Electrolytes are substances that separate into electrically charged ions when dissolved in a solution. In the human body, electrolytes include sodium, bicarbonate, potassium, calcium, chlorine, phosphate and magnesium. They help regulate fluid levels within your body, and they aid in a variety of necessary cellular processes, such as transmitting nerve impulses.
Electrolytes can be positively or negatively charged. Negatively charged electrolytes, such as bicarbonate, chloride and phosphorus, are called anions. Positively charged electrolytes, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, are called cations.
The roles each electrolyte play are numerous, complicated and interconnected. Calcium helps muscles contract. Chloride and bicarbonate both help the body regulate pH levels. Magnesium aids in protein synthesis. Phosphorus aids in the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fat. Potassium helps regulate osmotic pressure, which affects the distribution of fluids within the body. Sodium also regulates fluid levels, as well as facilitating the activation of nerves and muscle cells.
Electrolytes must be in balance for the body to function properly. For example, potassium generally remains within cells, and chloride and sodium generally remain outside cells. When there is a proper balance between these electrolytes, cells are able to perform normal functions, which include regulating cell-wall permeability. But an improper balance can cause malfunctions, such as making cell walls too permeable.
A healthy diet and sufficient fluid intake normally maintain proper electrolyte levels, so imbalances might indicate an underlying health problem. Causes of electrolyte imbalances include kidney malfunction and endocrine diseases that affect the adrenal, thyroid, pituitary or parathyroid glands. Malnutrition due to eating disorders and malabsorption due to gastrointestinal problems might prevent the body from obtaining and maintaining proper electrolyte levels. Diarrhea, vomiting, fever, diuretic use, sweating heavily and any other condition that decreases body fluids also can lead to electrolyte imbalances.
The effects of an electrolyte imbalance vary widely depending on the type of imbalance, the specific electrolytes involved and the severity of the problem. Some potential effects of electrolyte imbalances include irregular heartbeat, seizures and muscle weakness, as well as an inability to perform basic functions, such as regulating nerve interaction and maintaining proper fluid levels. Treatment might include oral or intravenous supplementation to restore proper electrolyte levels, depending on the severity of the imbalance and the underlying cause.