Electrolyte Imbalance: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Electrolytes are elements critical in every single function in the human body, so an electrolyte imbalance can be a very dangerous thing. Common electrolytes include – potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, phosphate, bicarbonate and calcium. These minerals dissolve when placed in a fluid, making that fluid electrically conductive. Electrolytes can be acids, bases or salts. 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 around 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.

Each of the electrolytes in the body serves a particular function, ranging from maintaining bone strength and stimulating heart contractions to stimulating cell division and driving blood clotting in wounds.

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.

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.

Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance

The most common symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance include fatigue, 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.

Causes of Electrolyte Imbalance

There are many different causes of a general electrolyte imbalance, including rapid water loss, diarrhea, vomiting or perspiration. Some injuries, blood loss or the loss of fluids from burns can also cause a general loss of these salts from the body. Eating disorders, cancer, alcoholism, diabetes and certain medications can also be blamed for certain electrolyte imbalances. However, a deficiency in each of the electrolytes can also be caused by various unique factors.

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 are when an incorrect amount of potassium is in the body, which 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.

Prevention for Electrolyte Imbalance

The best way to prevent an electrolyte imbalance is to maintain a healthy level of fluids in your body, which is relatively easy for most people, barring extreme physical exertion or serious nutrient intake deficiency. Many electrolyte imbalances are therefore experienced by athletes, who lose a significant amount of electrolytes when they work out or participate in a race/contest. People who consume an excessive amount of water (more than 3-4 gallons per day) may also flush out many of their electrolytes, leaving them deficient.

In such cases, it is essential to consume water and other electrolyte-filled drinks, such as sports drinks. While these can be high in sugar, they are also a good method of replenishing electrolytes quickly. Outside of athletic exertions, prevention is best served by a good diet that contains a good balance of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Mineral supplements are also a viable option for many people, as these supplements are available for every specific electrolyte in varying strengths.

Treatment for Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolyte imbalances can be treated in a number of ways, both formal and natural, such as changing your diet, adding mineral supplements, treating the underlying condition, regulating your physical activity, taking diuretics and using intravenous supplementation.

Dietary Changes

A quick fix for an electrolyte imbalance includes changing your diet to include more mineral-rich foods, such as bananas, raisins, dates, avocados, beans, potatoes, spinach and lentils. These foods are also rich in other nutrients and antioxidants that will help your body function better.

Exercising Smarter

If you are a high-performance athlete, properly plan your pre- and post-workout routines with adequate electrolyte intake including sports drinks and mineral supplements. Also, pay attention to your body during workouts; an electrolyte deficiency shouldn’t be “pushed through”, as it can result in unwanted side effects.

Mineral Supplementation

Supporting your diet with mineral supplements of potassium, calcium or phosphate is an excellent way to ensure that your electrolyte levels don’t dip to dangerous levels, particularly if you are an athlete or suffer from diseases linked to mineral deficiency.

Regulating Water Intake

While dehydration can be a major cause of electrolyte imbalance, so too can drinking an excessive amount of water. This essentially flushes out your bladder and kidneys of vital electrolytes. No more than 3 gallons of water should be consumed each day.

Underlying Cause

Many instances of electrolyte imbalance are caused by underlying infections and medical conditions, so an excellent remedy is to address the root of the problem. If you have kidney issues, blood pressure problems, a substance abuse problem or an eating disorder, fixing these issues may be the first step to solving your electrolyte problem.


Some people take diuretics for various medical conditions, or if they want to lose weight quickly. This can also help to eliminate excess minerals from the body if you are suffering from an excess of electrolytes, which is just as dangerous as a deficiency.

Intravenous Solutions

One of the more formal approaches to fixing an electrolyte imbalance is to intravenously add these salts to your bloodstream. This is particularly popular with people who are dehydrated or severely lacking potassium. Adding a concentrated dose of electrolytes to the body can be dangerous in some cases (particularly with sodium), so speak with your doctor about your options for resolving your electrolyte imbalance.

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