Electrolyte Imbalance: Causes & Symptoms

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Electrolytes in the body serve many functions, ranging from maintaining bone strength and stimulating heart contractions to stimulating cell division and driving blood clotting in wounds. Electrolytes can be acids, bases or salts.

Common electrolytes include potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, phosphate, bicarbonate and calcium. Given the essential nature of electrolytes in the body, it is understandable why having too many or too few could become a problem.

What is an Electrolyte Imbalance?

An electrolyte imbalance, as the name implies, is when the level of electrolytes is too high or too low in your body. An excess or a deficiency in certain electrolytes is more dangerous than others. For example, having too much sodium in your body can cause a rise in blood pressure, while having too little potassium can make it difficult to contract your muscles properly.

Our bodies are essentially filled with an electrolyte solution that fills the space between our cells and allows those millions of messages and impulses to be sent in the body where they are intended to go. One of the other critical functions of electrolytes is to act as gateways for fluid passage between cells and the surrounding space. Maintaining the correct fluid balance in the cells is critical for many different bodily functions, from nerve conduction and muscle movement to blood pH and your level of overall hydration.

electrolyte imbalance

The levels of electrolytes in your body are regulated by the kidneys. Many people don’t know this, but the kidneys produce quite a few hormones, as do the adrenal glands, and it is these hormones that control the levels of electrolytes. The kidneys have specialized sensors that monitor how much potassium and sodium you have in your bloodstream, for example, and when those levels are off, the hormone swoops in to remedy the situation.

In some cases, however, electrolyte stores are depleted or too many electrolytes are being stored in the body, which can be caused by a number of factors and can lead to various unpleasant side effects.

Causes

There are many different causes of a general electrolyte imbalance, including the following:

Deficiency in each of the electrolytes can also be caused by various unique factors. Let us look at some of them in detail below:

  • Calcium: Hypercalcemia and hypocalcemia are both serious conditions, as calcium is needed for muscle contraction and regulating blood pressure. Hypercalcemia is caused by thyroid disorders, kidney diseases, lung, and breast cancer, and high levels of vitamin D. Hypocalcemia is caused by prostate cancer, vitamin D deficiency, and kidney failure.
  • Potassium: Hyperkalemia and hypocalcemia occur when there is an imbalance in the levels of potassium. This element is needed for blood pressure regulation and nervous system communication. Hyperkalemia is caused by diabetic ketoacidosis, excessive use of potassium supplements and low cortisol levels. Hypokalemia occurs when you have an eating disorder, severe vomiting or diarrhea, or are suffering from dehydration.
  • Sodium: Hypernatremia and hyponatremia mean your sodium balance is off, which impacts fluid balance and muscle contraction. Hypernatremia is caused by diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration and some medications, such as steroids. Hyponatremia occurs when you suffer from alcoholism, consume too much water, have a thyroid or adrenal disorder, or are on diuretics.
  • Chloride: Hyperchloremia and hypochloremia are serious because chloride regulates fluid levels throughout the body. Diarrhea, dehydration, and vomiting can lead to hyperchloremia, as well as dialysis or kidney failure. Hypochloremia occurs when you have an eating disorder or kidney injury, making it impossible to process out the chloride from the body.
  • Phosphate: Hyperphosphatemia can be caused by breathing difficulties, muscle injuries, low levels of calcium and the use of laxatives. Hypophosphatemia is caused by alcohol abuse, a lack of vitamin D, severe burns or a complete lack of nutritional intake.
  • Magnesium: Hypermagnesemia occurs when people have end-stage kidney disease, but it is quite rare. A deficiency in magnesium, hypomagnesemia, is caused by malnutrition, excessive sweating, heart failure, and alcoholism.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include the following:

  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • Cognitive confusion
  • Convulsions
  • Seizures
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Cramping
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities

The most dangerous thing about an electrolyte imbalance is that the symptoms often do not appear until there is a serious problem. A chronic, but minor, electrolyte imbalance may put a strain on your system for months of years, but not manifest in obvious symptoms that spur you to see a doctor. A blood test is a simple way to measure electrolyte levels, but a deficiency in any one of these electrolytes will result in slightly different symptoms, and can thus be diagnosed with various methods. However, if any of the above symptoms appear and do not pass quickly, it is a good idea to visit your doctor as soon as possible.

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