Electrolytes are ions in the body that can conduct an electrical impulse. In the human body, they play a vital role in regulating hydration and blood pH, and have an effect in nerve and muscle function. Examples of electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphate, and bicarbonate. Normally we get these from our diet, and the body regulates them as needed. An imbalance in one or more of them (too much or too little) can impair bodily functions.
Physiological Effects of Imbalance
Electrolyte balance is controlled primarily with hormones, and through kidney function (excreting or conserving unbalanced electrolytes). Symptoms are similar among deficiencies and excesses of individual electrolytes. Sodium imbalance can lead to lethargy, confusion, drowsiness, muscle weakness or twitching, seizures, coma and even death. Potassium imbalance causes low blood sugar in people with chronically low potassium, fatigue, confusion, muscle weakness and cramps, paralysis, and heart arrhythmias. Calcium imbalance causes muscle weakness, numbness in the hands and feet, confusion, seizures, dehydration, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, confusion, coma and eventually death. Magnesium deficiency symptoms include muscle cramps, soreness, twitching, chest tightness, constipation, menstrual cramps, difficulty swallowing, light and noise sensitivity, insomnia, anxiety, numbness, tingling and heart arrhythmias.
Causes of Electrolyte Imbalance
For some electrolytes, only a deficiency poses a problem to normal body system function. For others, even a slightly elevated or decreased level can cause serious problems. Causes of low sodium or hyponatremia include not consuming enough sodium in the diet, drinking lots of water while sweating, using diuretics and some medications, and disorders where the body produces too much ADH (antidiuretic hormone). Causes of excess sodium or hypernatremia include dehydration without replenishment of water, use of diuretics, diarrhea and taking some medications. Causes of low potassium or hypokalemia include use of diuretics, diarrhea and vomiting for long periods of time. Increased potassium or hyperkalemia is caused by kidney failure, diuretics and taking ACE inhibitors for lowering blood pressure. Low calcium levels or hypocalcemia can be caused by widespread infection (sepsis), not enough parathyroid hormone production, vitamin D deficiency, anticonvulsant drugs, pancreatitis and hypothyroidism. Increased calcium or hypercalcemia is caused by too much osteoclast activity (breaks bones down and puts calcium in blood) as in cancer or Paget’s disease, an elevated parathyroid hormone level (possibly caused by a tumor in the parathyroid hormone gland) or high levels of thyroid hormone. Magnesium deficiency is caused by some medications, chronic vomiting or diarrhea, Crohn’s disease, poorly controlled diabetes, alcohol abuse and low dietary intake.
Where to Get Electrolytes in Food
The body does a very good job regulating electrolyte balance. Most people get enough of each one from their regular diets. In case of illness or disease, the following foods are good sources of electrolytes: Sodium: Regular table salt and many processed and frozen foods have high sodium content, as do spices. Potassium: Foods high in potassium include sweet potato, plain yogurt, bananas, cantaloupe, grapefruit, oranges, tomato or prune juice, honeydew melons, prunes, molasses and potatoes. Calcium: Foods include milk, plain yogurt, cheese. Nondairy sources include fortified ready-to-eat cereals, soy milk, sardines, tofu, salmon, collards, spinach, oatmeal, white beans, kale and soybeans. Magnesium: Sources include pumpkin and squash seeds, whole grains, brazil nuts, bran cereal, halibut, spinach, almonds, cashews, soybeans, legumes, white beans, black beans, artichokes, yellowfin tuna and tofu. Chloride: This occurs in table salt, seaweed, rye, tomatoes, lettuce, celery, olives and salt substitutes. Phosphate and bicarbonate: both are found in the same foods as sodium and calcium.