You might have heard this word ‘electrolyte’ a lot. So, what are electrolytes? Electrolytes are nothing but minerals in your blood and other body fluids that carry an electric charge. Electrolytes affect your body functions including amount of water in the body, pH balance, muscle function and they even control the function of the nervous system. Apart from these functions, they also help rebuild damaged tissue. Therefore, they are vital for the healthy functioning of the body.
When you sweat, you lose electrolytes and they need to be replaced with fluids containing electrolytes. Some electrolytes that we come across frequently are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus etc. So, what happens when there is an imbalance in electrolytes? Well that totally depends on which electrolyte and what is its role. Calcium, sodium and potassium when imbalanced leads to muscle weakness or excessive contraction. Imbalance could be caused due to high or low levels of electrolytes. Sodium and potassium are two vital electrolytes. When water in the body becomes less due to sweat, vomiting or diarrhea, electrolyte balance may be affected. Kidneys play a very important role in filtering electrolytes if they are found in excess. Hormones restore electrolyte balance.
So, what happens when electrolyte imbalance occurs? If the concentration of one or more electrolytes such as magnesium, sodium, or potassium is more, it can have symptoms such as weakness, irregular heartbeat, numbness, confusion, BP changes, muscle spasms, nervous system problems etc. If calcium is in excess it might cause frequent urination, constipation, thirst, lethargy, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, loss of appetite etc.
There are several possible causes for electrolyte imbalance. Dehydration due to vomiting or diarrhoea, not replacing depleted electrolytes after working out, poor diet patterns, acid-base balance being disrupted etc. There are also specific reasons like a particular type of medication, cancer treatment, age factor and kidney disease which may also cause an electrolyte imbalance.
Temporary changes in electrolyte balance might not be a cause for concern. However, your doctor will decide if an electrolyte panel needs to be done. This test screens the blood to find any imbalances. It also finds out about acid-base balance and kidney function. Electrolytes in the blood are measured in millimoles per liter. As in other cases like specific disease / medication, the doctor might test for electrolyte imbalance regularly to ensure it comes back to normalcy.
High electrolytes mostly occur when your body loses water in excess without losing electrolytes. In this case, water and glucose is given. If the levels are low then the required electrolyte is supplemented. However, your doctor is the best person to decide if supplementing is good enough or regular monitoring is required depending on the severity of the condition.
Oral rehydration therapy
This is the known solution given to treat electrolyte-loss and dehydration. The WHO has approved a solution containing sodium chloride, potassium chloride, sodium citrate, glucose in specified grams to be dissolved in 1 liter of water and given for electrolyte shortage.
Electrolyte replacement therapy
In severe cases, your doctor might administer electrolyte orally or through an IV.
A balanced diet with vegetables and fruits along with enough water should reduce the risk of electrolyte shortage. However, in case of electrolyte shortage due to strenuous workout etc one can have oral rehydration solution. In cases where other symptoms occur, it is best to talk to your doctor.