We think of metals (such as copper wiring or steel lightning rods) as being conductors of electricity. But liquids can conduct electricity too, and we call these solutions of dissolved salts, electrolytes. The most common salt is table salt or sodium chloride, which breaks down into sodium and chlorine ions in water. The body uses sodium and chlorine to conduct electric impulses between tissues of the body, especially nerve and muscle cells. The body also uses other salts in their ionic forms as electrolytes, including potassium, magnesium, hydrogen phosphate, and hydrogen carbonate, but the two most important ones are sodium and potassium. Electrolytes enter and leave cells through protein structures called ion channels, and excess electrolytes are removed from the blood in the kidneys and eliminated in urine.
If your electrolytes are not balanced, it can affect the functioning of your muscles, nerves, and heart, along with your ability to concentrate, absorb fluids, or urinate. An electrolyte deficit is often the result of a diet low in minerals or dehydration. Sometimes diseases and medications can affect kidney function and damage the body's ability to eliminate excess electrolytes. There is a very narrow balance of ionic concentration that needs to be maintained within and around all our cells.
Hyponatremia means there is a sodium deficiency. It can be caused by drinking too much water, dehydration, kidney (renal) failure, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), liver cirrhosis, heart disease, brain trauma, tuberculosis, and pneumonia. Hypernatremia means you are getting too much sodium. It can be caused by too much dietary salt, diarrhea, diabetes, taking diuretic drugs, excessive vomiting, severe burns, heavy sweating, and heavy breathing. The most common cause of potassium depletion (hypokalemia) is taking a diuretic, but potassium and magnesium deficiency in the diet, diarrhea, and heavy sweating can also be responsible. Hyperkalemia (excess potassium) is caused when cells are damaged. This can be caused by burns, chemotherapy, infections, renal failure, and rarely, heavy exercise.
If you are drinking the right amounts of water and making sure your diet is low in salt, sugars and contains minerals, an electrolyte balances should be brought to the attention of a doctor. Diuretics, calcium, insulin with glucose, and albuterol may be prescribed for excess potassium. If you need more potassium, you may get gradual supplements, or you may just be asked to eat foods rich in potassium like bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes, spinach, and oranges. Sodium deficiency is usually treated with increased salt (salt tablets or high-saline IV) and fluid restriction. Excess sodium is usually corrected by drinking more water over a two-day period. If the correction in electrolyte level is done too quickly, it can pass the point of balance and go to the opposite extreme.