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Electrolytes, critical elements to keep your body working

C. A. V. Nogueira, M.D. |
The human body consists of 50 to 70 percent of water, and substances that dissolve in water can be positively or negatively electrical charged, those substances we call electrolytes.

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Electrolytes help the body regulate chemical reactions, so they are extremely important for it to function properly.

Electrolytes enter the body through food and drink, that's why there's an old saying "When you are ill, take the homemade soup". The kidneys filter excess electrolytes, and you also lose electrolytes through sweat, so it's important to replace them, to keep them on an optimal level.

Chemical elements can hold a positive or a negative electrical charge and when they are dissolved in water, that water conduct electricity. The simplest example is salt water which conducts electricity just like that.

Now, salt contains sodium and chlorine. Sodium is positively charged and those atoms are called cations, and chlorine is negatively charged and those atoms are called anions. Together their charges balance each other out.

If you dissolve salt in water, it splits into sodium and chlorine so electricity jumps between them because they have opposite electrical charges.

And like electricity travels in salt water, your body ions transport chemicals where they are needed. You may recall that our body depends on electricity, for example, it makes your muscles move, so we see that electricity is one of the essential things to keep our body moving.

Let's take a look at several elements, their function, and what may come up if they are not balanced.

Sodium, positively charged, is the most abundant electrolyte ion in the body. It helps your cells maintain the right balance of fluid.

Too much sodium: confusion, behavior changes, loss of muscle control, seizures, and coma. Not enough sodium: confusion, irritability, nausea, vomiting, seizures, and coma.

Magnesium, positively charged, is important because it helps your cells turn nutrients into energy. Your brain needs magnesium to do its job.

Too much magnesium: heart rhythm problems, weakened reflexes, decreased ability to breathe, and cardiac arrest. Not enough magnesium: muscle weakness, loss of control, heart rhythm problems.

Potassium, positively charged, works with sodium. When a sodium ion enters a cell, a potassium ion leaves. When a potassium ion enters a cell, a sodium ion leaves. Potassium is critical for your heart.

Too much potassium: weakness, inability to move muscles, confusion, heart rhythm problems. Not enough potassium: muscle weakness and cramps, feeling unusually thirsty, needing to pee frequently, dizziness, passing out when standing up too quickly. Then muscle tissue begins to break down, severe damage to your kidneys may occur, and then heart arrhythmia become a serious threat.

Calcium, positively charged, is maybe the most known element because we all know that it builds strong bones and teeth. But it also controls your muscles, transmits signals in your nerves, manages your heart rhythm, and more. Too much or too little calcium can cause a wide range of symptoms.

Chloride, negatively charged, is the chlorine ion, the second-most abundant ion. It controls how your cells maintain their balance of fluid and the natural pH balance of 7.

Too much chloride: acidosis, when the blood’s acidity is too high, nausea, vomiting and fatigue, rapid and deeper breathing, and confusion. Not enough chloride makes blood more alkaline, and that leads to apathy, confusion, arrhythmia, muscle twitching, and loss of control.

Phosphate, negatively charged, is a key part of the transport of chemical compounds and molecules outside your cells.

Too much phosphate: your body tries to use calcium as a substitute for phosphorus and unfortunately it doesn’t cause symptoms until they become severe. Not enough phosphate: muscle weakness, breakdown of muscle tissue, kidney damage, seizures, heart problems, and trouble breathing.

One common situation which shows us how important electrolytes are is dehydration during summer or long working hours in heat. Water alone can't replace everything we need.

We lose salt and other electrolytes when we sweat, so workers who work in hot conditions for hours, people spending time exposed to sun, or athletes who compete in hot conditions should take drinks with electrolytes such as sports drinks.

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