Have you ever been running and then suddenly your leg cramps up? This is caused by a deficiency in electrolytes. In this article, we will discuss what electrolytes are, what they do, symptoms of an electrolyte deficiency and possible solutions to fixing the deficiency. Let’s discuss this very important topic!
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential for our body’s health. In fact, humans need electrolytes in order to survive. Electrolytes are minerals in our bodies that contain an electric charge. They are responsible for allowing our bodies to work properly. We have electrolytes in our blood, urine, tissues and other fluids in our bodies.(1)
The levels of electrolytes in your body can become too low or too high. This happens when the amount of water your body has changes in some way. The amount of water that you take in should equal the amount you lose. If something upsets this balance, you will either not have enough water or you will have too much water.
There are several factors that can vary the amount of water you have in your body. Vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, and the usage of some medication will change the balance of water in your body. (4) In addition, liver and kidney problems can upset your water balance. Now that we’ve discussed what electrolytes are, let’s discuss the different electrolytes and what they do.
What Do The Individual Electrolytes Do?
Electrolytes have a lot of responsibilities. They are involved in many activities in our bodies such as:
- Balancing the Amount of Water In Your Body
- Balancing Your Body’s Acid/Base (pH) Level
- Moving Nutrients Into Your Cells
- Moving Wastes Out of Your Cells
- Making Sure That Your Body Works Efficiently
- Helping Blood Clot
- Helping Build New Tissue (3)
- Enabling Muscle Contractions (2)
Luckily, our bodies contain several different electrolytes. This is helpful because they have different responsibilities they need to perform. The main electrolytes found in our bodies include:
About 99% of the body’s calcium is stored in the bones.(5) However, cells and blood also contain calcium. Calcium is also responsible for maintaining a normal heart rhythm. (5) Your body determines the amount of calcium in cells and blood. It moves calcium out of bones and into the blood so that you have a steady level of calcium in the blood. If you do not consume enough calcium, then too much calcium is removed from the bones. This will weaken your bones.
Chloride has the job of keeping the proper balance of fluids in the body. It also helps ensure proper blood volume, blood pressure, and pH of your body fluids.(5) Chloride in your body comes from the salt that you consume in foods.
The majority of magnesium in our body is stored in our bones.(6) Our blood only contains a small amount. Magnesium is necessary to form our bones and teeth. It also maintains normal nerve and muscle function. (6) Many enzymes in the body depend on magnesium to work properly. The level of magnesium in the blood depends on how the body obtains magnesium from foods. The body excretes magnesium in urine and stool.
Phosphorous is another electrolyte involved in forming bones and teeth. It also decides how our body uses carbohydrates and fats. In addition, phosphorous is needed for growing, maintaining, and repairing cells. (7) Phosphorous is also responsible for:
- Kidney Function
- Muscle Contractions
- Normal Heartbeat
- Signaling Nerves (8)
Potassium helps with many health issues as well. It helps to reduce blood pressure and retaining water. Potassium also protects against stroke and helps defend against osteoporosis. In addition, it helps prevent kidney stones.
Sodium in our bodies is mostly found in our blood and the fluid surrounding cells. Sodium is important because it keeps the fluid in our bodies balanced. In addition, it is involved in keeping our nerves and muscles working properly. We obtain sodium by consuming food and beverages. We lose it through sweat and urine. Kidneys need to keep a constant level of sodium to stay healthy. If sodium consumption and loss are not in balance, the total amount of sodium in our bodies is affected. (9)
Now that we’ve discussed the electrolytes and their responsibilities, let’s discuss the signs of a general electrolyte deficiency.
Signs of a General Electrolyte Deficiency
There are many signs and symptoms when your body is too low on electrolytes. If you have any of the following symptoms, you probably have an electrolyte deficiency.
- Poor Muscle Endurance
- Muscle Cramping
- Excessive Thirst
- Excessive Urination
- Craving Salt
- Swollen Ankles
- Shallow Breathing
In addition to these physical symptoms, there are a few mental issues that an electrolyte deficiency can cause.
Some of these symptoms are:
Now that we’ve discussed the general signs of an electrolyte deficiency, we will discuss each of the electrolytes’ imbalance symptoms and common causes as well.
Signs of Specific Electrolyte Imbalances and Common Causes
Most people think of bones and teeth when they hear the word calcium. This is because bones have the most calcium in our bodies. However, we need calcium in our body fluids as well. This enables us to do many other functions. (10) Muscle contracting, and messages between cells are examples of those functions. Unfortunately, a significant amount of calcium is lost in sweat. Chronic calcium deficiency may lead to a decrease in bone density, muscle cramps, intestinal distress, confusion, and tingling in fingers and toes.(10)
Calcium deficiency is caused by hormone disorders, malnutrition and malabsorption.
Sodium is the most abundant and perhaps the most important of the electrolytes. The highest concentrations are found outside of cells inside our bodies. All cells depend on sodium and potassium to bring nutrients inside the cell. Activating muscles is also controlled by sodium and potassium. Many foods contain sodium. If you have a deficiency of sodium, it is called hyponatremia. Hyponatremia is the most common electrolyte disorder in the U.S.! (10) This is usually caused in athletes from sweating profusely. Other symptoms include fatigue, muscle weakness, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, or confusion. If you vomit while you are deficient in sodium, your level of sodium will drop even lower.(10)
A sodium deficiency can be caused by many issues. Some of them include consumption of too many fluids, hormone changes, kidney failure, heart failure, cirrhosis, sweating and the use of diuretics.(15)
Magnesium is another electrolyte that many take for granted. Magnesium is the biggest reason behind low performing athletes. It has a direct effect on sodium, potassium, and calcium. Exercise that is either longer in duration or more intense depletes magnesium levels. Similar to the other electrolytes, magnesium is excreted in sweat and urine. Symptoms of magnesium depletion include weakness, muscle cramps, confusion and irregular heartbeat.(11)
There are many causes of low magnesium. Some of them are:
- Excessive Alcohol Usage
- Chronic Diarrhea
- Excessive Urination
- Celiac Disease and Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Improper Diet
If you experience a number of bone-related symptoms, you should suspect a phosphorus deficiency. For example, if your bones start to break easily. Other symptoms include:
- Irregular Breathing
- Joint Stiffness
- Changes in Body Weight
It is also important to note that children who have a phosphorus deficiency have poor growth patterns and tooth development.(12) You can increase phosphorus in your body through the foods you consume. Phosphorous deficiency is caused by not having an adequate diet. It also can be caused by health conditions that affect your ability to store phosphorus. Diabetics, anorexics and alcoholics may be at a higher risk to have this deficiency. (13)
Potassium is the primary electrolyte found inside of cells. It works closely with sodium and chloride to keep fluids balanced. In addition, it generates nerve impulses. Your body loses potassium from contracting muscles during exercise. Then it is excreted in urine or sweat. Low potassium is called hypokalemia. Symptoms of hypokalemia include 🙁14)
- Muscle Fatigue
- General Weakness
- Irregular Heartbeat
Low potassium has many causes. The most common cause is loss in urine. This is because of prescription medications that increase urination. These types of medications are often prescribed for people who have high blood pressure or heart disease.(14) When you are vomiting, have diarrhea, or both, you can have an excessive loss of potassium. Very rarely, low potassium is caused by not consuming enough potassium in your diet.
Other causes of potassium deficiency include:
- Chronic Kidney Disease
- Diabetic Ketoacidosis
- Excessive Laxative Usage
- Excessive Sweating
- Folic Acid Deficiency
- Excessive Alcohol Usage
Treatments for Electrolyte Deficiency
Now that you know more about electrolytes and symptoms of deficiencies, we can discuss some treatments.
There are a few ways to treat an electrolyte deficiency. Many deficiencies will be corrected by simply taking a multivitamin. Others may feel better if they add sea salt to their diet. There are also electrolyte powders and drinks that will benefit you if you have an electrolyte deficiency. Furthermore, others correct their deficiency by adding cream of tarter to their diet.
Hopefully after reading this article, you will recognize the signs of an electrolyte deficiency. So the next time your leg cramps up while you are running, you will know exactly what to do!
- Hyponatremia. Merck Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/endocrine-and-metabolic-disorders/electrolyte-disorders/hyponatremia. Accessed April 6, 2018.