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Electrolytes are vital for healthy functioning. Many bodily processes require a small electrical current, and when dissolved in water, electrolytes play this role. Electrolytes can interact with each other and a person's nerves, tissues, and muscles. Different electrolytes carry out different processes, so it's important to have a balance of different types in the body. Imbalances or deficiencies in electrolytes can cause a range of health problems.

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What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are chemicals that carry electric charges in the nerves and muscles. For example, the heart uses electrolytes to help it beat. The compounds also regulate bodily hydration, control blood pressure, and help repair damaged tissue. Magnesium, potassium, calcium, and sodium are all electrolytes. The latter three are necessary for muscle contraction.

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Sources of Electrolytes

Humans need to consume electrolytes in their food and drink. In particular, fruits and vegetables are rich sources of a range of electrolytes. Some people may require extra electrolytes in the form of supplements such as sport or energy drinks. These are designed to help the body replenish supplies lost during exercise. However, consuming these drinks in large amounts can lead to electrolyte levels in the body becoming too high.

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Sodium

The electrolyte sodium helps regulate the amount of fluid present in the cells and blood. Humans need adequate amounts of sodium to maintain normal muscle and nerve function and to keep the body's acid-base balance. Adults need around 1.2-1.5 grams of sodium per day to maintain optimum health. However, many people consume far more than they need in salty foods and snacks and by adding extra salt to their food. Experts do not recommend eating more than 5g of salt per day.

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Potassium

Potassium works in tandem with sodium to maintain fluid and acid-base balance in the body. It also works alongside calcium to promote healthy nerve and muscle function. A lack of sufficient potassium causes problems with glycogen storage. If the deficiency is severe, it can cause fatal heart problems. Most fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products are rich sources of potassium.

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Calcium

The bones are the main storage vessel of calcium. However, some is present in the body as ionized calcium, which is a vital electrolyte. Its roles include regulating the heartbeat, facilitating normal cell function, and controlling blood clotting. Adults need around 1000 to 1300mg of calcium per day to maintain healthy levels. Dairy products, leafy green vegetables, and nuts can deliver this important nutrient.

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Magnesium

While the bones store most of the body's magnesium supply, around one percent remains in the fluid surrounding the cells. This electrolyte facilitates normal enzyme reactions. Most people need to consume 310 to 420 mg of magnesium daily. They can get the required amount by eating dark green, leafy vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain products.

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7. What is an Electrolyte Imbalance?

Too many or too few electrolytes can cause damage. The body may lose electrolytes due to sweating or a sudden loss of body fluid such as a bout of vomiting. It is important to replace these lost chemicals to avoid levels becoming to low. On the other hand, if a person has too much of a certain electrolyte, the body can usually filter it out through the kidney without harm. However, levels may become so high that the body can no longer regulate them. In this situation, a person may develop symptoms such as muscle twitching, an irregular heartbeat, blood pressure changes, and seizures.

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Causes

A failure to replenish electolyte supplies after exercise or prolonged vomiting and diarrhea can cause imbalances. Chronic dehydration and a poor-quality diet can also lead to an imbalance of electrolyte levels. Certain cancer treatments and diuretic drugs can make imbalances more likely, and demographics such as older adults and those with bulimia are particularly susceptible. Kidney disease and congestive heart failure are also common causes of electrolyte imbalance.

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Electrolyte Testing

In some circumstances, a doctor may order blood tests to check the levels of electrolytes in a person's blood. This is especially likely if the patient is taking certain medications or has a health problem associated with electrolyte imbalance. The test also checks the acidity of the blood, as an acid-base imbalance can lead to an electrolyte imbalance later on. This test allows doctors to assess the type and severity of the imbalance and helps them decide on a course of treatment. Sometimes individuals require repeated tests during recovery to ensure treatment is working.

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Oral Rehydration Therapy

Oral rehydration therapy is a treatment given to people who have an electrolyte imbalance and dehydration -- often those with severe diarrhea. The individual drinks electrolytes dissolved in water. The World Health Organization stipulates that doctors administer 2.6 grams of sodium, 2.9 grams of sodium citrate, and 1.5 grams of potassium chloride.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.