical substances. During febrile peaks or gastroenteritis with vomiting and diarrhoea, it’s possible to lose electrolytes.
- Malabsorption syndrome: there are pathologies that alter the process of absorption of nutrients by the intestine. When that happens, the electrolytes that are ingested may not actually enter the body.
- Endocrine diseases: diabetes or hypothyroidism are examples of hormonal problems that disrupt the balance of the body’s internal environment.
- Chemotherapy: cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments are very susceptible to electrolyte imbalance. Those treating cancer patients must always make sure they replace what is lost due to the treatment.
- Medication: In addition to chemotherapy, there are other commonly used drugs that cause loss of mineral substances. For example, diuretics and some corticosteroids.
- Kidney diseases: the kidney must regulate substances that leave the body. When it fails it can lose sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.
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The most common imbalances
Some electrolyte imbalances are more common than others. Some are temporary and can correct themselves automatically, while others need external intervention to return to normal levels.
A lot of these imbalances are not urgently serious. However, some are complicated. The long-term consequences can be serious.
With calcium, for example, there can be hypocalcaemia (lower amount of blood) or hypercalcaemia (higher amount of blood). For women, hypocalcemia can add to the risk of osteoporosis when the menopause begins. At the other extreme, hypercalcemia can lead to kidney stones.
Sodium, both excessively and insufficiently, alters neuronal functioning. Hyponatremia, which is the low sodium level, and hypernatremia, high blood sodium values, cause irritability and confusion. In extreme cases this can result in seizures.
Potassium is, perhaps, the electrolyte that causes most emergencies. Myocardiocytes, which are the heart muscle cells, require specific potassium values for the heartbeat to be what it should be. The lack of potassium in the blood is a trigger for arrhythmia, which has its own risks.
When it comes to excess potassium in the blood, although it isn’t urgent, you should see a specialist to track kidney problems. The first manifestation of a renal failure may be hyperglycemia, which involves an increase in blood potassium.
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Sources of electrolytes
It is important to know where we get electrolytes from in our diet. Not only to replace any losses, but also to ensure a balanced diet based on these daily requirements.
In addition to sports hydration drinks, you can also find electrolytes in the following foods:
- Calcium: In many fish contain calcium, especially sardines. It also comes from spinach and almonds.
- Phosphorus: There’s phosphorus in almonds, as well as in other nuts. Lean meats and eggs are reliable sources of this electrolyte, as are dairy products such as cheese and yogurt.
- Sodium: Beet, celery, olives and tomato.
- Magnesium: Green leafy vegetables, fish and nuts. There is also lots of magnesium in chocolate.
- Potassium: Finally, you can find potassium in good quantity in green leafy vegetables and in many fruits such as bananas and citrus fruits.