Electrolyte Imbalance: Symptoms, Types, Causes & Treatment

Electrolytes are electrically charged elements such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium in your blood and other body fluids. These particles play a vital role in performing various body functions like maintaining electrical neutrality in cells. Plus, they help with the transfer of nutrients all around your body (1,2).

It’s crucial to ensure you’re getting enough of these trace elements each day because they’re essential to sustaining life. 

If your body is severely lacking or has an abundance of any one of electrolytes then there could be serious consequences. That’s because they may affect how your cells communicate with each other and how nerve and muscle impulses function. This condition where the electrolytes are off balance is called electrolyte imbalance.

Read on to understand it better.

What is an Electrolyte Imbalance?

Electrolyte imbalance happens when any of the electrolytes present in your body are either too high with regards to their normal range or too low in concentrations.

You should know that your body’s fluid levels fluctuate constantly. So, the electrolyte balance is continually adjusting. For example, a little episode of vomiting, fever, or excessive perspiration can cause you to lose water, as well as essential electrolytes.

But if the resulting electrolyte imbalance is severe, it can cause issues with various internal systems. And this makes it life-threatening.

At this point, the most common question is – how would we know if we are experiencing electrolyte imbalance, and what can we do about it?

That’s what we are answering in the following sections.

What Are the Symptoms of an Electrolyte Imbalance?

Look out for the following signs of electrolyte imbalance if you often experience a water loss. Many of these symptoms are only visible when the condition becomes severe, so you must act on them as soon as possible.

  • Fast Or Irregular Heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Trembling 
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Joint Pain
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation 
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal Cramping
  • Muscular Cramping 
  • Dark Urine 
  • Reduced Urination
  • Muscle Weakness 
  • Irritability 
  • Dry Mouth
  • Confusion
  • Dry Skin 
  • Bad Breath
  • Numbness And Tingling In The Hands And Feet

What Causes Electrolyte Imbalance

When you do that, the body loses electrolytes due to excessive urination. The condition is overhydration.

  • Not drinking enough water: 

The normal function of the body involves urination, sweating, and the use of water for different processes in the body. When you don’t drink enough water and water gets used, as usual, the body goes through dehydration – a lack of fluids and electrolytes.

  • Excessive exercise: 

Working out for long periods, especially in hot weather, can lead to losing more sweat than usual. Sweat not only contains water but also electrolytes like sodium and potassium. The loss causes a water-electrolyte imbalance.

  • Vomiting or diarrhea: 

Whether you have food poisoning that is causing you to vomit or an upset stomach with diarrhea, you end up losing a good load of fluids. And they take away essential electrolytes with them.

  • Addison’s disease: 

It’s a condition where your adrenal glands don’t make enough of certain hormones. Our adrenal glands release many hormones, but the one that’s missing in patients with Addison’s disease is cortisol.

Cortisol is a very important hormone. It helps control the amount of salt in the body, as well as, the amount of sugar we use as energy. 

Note here that sugar isn’t an electrolyte. Yet, it has a significant role in maintaining the electrolyte balance. Without a handle on these two, your electrolytes are bound to go off balance.

  • Kidney problems: 

The kidneys help in removing waste products from the body and regulate electrolyte levels as part of the salt and water balance in the body. They can control the amount of sodium, potassium, and chloride that gets excreted into the urine.

But if you have kidney issues causing problems with its function, it may lead to an imbalance of electrolytes.

  • Diuretic medications: 

People with high BP, unhealthy kidneys, or heart failure often take diuretic medications. 

While this helps treat their condition, the pills may also have a side effect that can lead to dehydration. That’s because these medicines help get rid of retained water in the body and promote urination. The loss of fluids implies losing electrolytes.

  • Too much alcohol or caffeine: 

Unfortunately, both alcohol and caffeine have become a big part of the modern lifestyle. So, it’s difficult to avoid the electrolyte imbalance caused by them. But how do they cause it? 

Since alcohol and caffeine are diuretics, they promote urination. And that, as you now know, makes electrolytes go off balance.

Types of Electrolyte Imbalance

There are primarily the following types of imbalance in electrolytes:

HyponatremiaLow levels of sodium in the bloodless than 135 mmol/L
HypernatremiaHigh levels of sodium in the bloodgreater than 145 mmol/L
HypokalemiaLow levels of potassiumunder 3.6 mmol/L
HyperkalemiaHigh levels of potassiumabove 5.5 mmol/L
HypercalcemiaHigh levels of calciumless than 8.8 mg/dl
HypocalcemiaLow levels of calciumlevels exceed 10.7 mg/dl
HypermagnesemiaHigh levels of magnesiumless than 3.6 mg/dl
HypomagnesemiaLow levels of magnesiumgreater than 4.8 mg/dl

Electrolyte Imbalance Treatment

First, get an electrolyte imbalance test. An electrolyte test helps determine whether or not there is an electrolyte imbalance. And if so, what is the level of imbalance?

Depending on which electrolyte is out of balance and to what degree, the treatment for an electrolyte imbalance will vary. For example, if your potassium levels are low, the doctor may advise you to consume more bananas

Home Remedies to Treat Electrolyte Imbalance

  • Consume electrolyte drinks.
  • Eat electrolyte-rich foods.
  • Fix overhydration: The quickest and easiest way to fix overhydration is to not drink water/fluids until you are truly thirsty. If you think you feel thirsty all the time, you should delay having any fluids and consult a doctor right away.
  • Drink ORS solution: It has salt and sugar in the right proportion that helps keep your electrolytes in check.
  • Consume milk.
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Medical Treatment for Electrolyte Imbalance

  • IV fluids and medications

Electrolytes can get back in balance with medications such as calcium gluconate, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, and intravenous fluids such as sodium chloride.

  • Oral supplements

The doctor may recommend supplements like phosphate binders to balance your electrolytes. Others include potassium chloride, calcium, and magnesium. 

  • Dialysis

If kidney damage causes an electrolyte disorder and other treatments don’t work, hemodialysis can help. It’s a type of dialysis that your doctor may recommend, if and when the electrolyte disorder becomes life-threatening.

Final Words

Electrolyte imbalance happens mostly due to dehydration, so make sure you drink enough (not less, not more) water throughout the day. 

Or you can depend on getting electrolytes through food and drinks. Don’t worry, you can have them conditionally even if you are fasting or are on a keto diet

As we mentioned above, there are several home remedies you can practice to prevent and treat this condition. And if, god forbid, it gets worse, medical science is there to help.

Have any questions we didn’t answer? Comment below, and we’ll get back to you!

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