Your body needs the minerals calcium, potassium, sodium and magnesium to conduct normal biochemical functions and they also serve a dual role as electrolytes. Electrolytes are electrically charged positive or negative ions that maintain nerve and muscle functions, maintain fluid balance and regulate body pH -- or acid-alkaline balance. When you lose fluids through sweat, urination, diarrhea or vomiting, you also lose electrolytes. If you have an inadequate diet, you may also lack electrolytes. Low electrolytes can cause severe health complications and become life-threatening.
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Low calcium, or hypocalcemia, most commonly causes spasms or twitching of the nerves and muscles. You may experience cramping in your arms and legs or numbness and tingling of your fingers and toes. Irritability, depression, confusion or serious disorientation may also accompany lack of this electrolyte. Prolonged hypocalcemia increases your risk of constipation, nausea, appetite disturbance, vomiting and increased urination. In mild cases, you can replace this electrolyte with calcium-rich foods like dairy, leafy greens, or fortified cereals. In moderate to severe deficiency, your physician may prescribe calcium pills or suggest an infusion.
Low potassium, or hypokalemia, is generally unnoticed until levels drop to extreme lows. Abnormal heart rhythm, muscle fiber deterioration, muscle weakness, fatigue and constipation characterize lack of this electrolyte. In some cases paralysis may occur and prolonged hypokalemia can damage your kidneys, resulting in kidney failure. A well-balanced diet that includes potassium-rich foods like bran, bananas, citrus, beans and green vegetables, can deter low potassium. Correcting moderate to severe hypokalemia may involve hospitalization to replace the electrolytes and fluids lost, as well as prescription medications to heal the damage to your heart or kidneys from hypokalemia.
Low sodium, or hyponatremia, causes symptoms of fatigue, headache, irritability, weakness or spasms in the muscles and seizures. In severe cases, unconsciousness or coma may occur. Gradual drops in sodium generally result in moderate symptoms but sudden drops in sodium levels may cause your brain to swell, which leads to coma or death. Hyponatremia risk increases if you drink too much water during endurance activity, but do not have enough serum sodium to balance the fluids in your cells. Maintain sodium levels with adequate intake in your diet from natural sodium in foods, like fresh produce and whole grains. Hospitalization and intravenous fluids are treatments when sudden hyponatremia occurs.
Low magnesium is less common, but in the event of its occurrence, you may experience fatigue, weakness and muscle spasms. Typically, you will experience a lack of this electrolyte along with low levels of the others. Treating low magnesium may involve prescription supplements and increased amounts in your diet from foods like nuts, beans and grains. Maintain electrolyte balance with a nutrient-rich diet and regular fluid intake. Prevent dehydration by hydrating with fluids like electrolyte-containing sports drinks before, during and after rigorous exercise. Avoid prolonged exposure to heat and if you must be in hot temperatures, take water and healthy snacks. In some cases, you may want to consider drinking a sports drink, which typically contains electrolytes.