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What is Electrolyte Balance?

By Carol Francois
Updated May 16, 2024
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Electrolyte balance refers to the combined levels of the different electrolytes found in the blood. An electrolyte is a substance with free ions that conduct electrical signals. The appropriate balance of these substances in the body is critical to regulating everything from oxygen delivery to fluid balance within the cells.

An imbalance in electrolytes can be caused by reduced elimination of water or excessive intake of electrolytes. This is most often tied to dehydration or excessive hydration. The effects are noticed when the level of sodium, potassium, or calcium in the body is too high or too low. In a healthy person, it is not difficult to maintain the proper electrolyte balance, through regular hydration and elimination. Seniors, children and people with complex medical illnesses are at greatest risk for poor electrolyte balance as a long-term health concern.

There are wide ranges of flavored drinks that claim to restore electrolyte balance. These drinks are high in sugar, sodium, and potassium and are intended for use by high-performance athletes who have experienced a period of high exertion and excessive perspiration. As the kidneys process the electrolyte drinks, the salts are absorbed and the balance restored.

Issues with electrolytes can be identified through blood or urine tests. Treatment options range from taking supplements, drinking more fluids, or intravenous absorption of certain electrolytes or fluids. These treatment options are used to treat the imbalance. Further investigation and treatment for the underlying illness is still required.

Symptoms of low sodium include confusion, muscle weakness, and seizures. This can be corrected by gradual intake of sodium and water. High sodium levels are usually a symptom of dehydration or diuretic use. Thirst is the first symptom. Drinking fluids will restore the correct balance.

The exact treatment program for an imbalance depends on the exact mineral that is missing or overproduced. If you feel that you are experiencing an electrolyte imbalance, see your doctor right away. Low sodium levels can be caused by dietary issues, excessive sweat, or urination or over hydration. Using diuretics helps the kidneys to remove extra sodium and water but can also create an imbalance in sodium levels, due to excessive sodium secretion. There are a range of prescription medication and hormone disorders that can also cause low sodium level.

Seniors are at highest risk of abnormal electrolyte levels, as their kidneys may not function as well as required. Regular use of diuretics, laxatives, and problems walking can also create an imbalance. Temporary disorders that interferes with the absorption of food and water, such as recurring diarrhea or vomiting, can create a temporary electrolyte imbalance.

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Discussion Comments
By aaaCookie — On Feb 08, 2011

I only ever use things like sports drinks, energy gels, protein bars, or any of those things when I have a race to run; they give you an added boost when you really need it, a human's fluid and electrolyte balance is highly capable of regulating itself as long as a person is healthy otherwise.

By BambooForest — On Feb 06, 2011

Many athletic trainers and coaches lately have said that the obsession with electrolyte balance has gotten a little out of hand. For most athletes most of the time, water is still the best choice, because it does the best job hydrating a person. However, sports drinks might be good when you do an especially difficult workout. For example, if a 4 mile run usually does not make you feel tired and water is enough, you don't need to upgrade to a sports drink; if you try a much longer distance, it might help you recover more quickly the first few times to use an energy drink.

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