Electrolytes are trace elements and one of the most vital elements of human metabolism. Electrolyte imbalance can significantly affect all body functions, athletic performance and even mental function.
What are electrolytes?
The most important electrolytes of human body are sodium, potassium, calcium, chlorine, magnesium, bicarbonate and phosphate. They are trace elements in free ion form, electrically charged either positive (+) or negative (-).
What are the actions of electrolytes?
They participate in many biochemical reactions and play an important role in energy production as well as in cell survival. Maintaining the balance of body fluids is very important for cell function and is determined by hormones produced by the kidneys, adrenal glands and the pituitary gland, like aldosterone, antidiuretic hormone, renin and angiotensin. It is a complicated process, which involves the feeling of thirst, sweating and urinating, as well as food digestion.
The main functions of electrolytes in the body are:
- communication of nerve and muscle cells
- contraction of the muscles
- transfer of fluids in the body (intracellular and extracellular)
- preservation of blood acidity
Causes of electrolyte imbalance
Causes of electrolyte imbalance are situations where there is decreased intake or increased loss of electrolytes, and some pathological conditions that disrupt the body fluid balance system. The most common causes are:
- Renal disease
- Poor electrolyte intake after exercise
- Prolonged diarrhea or vomiting
- Poor diet
- Severe dehydration
- Body acidosis disorder
- Medication (eg diuretics)
- Bulimia – anorexia
- Older people
What are the symptoms of electrolyte deficiency?
Symptoms of electrolyte deficiency can vary. Symptoms of severe electrolyte deficiency may be weakness, muscle spasm, cardiac arrhythmia, change in blood pressure, confusion, numbness, nervous disorders, even seizures.
Partial deficiency of electrolytes often does not have intense symptoms. At greater risk are people who are exercising, the elderly and those with prolonged diarrhea or vomiting. Electrolyte deficiency in athletes results in reduced performance and fatigue.
Electrolyte deficiency is treated by administering a solution of electrolytes in the presence or absence of carbohydrates. Electrolyte solutions are distinguished according to their osmolality.
- Hypotonic solutions, those having an osmotic pressure of less than 240mOsmol/L
- Isotonic solutions, having an osmotic pressure of 240 to 340 mOsmol/L
- Hypertonic solutions, those having an osmotic pressure greater than 340mOsmol/L
There is no consensus on which solutions are absorbed better and offer optimal hydration. However, hypotonic and isotonic solutions are preferred over hypertonic, especially in athletes.
Forms of electrolytes
Electrolytes are available in powder, gel or effervescent tablets. There are various flavors as well as formulas of electrolytes along with carbohydrates, caffeine, guarana and vitamins.
Treating an electrolyte imbalance involves either restoring the levels if they are too low, or lowering high levels. If the levels are too high, the treatment will depend on the cause. Low levels are normally treated with supplements of electrolytes. The type of treatment will depend on the severity of the imbalance.
If the symptoms are severe or do not recede with electrolyte supplementation, then the person may need to be hospitalized or seek medical help. It is vitally important to avoid and treat dehydration mainly in children, pregnant women and the elderly.
Electrolytes and diarrhea
In cases of diarrhea (eg travel diarrhea), there is an increased fluid loss, resulting in disruption of the electrolyte balance. It is recommended to take electrolytes supplements in order to restore their levels and to better absorb water from the gastrointestinal tract. They can be combined with anti-diarrheal drugs. Avoid hypertonic solutions, as they may exacerbate diarrhea and dehydration.
Electrolytes and vomiting
In cases of prolonged vomiting, the risk of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance are increased. As fluid intake is limited, it is recommended to take electrolyte solution in small sips at regular intervals.
Electrolytes and gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis is a viral or bacterial infection characterized by diarrhea and/or vomiting. It is recommended to take many liquids gradually in small sips. Electrolyte supplements are necessary if the symptoms do recede within the first 2 days, especially in children, pregnant and the elderly. It is recommended to take hypotonic or isotonic solutions of electrolytes, especially if there is diarrhea.
Electrolytes and exercise
Taking electrolytes is essential to avoid dehydration in long-lasting or intense sports. Water intake is not feasible in large quantities during exercise and water by itself is not enough to hydrate the body and restore lost electrolytes. For this reason, it is recommended to take a solution of electrolytes with carbohydrates (dextrose or glucose) and follow a proper nutrition before, during and after exercise. It is recommended to take hypotonic or isotonic solutions of electrolytes for better hydration.