North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

June 22, 2011

Understanding electrolytes

Health Watch

By Ben Montgomery
The North Jefferson News

COMMENTARY — We’ve talked about making sure you drink enough water this time of year, but water is sometimes not enough as it does not contain electrolytes. Electro-lytes are the smallest of chemicals that are important for the cells in the body to function and work correctly. Chemically, electrolytes are substances that become ions in solutions and have the capacity to conduct electricity. Really, the term “electrolyte”, is a medical/scientific term for salts. The term electrolyte means that the ion is electrically-charged to either a positive or negative charge.

Our bodies require the following electrolytes: Sodium, Potassium, Chloride, Calcium, Magnesium, Bicarbonate, Phosphate and Sulfate.

Electrolytes are important because they are what the cells (especially the nerve, heart, muscle) use to maintain the voltage across cell membranes and carry the electrical impulses between cells. The electrolytes also serve to move fluids within the body and participate in a myriad of other activities.

The concentration of electrolytes in the body is controlled by a variety of hormones, most of which are manufactured in the kidney and adrenal glands.  Special cells in the kidneys monitor the amount of sodium, potassium and water in the bloodstream. The body functions in a very narrow range and minor variances in the concentration of these chemicals can throw the body into imbalance.

So, you’re thinking, how do the electrolytes get out of balance or altered concentrations? When you exercise or sweat heavily, you lose electrolytes in the sweat, particularly potassium and sodium.  These electrolytes need to be replaced to maintain the concentration.  Individuals with common gastrointestinal problems can lose a high concentration of electrolytes through vomiting or diarrhea. This is of a major concern in the very young and elderly. Electrolyte imbalances in these two segments of the population can become critical in a matter of hours, and must be addressed rapidly to avoid serious outcomes.

There is a wide range of symptoms that an individual can experience when electrolytes become imbalanced. For example, if the sodium is too high or too low, cellular malfunction can occur. Lethargy, confusion, weakness, swelling, seizures and even coma are all concerns of a sodium imbalance.  Potassium can cause life-threatening conditions due to its involvement in electrical impulses in the heart, resulting in heart rhythm problems. Individuals with compromised kidney function have to really keep an eye on their potassium intake to avoid potential problems. Calcium is stored in bones, and is constantly under hormonal influence due to bone growth. Too much calcium in the body makes an individual susceptible to things like kidney stores, which I can speak from experience, are not pleasant. Calcium in too high of a concentration has been associated with hearth rhythm disturbance, and even linked to depression.  Magnesium is often forgotten as an electrolyte, but is very important in a variety of metabolic activities, including the relaxation of smooth muscles that surround the bronchial tubes in the lungs, skeletal muscle contraction, and the brain’s neuron activity. Magnesium also acts as a co-factor in a number of the body’s enzyme systems.  Bicarbonate is the electrolyte responsible for helping to regulate the body’s acid-base balance. The lungs regulate the amount of carbon dioxide, and the kidneys regulate the amount of bicarbonate in the body. This is important because when muscles are working, they produce lactic acid as a byproduct of energy generation.  

Since the body does not have the ability to make electrolytes, they must be taken into the body from an external source. While sports drinks do offer some advantage, they may contain a higher than necessary sugar and flavoring content to provide the body extra energy and make the drink taste better.

Consumption of water may not meet the body’s needs, but excessive amounts of water can cause water intoxication. This is a potentially rare, but fatal imbalance of electrolytes in the body. It might occur, for example, during intense exercise when heavy sweating removes water and electrolytes from the body, but only large quantities of water are consumed to replace what has been lost. The resulting low concentration of electrolytes adversely affects central nervous system function.

Many sports drinks reduce the risk of water intoxication by replenishing fluids and electrolytes in a ratio similar to that normally found in the human body. However, some sports drinks have low concentrations of electrolytes, so zealous overconsumption of them could also lead to water intoxication. People whose work or exercise puts them at high risk of developing heat illness or water intoxication should seek professional advice about proper rehydration of the body.