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How Do I Correct an Electrolyte Imbalance?

author image Robin Wasserman
Robin Wasserman has been writing and prosecuting biochemical patents since 1998. She has served as a biochemical patent agent and a research scientist for a gene-therapy company. Wasserman earned her Doctor of Philosophy in biochemistry and molecular biology, graduating from Harvard University in 1995.
How Do I Correct an Electrolyte Imbalance?
Medications and illness can cause an electrolyte imbalance. Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images

It may be "shocking" to learn that your body conducts electricity. Salts in your body, known as electrolytes, are ionic compounds that, in water, break down into positive and negative charges and help conduct electrical activities in your body. These activities are essential for muscle coordination, heart function, fluid absorption and excretion and nerve function. Often, people lose electrolytes through perspiration, illness, medications or other causes, resulting in an imbalance which, in turn, can cause serious health problems. The kidneys and one's diet can help regulate and restore proper balance in healthy individuals, although other interventions may also be required.


Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance are often dependent upon which electrolyte is problematic. However, many of the symptoms overlap. Most symptoms of electrolyte imbalance include extreme fatigue, bloating, headaches and/or dizziness, problems with mental focusing and/or confusion, poor memory, irritability, constipation and/or chronic indigestion, achy joints, bones and muscles, nervous system or bone disorders, excessive muscle twitching, muscle spasms or muscle weakness, numbness, convulsions, blood pressure changes and/or irregular heart rhythms. Symptoms may depend on the severity of the imbalance. For example, mild to moderately low sodium levels can cause nausea and headaches, while severely low sodium levels may cause confusion, seizure, coma and even death.

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The most common causes of an electrolyte imbalance are due to loss of body fluids from prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, sweating or high fever. Additional causes include inadequate intake of electrolytes from a poor diet or malabsorption due to a variety of medical issues including stomach, kidney, hormonal or endocrine disorders. Medications, including diuretics, antibiotics and corticosteroids, as well as many chemotherapy drugs can also cause an electrolyte imbalance. People who compulsively drink more than four gallons of water a day or who drink a lot of water too quickly in an attempt to rehydrate themselves may experience an electrolyte imbalance. Burn victims often lose fluids and exhibit an electrolyte imbalance as do patients with diabetes insipidus. In rare cases, excessive exercise or exertion, can cause an electrolyte imbalance as well.


A well-balanced diet including a variety of fruits and vegetables can help prevent electrolyte imbalance. The most replenishing balance of electrolytes include tomatoes and bananas, although water-laden fruit, such as watermelons, apples and pineapples, are also beneficial in maintaining electrolytes. Adequate potassium level maintenance can be achieved by eating sweet potatoes, bananas, avocados, spinach and oranges. After exercising, it is important to cool your body down before drinking water. This decreases water loss and increases electrolyte absorption. Supplements can be used if you have difficulty getting sufficient minerals from your diet. Look for supplements that pairs 600 to 1,000 milligrams of magnesium citrate or magnesium asparate with potassium to help maximize your absorption. Soaking in a warm bath with magnesium sulfate, also known as Epsom salt, allows the mineral to flow directly into the skin's pores. This can actually increase your magnesium levels by up to 33 percent. Avoid soaking in the bath for more than 20 minutes to avoid sweating out the magnesium. When exercising, sip a sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes. Sports drinks having 85 mg of potassium and 45 mg of sodium in every 8 oz are optimal, although you can add a small amount of table salt to an 8-oz glass of water if you prefer to make your own version. After experiencing excessive diarrhea or vomiting, you can sip electrolyte replacement drinks or ices designed to treat infants. These help with your electrolyte levels and are easy on your stomach. While consumption of water is important in maintaining proper hydration, to prevent electrolyte imbalance, it is important not do overdo it. Severe hydration, as opposed to dehydration, can also lead to vomiting and diarrhea causing the electrolyte imbalance you are seeking to avoid.


Low sodium levels are the most common electrolyte imbalance. Men and women with healthy kidneys are equally at risk for experiencing electrolyte imbalance. However, people with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, which more often affect women, are at an increased risk. Young adults are not as susceptible as the very young or old. Patients with kidney disease including acute renal failure are at an extremely high risk due to the role your kidneys play in regulating electrolyte levels.


Although many of the treatment for electrolyte imbalance mirror those for prevention, there are additional treatments available for severe cases. In general, treatment includes identifying and treating the underlying problem causing the electrolyte imbalance, providing intravenous fluids and providing the specific electrolyte replacement. Minor electrolyte imbalances may be corrected by diet changes. However, in more severe cases, diet alone will not work. It is important to note that low sodium levels must be restored slowly, as rapid changes in sodium concentrations can cause brain cell shrinkage and other damage to the brain. Sodium levels can be repaired by restricting fluids, using intravenous saline solutions or consuming salt tablets. There are also drugs that work by increasing fluid retention and decreasing urination. Treatment for low potassium levels include intravenous potassium solutions or giving the patient potassium supplements. As with sodium, potassium must be administered slowly to avoid complications. Insulin is often given with glucose to help potassium absorption, and albuterol may be also added to increase absorption as well.


The diagnosis of an electrolyte imbalance may require blood tests and urinalysis to determine the amount of electrolytes in your blood and how much is being excreted. Abnormalities based on your history of symptoms, a physical examination by your health care provider and the results of your blood and urine tests may suggest further testing. An electrocardiogram may detect abnormalities caused by high or low potassium, magnesium and or sodium levels as they affect your heart rhythm. An ultrasound or X-ray of your kidneys may be required as electrolyte imbalances can be caused by kidney problems.

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