Electrolytes. Most of us have heard of them. But what are they and why is it so important to keep them balanced? Electrolytes are formed when minerals or salts dissolve in fluid, causing them to separate into positively and negatively charged ions, thereby creating an electrically conductive solution. As a result of their ability to conduct electrical charges, electrolytes are able to regulate fluid distribution in the body, a very important role in our superhighway of cells, tissues, organs and fluid that thrive in homeostasis. In order to function normally, the body must maintain constant fluid levels in the blood, the cells and the areas around the cells. Electrolytes regulate heart beat, nerve and muscle function, blood volume and pH levels, blood pressure, and our body’s hydration level.
Electrolyte levels are kept constant by the kidneys and by the release of certain adrenal and kidney hormones. Specialized kidney cells monitor the amounts of sodium, potassium and water in the blood stream, while these specific hormones are released to keep electrolyte balance within the narrow range of normal limits. To maintain fluid balance, the body actively moves electrolytes in and out of cells. Electrolytes can become imbalanced when one loses a large amount of fluid quickly. This can occur as result of illness, disease, excessive sweating, serious injuries and dehydration or over-hydration. The most common imbalances are excessive or insufficient levels of sodium, magnesium or potassium.
When electrolyte balance is disturbed, disorders may develop. Signs may include irregular heartbeat, blood pressure changes, muscle spasms, convulsions, fatigue or weakness. Since electrolyte balance is basically determined by our food and water consumption, proper nutrition is essential. A well-balanced diet will generally supply an adequate amount of electrolytes. Colorful fruits and vegetables are naturally high in electrolytes, especially calcium, potassium, sodium and magnesium. Electrolytes found in our bodies include sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate and hydrogen carbonate and all have specific roles.
Sodium – Most often found in the blood plasma, sodium plays a significant role in water level regulation and balance in the body. So much so that wherever sodium goes, water follows. The kidneys help maintain balance by filtering excess sodium from the blood and adjusting the amount excreted in urine. Most of us get more than enough sodium from added salts in our diets. Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure and to fluid buildup in those who have less than optimal organ function.
Potassium – Found concentrated within the cells, potassium is essential for the electrical impulses that allow for brain and muscle function. Potassium aids in muscle building, helps control pH balance and is necessary for the electrical activity of the heart. Too little potassium can cause weak muscles and abnormal heart beat. Too much can result in poor kidney function.
Calcium – Necessary to promote strong bones and teeth, calcium aids communication between the brain and the body. It regulates muscle contraction including heart beat and aids normal blood clotting. Calcium also plays a role in hormone and enzyme release. Signs of deficiency can include muscle cramps, minor tingling or numbness in the fingers, lethargy and osteoporosis. Excessive calcium can result in loss of appetite, kidney toxicity and irregular heartbeat.
Magnesium – Required for over 300 metabolic processes, magnesium aids in muscle contraction and relaxation, maintains energy levels and sustains heart and blood vessel health. Together with calcium, magnesium supports healthy bones and helps maintain healthy blood pressure. Symptoms of deficiency may include insomnia, constipation, high blood pressure, fatigue or muscle spasms. While it’s unusual to have excess magnesium, symptoms can include muscle weakness, irregular heartbeat, very low blood pressure or breathing difficulties.
Bicarbonate – This important electrolyte keeps the acid-base levels of the body in balance. Bicarbonate aids in buffering the acids that build up in the body as normal byproducts of metabolism. A low blood level of bicarbonate can result in metabolic acidosis, which means the body is too acidic. A high blood level indicates metabolic alkalosis, in which the body is too alkaline. When the body is too acidic, proper digestion is negatively affected and may result in lowered immune function, hormonal imbalances, and poor nutrient absorption. Normal body pH is slightly alkaline. The body makes constant adjustments in tissue and fluid pH in order to maintain homeostasis.
Maintaining electrolyte balance is one more good reason to eat a healthy, natural diet. Eating a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits and drinking plenty of water daily will aid the body in maintaining homeostasis and functioning properly. Sports drinks are great for replacing electrolytes after a tough workout, but remember they do contain a fair amount of sugar. Don’t drink them as a casual beverage, rather save them for rehydration after a minimum of one hour of physical activity, to rehydrate during illness or anytime you have excessive perspiration. Remember to rehydrate with water according to your thirst and consider sports drinks during high-intensity and long-duration exercise.
Great products for rehydration and electrolyte replacement include:Endura® Lemon Lime by Metagenics provides a unique blend of electrolyte minerals formulated to provide energy and promote electrolyte absorption. This gluten free, vegetarian, Non-GMO formulation is naturally flavored and contains no artificial sweeteners. Also available in natural orange flavor. Electrolyte Synergy™ by Designs for Health provides a complete, balanced electrolyte formula to aid in the promotion of optimal hydration, exercise recovery and energy production. Electro-pH™ Complex (K-86) by Apex Energetics provides key minerals for fluid electrolyte balance support. Natural vanilla flavor. Electrolyte/Energy Formula by Pure Encapsulations helps to replenish electrolytes lost during exertion, aids in retaining hydration and supports physical and mental stamina. Natural lemon-lime flavor. References: Electrolytes. http://www.emedicinehealth.com/electrolytes/page11_em.htm#bicarbonate_hco3 What are electrolytes? http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/153188.php Electrolytes. http://www.medicinenet.com/electrolytes/article.htm What Are Body Electrolytes. http://www.disabled-world.com/health/electrolytes.php