Elecrolytes are minerals in your blood and other body fluids that carry an electric charge. It is important for the balance of electrolytes in your body to be maintained, because they affect the amount of water in your body, blood pH, muscle action, and other important processes. Electrolytes exist in the blood as acids, bases, and salts and can be measured by laboratory studies of the blood serum.
- Sodium (Na) is most often found outside the cell, in the plasma (the non-cell part) of the bloodstream. It is a significant part of water regulation in the body, since water goes where the sodium goes. If there is too much sodium in the body, perhaps due to high salt intake in the diet (salt is sodium plus chloride), it is excreted by the kidney, and water follows.
Sodium is an important electrolyte that helps with electrical signals in the body, allowing muscles to fire and the brain to work. It is half of the electrical pump at the cell level that keeps sodium in the plasma and potassium inside the cell.
- Potassium (K) is most concentrated inside the cells of the body. The gradient, or the difference in concentration from within the cell compared to the plasma, is essential in the generation of the electricity that allows muscles and the brain to function.
- Calcium (Ca) The bones are a dynamic store of the calcium in the body. They are constantly under the influence of the hormone calcitonin, which promotes bone growth and decreases calcium levels in the blood, and parathyroid hormone, which does the opposite. Calcium is bound to the proteins in the bloodstream, so the level of calcium is related to the patient's nutrition as well as the calcium intake in the diet.
- Bicarbonate (HCO3) is an important component of the equation that keeps the acid-base status of the body in balance. Water + Carbon Dioxide = Bicarbonate + Hydrogen. The lungs regulate the amount of carbon dioxide, and the kidneys work with HCO3. This electrolyte helps buffer the acids that build up in the body as normal byproducts of metabolism or when the body malfunctions and too much acid is produced (for example: diabetic ketoacidosis, renal tubular acidosis)
Electrolytes are the smallest of chemicals that allow the body to work. Electrolytes are critical in allowing cells to function. They generate electricity, contract muscles, move water and fluids within the body, and participate in myriad 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 the adrenal glands. Sensors in specialized kidney cells monitor the amount of sodium, potassium, and water in the bloodstream. The body functions in a very narrow range of normal, and it is hormones like renin (made in the kidney), angiotensin (from the lung, brain and heart), aldosterone (from the adrenal gland), and antidiuretic hormone (from the pituitary) that keep the electrolyte balance within those limits.
Keeping electrolyte concentrations in balance also includes stimulating the thirst mechanism when the body gets dehydrated.
Electrolytes are vital to one's health and survival. They are positively and negatively charged particles (ions) that are formed when mineral or other salts dissolve and separate (dissociate) in water. Since electrolytes carry a charge, they can conduct electrical current in water, which itself in its pure form is a poor conductor of electricity. This characteristic of electrolytes is important because the current enables electrolytes to regulate how and where fluids are distributed throughout the body, which includes keeping water from floating freely across cell membranes.
Basically, cells need to be bathed in fluids, both inside and out. To control fluid passage across cell membranes, cells regulate the movement of electrolytes into and out of them, which causes water to follow the charged particles around wherever they go. These actions help maintain a state of fluid balance. This is also how electrolytes transport nutrients into cells and wastes out of them. The difference in electrical balance inside and outside of cells also allows for transmission of nerve impulses, contraction or relaxation of muscles, blood pressure control, and proper gland functioning. In addition, the presence of electrolytes determines the acidity or pH of some fluids, especially blood.
As you can see, our bodies have developed mechanisms to keep electrolytes within specific ranges. If one loses large amounts of fluids quickly, however, electrolytes may become unbalanced. This imbalance can occur through vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, serious burns, or wounds. In these cases, water and electrolytes need to be replaced. Life-threatening conditions may result if the losses are severe.
A well balanced diet usually supplies an adequate amount of electrolytes. The major ones are sodium, potassium, and chloride; others include calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate, to name a few. Most Americans get plenty of sodium and chloride from what they eat. Including several daily servings of fruits and veggies will provide sufficient potassium. Supplements are to be avoided, unless medically supervised, because they may adversely affect electrolyte balance.