The Biomarker Handbook is a curated series that seeks to provide readers with insights on each biomarker we cover in our blood test packages and its relation to our body.
When you consider that virtually all your bodily functions are associated with the presence and performance of electrolytes, there is no doubting their importance.
In fact, electrolytes are ubiquitous throughout the human body and are responsible for many vital processes. For example, maintaining fluid levels, PH balance, energy transfer and nerve function.
Without balanced levels of electrolytes, these functions would be compromised and our body would be unable to function optimally.
Here is what you need to know about electrolytes, what they are, and how they function as one of your body’s key biomarkers.
What are Electrolytes
Simply put, electrolytes are substances that conduct electricity when dissolved in a polar solvent, such as water or acid.
For instance, the acid and zinc in your car battery work as an electrolyte, just seawater can be considered an electrolyte due to its concentration of conducive salts and minerals.
In the human body, electrolytes consist of various salts, which are dissolved in the body’s fluids. These electrolytes then work to transmit electrical impulses from your nerves, which then trigger muscle contractions.
These contractions then occur within muscles such as the heart and lung. Thus, without electrolytes, we would be unable to breathe and our heart unable to beat. “Shocking” stuff!
Types and Variations of Electrolytes
Your body’s electrolytes consist of a variety of minerals, including:
Additionally, these components require hydration to work, which is provided through our body’s water content.
The body’s main electrolytes are sodium and potassium, with potassium found within cells and blood plasma. Sodium is most often found within the blood and lymph fluid and works to regulate the body’s hydration levels.
However, abnormally high or low levels of electrolytes can upset the balance of electrical currents within your body which may lead to:
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle spasms
- Irregular heartbeat
- Abnormal blood pressure
- Kidney stones
- Heart attack
Testing for Electrolytes
The body’s electrolyte levels are tested using a routine blood test, in which blood is drawn and your key electrolyte biomarkers measured.
The frequency of tracking for Electrolytes
Electrolyte testing can either be performed as a routine part of an annual checkup or whenever necessary. This includes the suspicion of a pH imbalance since the body’s acidic levels can be measured through electrolytes levels. Electrolyte levels should also be tracked when checking for kidney disease, high blood pressure or heart failure.
This can also include the monitoring of the side effects of certain medications. For example, diuretics and ACE inhibitors, which are types of blood pressure medications, can influence the body’s electrolyte levels.
What action to take if Electrolyte balance is abnormal
Abnormal levels of electrolytes can lead to serious health risks and should be dealt with immediately by a healthcare professional to determine the actual cause.
Excess electrolytes can often be associated with a diet high in salt. Electrolyte levels may also be elevated through the excessive consumption of sports drinks or supplements, which are often consumed to replenish electrolytes lost through perspiration.
Correcting abnormally high amounts of electrolytes will help you avoid serious health risks such as:
- Hyperkalemia—Too much potassium can result in hyperkalemia, which can damage the heart and muscles. While there are typically no direct symptoms associated with too much potassium, it often occurs in unison with heart arrhythmia, irregular heartbeat, and nausea.
- Hypercalcemia—Too much calcium in the blood can lead to low levels of phosphorus since the two levels are closely related. Since both minerals are vital in maintaining bone health, low levels of calcium can lead to bone pain, and high levels can lead to low energy, nausea, fatigue and joint pain.
- Excessive Magnesium—Magnesium is necessary in transmitting other electrolytes across cell membranes, so that nerve impulses, steady heartbeat, and muscle contractions can occur. Too much magnesium can lead to muscle weakness, nausea, dizziness and an irregular heartbeat.
However, it is highly impossible to achieve dangerous concentrations of these minerals through a diet of natural whole foods. Oversupply should first be addressed by your doctor who may recommend making dietary changes such as reducing supplements, table salt, and processed foods while properly hydrating.
Abnormally low levels of in electrolytes are more common in people who consume an imbalanced diet, sweat excessively or who use diuretics.
This can result in:
- Hypokalemia— Examples of symptoms of abnormally low potassium levels are muscle weakness, fatigue and deterioration, irregular heartbeat, and constipation. Additionally, the prolonged lack of potassium in the body could also lead to paralysis or kidney failure.
- Hypocalcemia—Too little calcium can result in the cramping of the arms and legs, and numbness of the fingers and toes. Sufferers may also experience confusion, irritability or depression. The prolonged deprivation of this critical electrolyte may also cause excessive urination, constipation and appetite disturbances.
- Hyponatremia—Low sodium levels can lead to a headache, weakness, muscle spasms, irritability, and seizures. Should the body’s salt levels drop too quickly, the brain might even swell, leading to coma or death. Hyponatremia is often seen in endurance athletes who over-hydrate, but under nourish their bodies. This leads to low levels of sodium in the blood.
- Hypomagnesemia—While less common than other mineral inadequacies, low magnesium mainly occurs in individuals who lack magnesium-rich foods in their diets. To correct this, consume magnesium-rich foods such as nuts, meat, or legumes. This can lead to muscle spasms, fatigue, and weakness.
In the event of low levels of electrolytes, whole food sources should be consumed, and supplementation only if necessary.
Foods such as kale, grass-fed beef, wild salmon, raw sprouted almonds, and shellfish should be considered, along with proper hydration. Processed foods should also be avoided.
By taking these measures, your body will be able to function optimally by maintaining balanced electrolyte levels.
If you’re interested in learning more about managing an electrolyte imbalance in the body, take a look at our lifestyle article here!
Interested in other biomarkers, check out the rest of The Biomarker Handbook.
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