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How Electrolytes, Sodium, Potassium and Chloride Function in the Body

author image Derek Bryan
Based in Cleveland, Derek Bryan has been writing professionally since 2009. Focusing on nutrition, health and fitness, Bryan has been featured on several notable health-related websites, including CAMCommons.com. Bryan holds an English degree from the Ohio State University, with a specialty in rhetoric and composition.
How Electrolytes, Sodium, Potassium and Chloride Function in the Body
Electrolytes are important in maintaining neural function, muscle function and water levels in the body. Photo Credit selvanegra/iStock/Getty Images

Electrolytes are types of minerals the body requires for regulating water levels, blood acidity and muscle function. You get them from foods and supplements. The most common electrolytes are sodium, potassium and chloride; other electrolytes include calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. Electrolytes function similarly, but each has its own role that supports overall health.

Functions of Electrolytes

Electrolytes include acids, bases and salts, but every electrolyte carries a specific electric charge, making it an imbalanced ion. This imbalance is used to attract or repel other charged particles in the body on a cellular level, triggering various important functions. For instance, electrolytes maintain water levels in the bloodstream, thereby controlling blood pressure. The body also uses electrolytes’ electrical charges to trigger muscle contractions and activate neural activity. Electrolytes are lost through sweating and must be replaced through consumption to maintain healthy function.

Sodium Levels

Sodium plays a critical role in maintaining charge balances in cell membranes, usually operating outside cell walls. As a positively charged ion, sodium contrasts with potassium, which is found inside cell walls, creating a gradient known as membrane potential. The balance of sodium influences the activity of membrane potential, allowing the body to control charge-driven functions like nerve impulse transmission and normal muscular activity. The amount of sodium in the body also determines the volume of extracellular fluid in circulation, making it critical for maintaining blood pressure.

Chloride's Role

Like sodium, chloride influences neural activity and muscle function, but chloride carries a negative charge rather than a positive one. Chloride is primarily found along with sodium in ordinary table salt, otherwise known as sodium chloride, and because it is in most foods, insufficient intake is rare. Chloride, in the form of hydrochloric acid, is also a major component of gastric juice, which in turn digests and absorbs essential nutrients from food.

Potassium Needs

Together with sodium, potassium maintains and influences membrane potential, except it acts from within cell walls rather than from extracellular fluid. Because sodium intake is usually high in Western society, potassium requirements correspondingly increase to maintain the balance. In addition to its effects on neural and muscular activity, potassium is important for maintaining bone health.

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