Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance and How to Solve It
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Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance and How to Solve It

Dr. Josh Axe — Food is Medicine
May 8, 2018

The major electrolytes found within the body include calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, phosphate and chloride. Because these crucial nutrients help stimulate nerves throughout the body and balance fluid levels, an electrolyte imbalance can cause a variety of serious negative symptoms, including some that are potentially deadly.

You obtain electrolytes through eating different foods and drinking certain fluids, while you lose them partially through exercise, sweating, going to the bathroom and urinating. This is why a poor diet, too little or too much exercise, and being sick are some possible causes for an electrolyte imbalance.

Some of the major roles that electrolytes have within the body include:

  • Calcium: helping with muscle contractions, nerve signaling, blood clotting, cell division, and forming/maintaining bones and teeth
  • Potassium: helping keep blood pressure levels stable, regulating heart contractions, helping with muscle functions
  • Magnesium: needed for muscle contractions, proper heart rhythms, nerve functioning, bone-building and strength, reducing anxiety, digestion, and keeping a stable protein-fluid balance
  • Sodium: helps maintain fluid balance, needed for muscle contractions, and helps with nerve signaling
  • Chloride: maintains fluid balance

How Electrolytes Work and the Causes of an Imbalance

Electrolytes are found within bodily fluids, including urine, blood and sweat. Electrolytes are given their name because they literally have an “electric charge.” They separate into positively and negatively charged ions when they’re dissolved in water. The reason this is important is because of how nerve reactions take place. Your nerves signal to one another by a process of chemical exchanges dependent on oppositely charged ions, both outside and inside of your cells.

An electrolyte imbalance can be caused by a number of different factors, including short-term illnesses, medications, dehydration and underlying chronic disorders. Some of the common causes of electrolyte imbalance are due to fluid loss, which can stem from situations including:

  • Being sick with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, sweating or high fevers that can­ all produce fluid loss or dehydration
  • A poor diet that’s low in essential nutrients from whole foods
  • Trouble absorbing nutrients from food (malabsorption) due to intestinal or digestive issues
  • Hormonal imbalances and endocrine disorders
  • Taking certain medications including those for treating cancer, heart disease or hormonal disorders
  • Taking antibiotics, over-the-counter diuretics or medications, or corticosteroid hormones
  • Kidney disease or damage (since the kidneys play a critical role in regulating chloride in your blood and “flushing out” potassium, magnesium and sodium)
  • Chemotherapy treatments, which can cause side effects of low blood calcium or calcium deficiency, changes in blood potassium levels, and other electrolyte deficiencies

Signs and Symptoms of an Electrolyte Imbalance

Because electrolytes have so many different roles within the body, an imbalance normally causes noticeable changes in how you feel pretty quickly. Depending on the type of electrolyte imbalance you experience, a number of symptoms can occur including:

  • Muscle aches, spasms, twitches and weakness
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Frequent headaches
  • Feely very thirsty
  • Insomnia
  • Fever
  • Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats
  • Digestive issues like cramps, constipation or diarrhea
  • Confusion and trouble concentrating
  • Bone disorders
  • Joint pain
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Changes in appetite or body weight
  • Fatigue (including chronic fatigue syndrome)
  • Numbness and pain in joints
  • Dizziness, especially when standing up suddenly

To diagnose an electrolyte imbalance, your doctor can perform a few different tests to determine your electrolyte levels. Most likely your health care provider will discuss your medical history with you, any reoccurring symptoms you experience, and take a urine and blood test to identify any abnormalities.

It’s also sometimes necessary to have an EKG test, ultrasound or X-rays of your kidneys in order to look for severe electrolyte imbalances that can put you at risk for heart complications.

Your doctor will look for any noticeable changes in optimal electrolyte levels, including very high or low potassium, magnesium or sodium levels. These are usually fairly easy to spot since the body works very hard to keep electrolyte concentrations within a narrow range. Levels are measured per liter of blood, and an electrolyte imbalance is diagnosed when you either have a value higher or lower than the normal ranges below:

  • Calcium: 5–5.5 mEq/L
  • Chloride: 97–107 mEq/L
  • Potassium: 5–5.3 mEq/L
  • Magnesium: 1.5-2.5 mEq/L
  • Sodium: 136–145 mEq/L

How do you know when it’s time to speak with a doctor about whether or not you might have an electrolyte imbalance? If you can identify with the descriptions of electrolyte imbalance symptoms below, it’s best to talk visit a health care provider to talk about how to reverse the problem and prevent it from happening again. Here are some of the common signs of experiencing an electrolyte balance and a bit more about what can cause each one:

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