Have you ever had a few leg cramps and figured, “I just get those from time to time”? What about poor fingernail growth or restless nights? While these daily observances can be easily written off when it doesn’t interrupt your busy day, the reality is that they are your body’s way of alerting you of some potential bigger problems.
While the best way to know your mineral levels is to take a blood test, that shouldn’t stop you from learning about some of the deficiencies and their potential warning signs.
These are the most important functions of electrolytes in our body:
- Calcium– it assists with muscle contraction, nerve signaling, blood clotting, forming and maintaining bones and teeth, and cell division;
- Chloride – preserves fluid balance;
- Sodium – maintains fluid balance, helps with nerve signaling, and helps with muscle contractions;
- Potassium– controls blood pressure, heart contractions, helps with the function of muscles;
- Magnesium– assists in muscle contraction, proper heart rhythm, bone strength and building, nerve functioning, reducing anxiety, digestion, and keeping a stable balance of the protein fluid.
How the electrolytes actually work and what causes the imbalance?
Electrolytes are usually found in all our bodily fluids like blood, sweat and urine and they are electrically charged, separating positively and negatively charged ions when dissolved in water. The nerves signal other nerves through chemical exchanges dependent on oppositely charged ions, inside and outside the cells.
Electrolyte imbalance can be caused by many things like:
- Chemotherapy treatments (they can cause calcium deficiency, disruption in potassium levels, and other electrolyte deficiencies);
- Kidney damage or disease (kidneys are essential when it comes to regulating chloride in the blood and flushing out potassium, magnesium, and sodium);
- Antibiotics use(medications and diuretics and even corticosteroid hormones);
- Other medications (for cancer, hormonal disorders, or heart disease);
- Endocrine disorders or hormonal imbalance;
- Improper absorption of food nutrients (malabsorption – because of digestive or intestinal problems);
- Unhealthy diet
- Sickness (especially accompanied by symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, or high fevers which cause dehydration and fluid loss).
These are the most common symptoms of electrolyte imbalance:
- Muscle aches, spasms, twitches, and weakness;
- Fluctuations in weight and appetite;
- Joint pain and numbness;
- Irregular heartbeats or heart palpitations;
- Irregular blood pressure;
- Bones problems;
- Frequent headaches;
- Dizziness, especially when standing up suddenly;
- Cramps, constipation, or diarrhea;
- Fatigue (chronic fatigue symptom)
- Difficulties concentrating and an overall confusion;
If you commonly experience the symptoms listed above, you should seek medical help and do some tests to estimate the electrolyte levels, as well as blood and urine tests and EKG test to find the cause of such irregularities.
If you need to check for severe deficiencies, you may need to do ultrasounds and X-rays on the kidneys. Electrolyte deficiency is diagnosed if the values are lower or higher than normal, and are measured per liter of blood:
- Potassium: 5-5.3 mEq/L
- Calcium: 5-5.5 mEq/L
- Sodium: 136-145 mEq/L
- Chloride: 97-107 mEq/L
- Magnesium: 1.5-2.5 mEq/L
Confusion, dizziness, and irritability – Your body may become weak and dizzy in the case of very high sodium amount, and if left untreated, you may experience seizures, delirious states, and even fall into a coma.
Anxiety and trouble sleeping – Reduced magnesium levels may lead to tiredness, difficulties to fall asleep, night sweats, muscle spasms, and increased heartbeats.
Digestive problems – irregular electrolyte levels, either low or high may lead to various digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhea, cramps, and hemorrhoids
Heartbeat changes– In the case of too high potassium levels, you may develop hyperkalemia, which interferes with the normal signals from nerves and muscles, and leads to tingly, weak, or numb muscles.
This condition will also affect the heartbeat, causing anxiety, while high calcium levels influence the cardiovascular system and electrical transmission pathways of the heart, leading to changed heartbeat.
Bone pain – In the case of too high calcium levels, you may suffer from vomiting, bone fractures, painful kidney stones, and constipation, as well as weakness and concentration problems.
Muscle spasms – In the case of dehydration and low magnesium and potassium levels, you will suffer from spasms and muscle weakness.
Treatment of electrolyte imbalance
Drink enough water – The balance of the electrolytes changes with the change of the amount of water in the body, so drink plenty of water to maintain the proper levels.
Adjust the diet– Initially, check how progressed is the imbalance, and then adjust the diet. Start consuming more home-cooked meals, and avoid processed, fried foods.
Furthermore, eat more leafy greens, sweet potatoes, cruciferous vegetables, cabbage, avocados, squash, bananas, and broccoli. Also, make sure you regularly consume coconut water, celery, cucumber, pineapple, watermelon, amasai, citrus fruits, carrots, kefir, yogurt, kiwi, bell peppers, in order to avoid dehydration.
In the case of reduced calcium levels, eat more legumes, leafy greens, high- quality dairy products (raw milk, probiotic yogurt, cultured raw cheese), vegetables, and beans.
Check your medications –The levels of electrolytes in the body may be affected by certain medications, such as diuretics, antibiotics, cancer treatments, hormonal pills, and blood pressure medications.
Chemotherapy has the strongest impact. Diuretics and laxatives cause a change in the levels of sodium and potassium in the blood and urine.
Some diuretics maintain the potassium levels very high, while others keep the electrolytes very low, leading to digestive issues, trouble sleeping, anxiety, and fast heartbeats.
Electrolyte imbalances may also be caused by hormonal interactions from anti-diuretic hormone medications, aldosterone and thyroid hormones.
Monitor your sodium intake– When you consume processed and packaged foods, always look for the amount of sodium added, as they usually contain it in high amounts.
Sodium controls the water release and retention, so in the case of a very high content, it may lead to kidney issues and an imbalance in the other electrolytes.
If you maintain its levels normal, you will prevent muscle twitching, dehydration, bloating, lethargy, weakness, and irritability.
Hydrate the body after exercising –After your regular workout, make sure you properly hydrate the body, by drinking lots of water, before, during and after exercising.
Supplements– If you cannot regulate the levels of important nutrients in the body even after making dietary and lifestyle changes, you can consult your doctor and choose proper supplements.