By Dr. Vik, MBBS, MRCP(GB), PhD
Why are electrolytes important
Our body requires a complex combination of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes and similar trace elements to function normally.
In this article, we shall briefly review what electrolytes are and why they are important for normal functioning of the human body.
Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals that are present within the body (Medline Plus, 2013).
They are found in literally all the tissues in the body and are present in the form of dissolved salts. They circulate through the body within the blood and supply the cells and tissues, contributing to optimal functioning and normal physiological homoeostasis.
One of the primary functions of electrolytes is to transport valuable nutrients from the bloodstream into the cells while removing harmful toxins and waste material out of the cells back into the blood.
In addition, day generate electricity and help in muscle contraction and fluid regulation within the body.
The food that we consume contains a combination of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Within the food are also present different nutrients in varying proportions. Once digestion takes place, foods are broken down into their natural components which can include carbon atoms and different ionic minerals.
These ionic minerals into the bloodstream and ultimately required to help potentiate different physiological processes that can maintain cell health and normal tissue functioning.
Within the body are present two kinds of fluid - the extracellular fluid and the intracellular fluid. The extracellular fluid is that which lies outside the cell walls and the intracellular fluid is one that lies within the cell walls.
When we take a close look at this extracellular fluid, we find that it is packed with a host of electrolytes, mostly sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium and bicarbonate. These electrolytes are present within a normal range in the body. Any changes from what is normal can cause an imbalance in homeostasis.
In other words, when the percentage of electrolytes is too low or too high, it can cause problems with cell and tissue function, vital organ function and ultimately can even be life threatening if the imbalance is not dealt with. All of this shows us just how important electrolytes are.
But the role of electrolytes just does not end there.
Electrolytes are essential components of different biochemical reactions that take place in the body. These reactions can include hormone production, cholesterol synthesis and even cell breakdown.
Electrolytes such as sodium are responsible for normal blood pressure control and high intake of sodium is closely linked to the development of hypertension, also called high blood pressure.
Similarly, potassium and calcium are responsible for contraction of the heart muscle and abnormally high levels of potassium can cause irregular heartbeats which can be life threatening.
Calcium is responsible for the normal contraction of the heart and low levels of calcium can cause irregularities in contraction and weakening of the heart muscle (Guyton, 2006). Clearly, electrolytes play an important role in cardiovascular health.
The function of the nervous system is also dependent upon optimal levels of electrolytes, also known as ionic minerals.
On the surface of the nerves and membranes is an electrical potential that is maintained by positive and negative charges. This electrical potential is responsible for the transmission of nerve impulses and ultimately nerve health.
Why else are electrolytes so very important for health? It is electrolytes that provide the positive and negative charges that create this electrical potential. Without electrolytes, our nerves wouldn’t be able to function.
Let us take another instance where electrolytes are essential for normal physiological health.
The sodium and potassium electrolytes are involved in the maintenance of a ‘sodium-potassium pump’ that is responsible for controlling the volume of each cell in the body.
Inside the cells are present negatively charged proteins which attract these positively charged electrolytes. When sodium and potassium are drawn into the cells, water is pulled in along with them.
The sodium-potassium pump maintains the hydration and function of cells.
This in essence means that electrolytes such as sodium and potassium are essential and important for human life and for maintaining cellular integrity.
The electrolyte magnesium is just as important as sodium and potassium. If the level of magnesium is low in the blood, it can cause irritability of the nerves in the body.
Low magnesium can also cause irregularities in the heartbeat and excessive relaxation of the blood vessels located in the hands and feet. This can be particularly detrimental to health, especially when the patient has underlying heart disease (González W, 2013).
Magnesium is also important as a catalyst for different enzyme reactions in the body, especially those that are involved in the breakdown of carbohydrates that we consume in our diet on a regular basis.
Of course, while sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium are major electrolytes in the body, there are ionic trace minerals that are also important for various functions.
Other ionic trace mineral electrolytes include cobalt, copper, manganese, phosphorus and iron.
Each of these have specific functions in the body and low levels of any of these electrolytes can cause serious problems with enzyme functions and synthesis.
Electrolytes are normally received through the diet. However, many times we fail to achieve the desired level for optimal physiological functioning.
Due to changes in farming practices, foods contain as much as 80% less magnesium and trace mineral electrolytes as it did 80 years ago.
Taking an ionic mineral supplement can be a good way to replenish low levels of ionic minerals to help maintain cellular integrity and health.
Besides not getting enough electrolytes through our diet, when we experience fluid loss, important electrolytes are lost with this fluid.
Common ways body fluid is lost include:
In such cases, it is important to re-hydrate with an electrolyte rich solution. While sports electrolyte drinks do replace potassium and sodium, most don’t replace magnesium or trace mineral electrolytes.
To replace all needed electrolytes, a complete electrolyte drink may easily be created using ionic sea minerals, sea salt and water.
It is clear from the above discussion of just why electrolytes are essential and important for human life.
They are needed for cellular function, heart health, nerve function and a host of enzyme reactions within the body. While we normally get needed electrolytes through diet, it may be helpful to take an ionic mineral supplement to properly meet electrolyte needs.
This is especially true for those who sweat a lot through physical exertion or because of ambient temperatures.
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Guyton, A. C. (2006). Dieatary balances, regulation of feeding, obesity and starvation, vitamins and minerals. In J. C. Hall, Medical Physiology (pp. 878 - 879). Philadelphia: Elsevier Inc.
Medline Plus. (2013, March 8). Electrolytes. Retrieved from Medline Plus: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002350.htm
National Heart, L. a. (2014, March 26). What Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia? Retrieved from National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/ida/
Obregon MJ, E. d. (2005). The effects of iodine deficiency on thyroid hormone deiodination. Thyoid, 917 - 929.
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