What does Electrolyte Mean


By Dr. Ritu Krishnatreye, BHMS

What does electrolyte mean


We all have heard about ‘rehydrating’ or ‘replenishing your electrolytes’.

But, is it that big a deal?  What exactly does electrolyte even mean?  Let's find out.

Our bodies are 70% water, but not just water, but an ionic solution, called electrolytes. This ionic solution keeps our muscles, nerves and entire body functioning properly.


What are electrolytes

Electrolytes are mineral ions, individual atoms that are not chemically bonded to any other atom.

Their outer electron shell is not fulfilled, having either extra electrons, or not enough electrons. This gives every electrolyte either a positive or negative charge. It is this positive or negative charge that makes them so useful to the body.

Electrolytes are responsible for helping to maintain healthy blood chemistry.


The major electrolytes

to understand what an electrolyte means, we must know this.  The primary electrolytes required by the body are cations (ions that carry a positive charge) and anions (ions that carry a negative charge).

  • Cations include calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium

  • Anions include chlorides, bicarbonates, phosphates, and iodides 


Disturbances to electrolyte balance

Any time our electrolyte balance is disturbed our body will have symptoms.

Our electrolyte balance can be adversely affected by the following:

  • Prolonged diarrhea or vomiting

  • Excessive sweating from heat or strenuous physical activity

  • Improper functioning of the kidneys

  • Disturbed activity of the adrenal glands, the pituitary gland or pancreas


How Electrolytes Help Us

Electrolytes are essential mineral salts that are crucial for numerous bodily functions, including:

  • Nourishing and repairing cells

  • Replacing damaged cells

  • Excreting waste cells

  • Maintaining proper nerve function


Electrolytes help cells equalize cellular fluids

Electrolytes play an important role by ensuring that the fluid levels remain balanced between the inside and outside of cells.

Cells are able to adjust their fluid level by altering their concentration of electrolytes.

  • By increasing their concentration of electrolytes, cells are able to draw more fluid inside.

  • By decreasing their concentration of electrolytes cells are able to get rid of fluid.


This method of balancing fluid is critical for proper hydration, muscle and nerve function, and maintaining proper blood pH levels.  Starting to understand what exactly electrolytes mean?  Great, let's proceed!


Electrolytes conduct electrical charges

Electrolytes also play an important role in electrical conduction in the body.

The electrolytes in the cells help in carrying electric impulses across the cell and to neighboring cells, which is used for muscle contraction and nerve impulses.


How the Body Controls Electrolyte Balance

The concentration of electrolytes in the body is controlled by various hormones. These hormones are mostly produced by kidneys and adrenal glands.

  • Renin, produced by kidneys

  • Angiotensin, produced from the brain and lungs

  • ADH or anti diuretic hormone, produced by pituitary gland

  • Aldosterone, produced by adrenal glands

These are the main hormones that are responsible for regulating proper electrolyte balance in the body.

Thirst is another mechanism used by the body to keep electrolyte concentrations in balance. When the body becomes dehydrated it triggers the thirst mechanism.


The Major Electrolytes in the Body

Some of the common electrolytes found in the body are calcium, potassium, sodium, phosphate, magnesium and chloride.

To further understand what an electrolyte means, we must understand function.  The important functions of these electrolytes are listed below:


Calcium

  • Calcium is primarily used to build strong bones and teeth.

  • Calcium also plays an important role in nerve signalling, muscle contraction and blood clotting.

  • It helps in maintaining normal functioning of heart.


Sodium

Sodium helps in regulating the level of water not contained in cells, which then helps in maintaining proper blood pressure.

  • It plays a crucial role in neuronal and nerve signalling.

  • It maintains the balance of electrical charge in cell membranes, usually operating outside of cells. 


Potassium

Potassium is an essential electrolyte.

  • It plays a crucial role in functioning of kidneys, heart, nerves, muscles and digestive system.

  • Potassium is important for maintaining good bone health.

  • Potassium contrasts with sodium in terms of its role in balancing electrical charges. Potassium has a negative charge and operates inside of cells. Sodium and potassium work together to influence what fluids come in and out of cell membranes.


Chloride

  • Just like sodium, chloride plays an important role in influencing nerve and muscle function.

  • Chloride carries a negative charge. It is primarily found in table salt, which is sodium chloride. 

  • Chloride plays a crucial role in the digestive system in the form of hydrochloric acid. Hydrochloric acid is a major component of gastric juices that helps in digestion and the absorption of minerals and nutrients from food.


Magnesium

Magnesium is the 4th most abundant mineral in the body. Nearly half of the Magnesium in our bodies is found in our bones.

The other half is used in the cells of organs and other body tissues.

Magnesium is an essential mineral in the body.

  • It is required for over 300 biochemical reactions in the body.

  • It helps the body to maintain normal nerve and muscle function.

  • It helps to regulate heart rhythm, keeps bones strong and supports the immune system.

  • It helps to regulate blood sugar levels and blood pressure.

  • It helps in energy metabolism.


Phosphate

Phosphate is primarily found in bones and teeth, playing an important role in their formation and maintenance.

  • It is crucial for the utilization of fats and carbohydrates

  • It is needed for protein synthesis

  • It helps in promoting the growth and maintenance of cells and tissues


Why Electrolytes Need Replenished

There are several ways by which we lose electrolytes on a regular basis. These include sweating, urination and through the intestinal tract.

Other medical conditions such as diarrhea, vomiting and kidney malfunction can also lead to a loss of fluids and electrolytes from the body.

If electrolytes are lost and not replaced, the effects of electrolyte imbalance may occur.

Excessive perspiration can lead to drop in both potassium, sodium and magnesium levels, which if not replaced immediately, can lead to muscle weakness, muscle cramps, dizziness and confusion.


Sources of Electrolytes

  • Electrolytes are naturally found in fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds.

  • Different seaweeds take in minerals from the ocean, and are a good source of electrolytes.

  • Concentrated sea minerals are a dense source of electrolytes, containing a balance of both macro and trace minerals that are easily and quickly absorbed by the body. They can be mixed into water to make a natural electrolyte drink


Conclusion, what does electrolyte mean

Our body is mostly composed of water, water which contain electrolytes. These bodily fluids work together to control all the functions of life.

Electrolytes are the essential minerals that contain the strong electrical potential needed to enhance cellular function.

Any imbalance in electrolytes can affect the overall function of the body.  Hence, it is necessary to restore both water and electrolytes anytime body fluids are lost. 

(Return from What Does Electrolyte Mean to What is an Electrolyte)

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