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Everything you need to know about Electrolytes

We all think we know about electrolytes. The term has become something of an advertising slogan as all kinds of products hit the market that advertises electrolytes. Electrolyte water and energy drinks are everywhere. 

But there is some real science behind electrolytes, and there are some reasons why people pay attention to them. It is one thing to keep a good supply of water with you to stay hydrated. It adds another dimension when that water contains electrolytes. 

The pint is, we all have a sense that electrolytes are good for us and that we need them. The reasons why we need electrolytes may be a bit more complicated. Electrolytes play crucial roles in our health in several ways. Everything from blood balance to muscle function depends at least in part on getting enough electrolytes. 

What are electrolytes, exactly? How do electrolytes work in the body? What happens if we do not get enough electrolytes? The science behind electrolytes gives answers to these questions. This guide will give you what you need to be properly informed on electrolytes so you can stay healthy and fit. 

What are electrolytes?

Put in the simplest terms, electrolytes, and chemicals that conduct electricity in the body when they are mixed with water. Electrolytes regulate nerve and muscle function, they help hydrate the body, they balance blood acidity and blood pressure, and they help repair damaged tissue. 

Muscles and neurons (brain cells) are often referred to as “electric tissues” because they rely on electrolytes and the ability to conduct electrical impulses to function. The balance of electrolytes and water in these cells determines their ability to function properly.

The critical electrolytes in the human body include:

  • sodium
  • potassium
  • calcium
  • bicarbonate
  • magnesium
  • chloride
  • phosphate

A good example is muscle cells. To function at all, muscle cells require calcium, sodium, and potassium. These electrolytes allow muscles to contract. When we do not have enough of these electrolytes, our muscles will not function properly. When it comes to exercise and other physical activity, an imbalance of these electrolytes can be disastrous. 

Electrolytes imbalance

The levels of electrolytes in the blood can change in relation to water concentrations. Electrolytes can become too high or too low. This is what we mean when we talk about an electrolyte imbalance. 

We lose electrolytes by sweating during exercise and other physical exertion, and this includes things like sodium and potassium. We can also lose electrolytes due to rapid fluid loss such as what occurs with vomiting and diarrhea. This is why you are told to keep replenishing electrolytes when you are ill. 

When any of these things happen, we need to replenish electrolytes. The kidneys and several hormones regulate the concentrations of electrolytes in the blood. If the levels of one electrolyte or another get too high or too low, the kidneys and these hormones will begin to function incorrectly. 

An electrolyte imbalance occurs when the concentrations of a specific electrolyte become too high. When a given electrolyte concentration gets too low, we experience an imbalance of a different order. 

Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance can be severe. An electrolyte imbalance from dangerous concentrations of magnesium, sodium, potassium, or calcium can result in the following: 

  • irregular heartbeat
  • weakness
  • bone disorders
  • twitching
  • changes in blood pressure
  • confusion
  • seizures
  • numbness
  • nervous system disorders
  • excessive tiredness
  • convulsions
  • muscle spasm

Dangerously high concentrations of calcium can occur especially in people who are living with breast cancer or multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that affects blood plasma cells. This happens because of the destruction of bone tissue. 

Symptoms include:

  • frequent urination
  • irregular heartbeat
  • lethargy
  • fatigue
  • moodiness and irritability
  • nausea
  • stomach pain
  • vomiting
  • extreme muscle weakness
  • thirst
  • dry mouth or throat
  • total loss of appetite
  • coma
  • confusion
  • constipation

High concentrations of calcium are the result of these cancers or cancer treatment. 

There are several causes of electrolyte imbalances. These range from acute illnesses to signs of aging. Some of the causes of electrolyte imbalance include:

There are several reasons for an electrolyte imbalance, including:

  • kidney disease
  • not replenishing electrolytes or staying hydrated after exercise
  • prolonged periods of vomiting or diarrhea
  • poor diet
  • severe dehydration
  • an imbalance of the acid-base, or the proportion of acids and alkalis in the body
  • congestive heart failure
  • cancer treatment
  • some drugs, such as diuretics
  • bulimia
  • age, as the kidneys of older adults, become less efficient over time

People who are suffering from many of these serious illnesses are monitored for electrolyte balance as a matter of course in their treatment. As you can see, many of the causes of electrolyte imbalances are preventable. This is why we need to monitor our electrolyte intake to make sure we are maintaining the proper balance. 

Monitoring electrolytes

If you are healthy, you can generally maintain a solid electrolyte balance by staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet. For people who work out, engage in high-intensity athletic training, or do physically demanding work, you will likely need some kind of hydration that includes electrolytes since you will shed electrolytes quickly.

Otherwise, an electrolyte panel can be used to screen for electrolyte imbalances. This measures the electrolytes in your blood with an acid-based test/ This also measures kidney function. These tests can also monitor electrolytes throughout any medical treatment that may put you at risk for developing an electrolyte imbalance. 

A doctor will sometimes include an electrolyte panel as part of a routine physical exam. Electrolytes are measured in millimoles per liter (mmol/L). These kinds of tests are often part of any stay in the hospital, especially if you came in through the emergency room. 

If anyone's electrolyte is found to be too high or too low, the doctor will continue to monitor your electrolyte levels until it is established that you are stable. This can be done by measuring blood gases. 

In the event of an electrolyte imbalance, you may be treated with specific drugs designed to stabilize your blood balance and restore electrolyte balance. These may include things like diuretics. 

In the case of severe electrolyte imbalance, you may require an IV drip that replenishes electrolytes. Low sodium, for example, may require a direct infusion of electrolytes to regain the necessary balance. This involves a solution of water and sodium lactate. 

In the case of severe loss of water such that electrolytes become too concentrated in the blood, an IV treatment of water and glucose may be given to restore balance. 

Sources of electrolytes

The best way to maintain a healthy electrolyte balance is with a healthy diet. Proper hydration and eating right will most often keep your electrolytes balanced and healthy. 

The main sources of electrolytes are fruits and vegetables. For most people in the western world, the main source of sodium and chloride is simple table salt.  

Electrolytes and their sources are listed below:

  • Sodium: Pickled foods, cheese, and table salt.
  • Chloride: Table salt.
  • Potassium: Fruits and vegetables like bananas, avocado, and sweet potato.
  • Magnesium: Seeds and nuts.
  • Calcium: Dairy products, fortified dairy alternatives, and green leafy vegetables.

Some electrolytes are produced by the body. Sodium bicarbonate is an example. 

If it becomes necessary to supplement electrolytes the most common sources are bottled waters that contain electrolytes. These are great for people who are extremely active and tend to lose electrolytes at a high rate. 

In other cases, such as periods of illness that cause vomiting and/or diarrhea, you may need to supplement electrolytes. Some type of electrolyte water is one of the best bets, although there are some fine electrolyte supplements which we will describe below. 

Supplements are also an option for managing low levels of an electrolyte. For example, older adults often do not consume enough potassium, and levels may also be reduced by treatments with corticosteroid or diuretic medication. In these instances, potassium tablets can boost the concentration in the blood.

It is a good idea to be careful with electrolyte supplements. Electrolyte levels that are too high can cause serious problems. Just make sure to read the ingredients on the product label of electrolyte supplements to make sure you do not consume too much.  

As with any nutritional supplement, it is always best to talk to your doctor before using them.

Electrolytes FAQs

What are electrolytes? 

Put in the simplest terms, electrolytes, and chemicals that conduct electricity in the body when they are mixed with water. Electrolytes regulate nerve and muscle function, they help hydrate the body, they balance blood acidity and blood pressure, and they help repair damaged tissue.

What is an electrolyte imbalance? 

An electrolyte imbalance occurs when the concentrations of a specific electrolyte become too high. When a given electrolyte concentration gets too low, we experience an imbalance of a different order. 

What causes an electrolyte imbalance? 

Electrolyte imbalances are most often caused by illnesses that cause things like vomiting and diarrhea. They can also be caused by excessive exercise and physical exertion. 

How is an electrolyte imbalance treated? 

Medically, doctors will do a procedure that measures your electrolyte levels. With this information, they will prescribe medications designed to balance electrolytes. These may include medications like diuretics. 

What are some symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance?  

The most common symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include frequent urination, lethargy, fatigue, moodiness and irritability, nausea, and stomach pain. Other more symptoms will develop as an electrolyte imbalance becomes more severe. 

How can I avoid an electrolyte imbalance? 

The best way to maintain electrolyte balance is through proper hydration and a balanced diet. If you exercise regularly or are an athlete who is engaged in high-intensity training, you may require something like electrolyte water or some type of electrolyte supplement. 

Product showcase

For people who train hard and seriously, NF Sports offers Hydrate 2.0 Hydration. This is formulated with optimal electrolyte and sustained blend to amplify hydration and increase performance. This all-natural formula helps the body rehydrate, replenish, and recover. It includes the most bioavailable forms of electrolytes.

Intense levels of activity and long workouts can dehydrate your body and drain your cells of glycogen, the main energy source for your muscles. Hydrate 2.0 can increase performance.

Maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal system is crucial to your overall well-being – a healthy gut is key to supporting your immune system. Hydrate 2.0 is designed to aid in digestive system health.

Conclusion

Anyone who is active and who exercises regularly knows enough to stay hydrated and to eat a balanced diet. Even people who work tough, physically demanding jobs know they need to stay on top of hydration and some kind of sensible nutrition. 

But many of us may not be paying enough attention to our electrolyte balance. We must keep replenishing electrolytes along with water when we are physically active. As we sweat and lose water, we also lose electrolytes. If we lose too much of our electrolyte balance, we are in danger of some fairly serious problems. 

Electrolyte loss is also what we need to pay attention to when we are ill. Any condition that causes things like vomiting and diarrhea can lead to a serious drop in electrolytes. When this happens, we are in danger of further illness on top of the problems that cause the electrolyte imbalance.  

An electrolyte imbalance can cause serious issues that may lead to long-term illnesses. The best way to deal with an electrolyte imbalance is to prevent it from happening in the first place. 

Thankfully, we can generally get all the electrolytes we need from a healthy balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of electrolytes. Eat right and stay hydrated, and you will never have any problem with electrolyte imbalances. 

However, for serious athletes and people who work out hard, an electrolyte supplement will likely be necessary. Hydrate 2.0 Hydration from NF Sports is the best electrolyte supplement available. This will provide you with the electrolyte boost you require while it helps maintain your overall health.

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