What Are Body Electrolytes and How do They Work

Health and Disability

Author: Thomas C. Weiss
Published: 2013/08/22 - Updated: 2024/05/25
Publication Type: Informative
Contents: Summary - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: Information on human body electrolytes including what they are and what can happen when an imbalance occurs. Electrolytes such as potassium, sodium and others are crucial in allowing a person's cells to generate energy, maintain the stability of cell walls, as well as to function overall. They generate electricity, contract muscles, move fluids and water within a person's body and participate in a number of additional activities.


Electrolytes are the smallest of chemicals that are important for the cells in a person's body to function and allow their body to work. Electrolytes such as potassium, sodium and others are crucial in allowing a person's cells to generate energy, maintain the stability of cell walls, as well as to function overall. They generate electricity, contract muscles, move fluids and water within a person's body and participate in a number of additional activities.

Main Digest

The concentration of electrolytes in a person's body is controlled by various hormones, the majority of which are manufactured in the person's kidney and adrenal glands. Sensors in specialized kidney cells monitor the amount of potassium, sodium and water in a person's bloodstream. A person's body functions in a truly narrow range of average and it is hormones such as, 'renin,' which is produced in the kidney, 'angiotensin,' from a person's brain, lung, and heart, 'aldosterone,' from their adrenal gland and, 'antidiuretic,' hormone from their pituitary that keep their electrolyte balance within average limits. Keeping electrolyte concentrations in balance also includes stimulation of a person's thirst mechanism when their body becomes dehydrated.

Bicarbonate Balance

Bicarbonate is an electrolyte that is an important component of the equation that keeps the acid-base status of a person's body in balance. A person's lungs regulate the amount of carbon dioxide and their kidneys regulate bicarbonate. The electrolyte helps to buffer the acids that build up in a person's body as usual byproducts of metabolism. For example; when a person's muscles are working they produce lactic acid as a byproduct of energy formation. Bicarbonate is needed to be available to bind the hydrogen released from the acid to form carbon dioxide and water. When a person's body malfunctions, too much acid may also be produced and bicarbonate is needed to try to compensate for the additional acid production. Measuring the amount of bicarbonate in a person's bloodstream can help a health care practitioner to decide how severe the acid-base balance of the person's body has become.

Calcium Balance

'Calcitonin,' is something that promotes bone growth and decreases calcium levels in a person's blood. Parathyroid hormone does just the opposite. Calcium is bound to the proteins in a person's bloodstream, so the level of calcium is related to the person's nutrition as well as the amount of calcium in their diet. Calcium metabolism in a person's body is closely linked to magnesium levels. Many times, a person's magnesium status needs to be optimized before their calcium levels can be treated.

'Hypercalcemia,' is associated with symptoms including abdominal pain, kidney stones and depression. Too much calcium may be associated with heart rhythm disturbances as well. Causes of hypercalcemia include parathyroid tumors and other tumors to include breast cancer, as well as Paget's disease, kidney failure, and excess amounts of Vitamin A or D. 'Hypocalcemia,' is often times associated with eating disorders or lack of parathyroid hormone. The symptoms a person may experience include muscle spasms, muscle weakness, or heart rhythm disturbances.

Magnesium Balance

Magnesium is an electrolyte that is involved with a variety of metabolic activities in a person's body, to include relaxation of the smooth muscles surrounding the bronchial tubes in the lungs, skeletal muscle contraction, and excitation of the neurons in the brain. Magnesium acts as a, cofactor in a number of the body's enzyme activities. Magnesium levels in a person's body are closely linked with potassium, sodium and calcium metabolism and are regulated by the person's kidney. Magnesium enters a person's body through their diet and the amount of it that is absorbed depends on the concentration of magnesium in the body. Too little magnesium stimulates absorption from the person's intestine and too much decreases the absorption itself.

'Hypomagnesemia,' or too little magnesium in a person's bloodstream, can happen for a number of reasons. Some have to do with dietary deficiencies, inability of the person's intestine to absorb magnesium, or because of increased excretion. Common causes of low magnesium include alcoholism and associated malnutrition, chronic diarrhea, as well as medications such as diuretics. Greater than half of people who are hospitalized in Intensive Care Units (ICU's) may become magnesium deficient. The symptoms a person may experience include heart rhythm abnormalities, muscles weakness, cramps, confusion, seizures, or hallucinations.

'Hypermagnesemia,' is a condition involving too much magnesium in a person's bloodstream and most often happens in people with kidney function issues in which the excretion of magnesium is limited. In people who experience this condition, too much magnesium intake in their diet or from magnesium-containing medications such as Maalox or milk of magnesia might cause elevated magnesium levels. Since the absorption and excretion of magnesium is linked to other electrolytes, other diseases might be associated with higher magnesium levels, to include adrenal insufficiency, diabetic ketoacidosis, or hyperthyroidism. 'Hypermagnesemia is many times associated with hypocalcemia and hyperkalemia. The symptoms a person may experience include heart rhythm disturbances, nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness and breathing difficulties.

Potassium Balance

Potassium is most concentrated inside of the cells of a person's body. The gradient, or difference in concentration from within the cell in comparison to the plasma, is essential in the generation of the electrical impulses in the person's body that allow their muscles and brain to function properly.

'Hyperkalemia,' is a potentially life-threatening condition because it causes abnormal electrical conduction in a person's heart and potentially life-threatening heart rhythm issues. High potassium levels are most often associated with kidney failure where potassium levels build up and cannot be excreted in the person's urine. Medications may be administered to lower the person's potassium levels until their kidneys are able to excrete the excess potassium through the person's urine. Emergency dialysis might be required; however, to remove the potassium if the person's kidney function is poor.

'Hypokalemia,' is most often experienced when a person's body loses too much potassium from things such as diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, or medications such as laxatives or diuretics. The condition is often times experienced in diabetic ketoacidosis where potassium is lost in excess through a person's urine. Since chemicals in a person's body are related to their metabolism, low magnesium levels may be associated with hypokalemia.

Sodium Balance

Sodium is most often found outside the cell in the plasma of a person's bloodstream and is a significant part of water regulation in their body, since water goes where the sodium does. If there is too much sodium in a person's body, possibly due to high salt intake in their diet, it is excreted by the person's kidney and water follows. Sodium is an important electrolyte that assists with electrical signals in a person's body, allowing their muscles to fire and the person's brain to work. It is half of the electrical pump at the cellular level that keeps sodium in the person's plasma and potassium inside their cells.

'Hypernatremia,' is commonly associated with dehydration and instead of having too much sodium, there is too little water. The water loss may happen due to illnesses with diarrhea or vomiting, drinking fluid that has too much salt, or sweating from fever or exercise. On the other hand, 'hyponatremia,' is a condition caused by water intoxication, or drinking so much water that it dilutes the sodium in a person's blood and overwhelms their kidney's compensation mechanism, or by a syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone secretion (SIADH). SIADH may be associated with illnesses such as cancer, brain diseases, thyroid issues, or some types of medications.

Too much or too little sodium may cause a person's cells to malfunction. Confusion, lethargy, swelling, weakness, seizures, or even coma are some of the symptoms that may happen with hyper or hyponatremia. Treatment of these conditions depends upon the underlying cause, although it is important for a health care practitioner to understand the reason for the person's sodium level and to correct the balance of sodium fairly slowly. A rapid sodium correction may cause an abnormal flow of water in or out of the person's cells, something that is especially important to consider in order to prevent brain cell damage or, 'central pontinemyolysis.'

An Electrolyte Panel

An electrolyte panel involves a blood test, one that measures the levels of electrolytes and carbon dioxide in a person's blood. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is measures as a waste product in this test, one that is made when a person's body breaks down food for energy. Electrolytes keep a person's body fluids in balance and help their body to work, including muscle contraction, heart rhythm, and brain function. At times this test is referred to as a, 'bicarbonate test.' A doctor might order an electrolyte panel as a part of a person's regular health examination. A doctor might use the test to check on or diagnose a medical condition. A doctor may also use this test to see if any medications a person takes have changed their electrolyte levels.

Author Credentials:

Thomas C. Weiss is a researcher and editor for Disabled World. Thomas attended college and university courses earning a Masters, Bachelors and two Associate degrees, as well as pursing Disability Studies. As a Nursing Assistant Thomas has assisted people from a variety of racial, religious, gender, class, and age groups by providing care for people with all forms of disabilities from Multiple Sclerosis to Parkinson's; para and quadriplegia to Spina Bifida. Explore Thomas' complete biography for comprehensive insights into his background, expertise, and accomplishments.

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Cite This Page (APA): Weiss, T. C. (2013, August 22 - Last revised: 2024, May 25). What Are Body Electrolytes and How do They Work. Disabled World. Retrieved July 13, 2024 from www.disabled-world.com/health/electrolytes.php

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