What Are Proper Electrolyte Levels?

Electrolytes are important; we know that. We hear about them all the time. But what are they? And how much of them should we have in our body? Electrolytes properly should maintain a balance in the body. But before we try to balance our electrolytes we must know what they are and how they affect our health. Once we understand the tremendous role electrolyte levels play in our bodies, we can understand how to maintain the levels in order to stay healthy and fit.

What are electrolytes?

When a medical professional takes a blood sample in order to check a patient’s electrolytes, he or she normally measures the sodium, chloride, bicarbonate and potassium levels in the blood. All of these substances are classified as electrolytes.

An electrolyte is any substance that changes into ions in solutions and attains the capability to conduct electricity. We must maintain the proper balance of the electrolytes our bodies. This is necessary for the normal performance of our cells and normal functions of our organs.

The brain, muscles and nervous system (among other things) require electrical signals for internal communication. Therefore, when the levels of our electrolytes become unbalanced it causes these signals to “malfunction”.

Let’s take a look at how each of these common electrolytes affects our bodies.

Sodium

Sodium controls the amount of water in the body. In order for the cells to function correctly the sodium must be transmitted in and out of individual cells.

Too much sodium in the blood can cause kidney disease, diarrhea, vomiting and loss of water in the body.

Too little sodium in the blood can lead to liver damage. This is also a major concern for people with congestive heart failure.

(Sodium is a positively charged ion found in table salt and it is found in the blood and in the fluid outside the cells. Chloride is a negatively charged ion also found in table salt and is likewise found in the blood and in the fluid outside the cells.)

Chloride

Chloride is critical for proper balance. Too much chloride is often present when a patient has diarrhea and some kidney diseases. It can also attribute to an overactive parathyroid gland.

We lose chloride through sweat, stomach secretions and urine. Through excessive sweating and vomiting, we can lose too much chloride (thus throwing our balance off). Doctors will also check to see if the adrenal gland is functions properly as it can also cause loss of chloride as can some kidney diseases.

Bicarbonate

Bicarbonate acts as a safeguard to support normal levels of acidity in the blood and bodily fluids. Acidity in the blood affects the functions of the kidneys and lungs. If normal acidity levels are not maintained it can cause respiratory problems, kidney disease and affect the overall metabolic rates of the body.

Potassium

Potassium is essential for normal cell functions. These include but are not limited to the heartbeat, muscle function and the entire nervous system. Extreme increase or decrease in levels of potassium can cause irregular heartbeat and major issues with the nervous system. This can be fatal if gone unchecked.

Diarrhea, excessive sweating, kidney problems and vomiting (as well as eating disorders) can cause loss of potassium in the body.

As you can see, all of these electrolytes have similar functions but each on its own must stand properly balanced. This is more than someone sweating too much and drinking a glass of water or sports drink. Electrolytes must be addressed as a whole but also individually. This is why it is important to stay ahead of any issues with regular medical checks, proper nutrition and keeping items such as table salt to a minimum.

What are normal ranges for electrolytes?

  • Sodium – 3,100 – 3,350 mg/liter
  • Chloride – 3,400 – 3,800 mg/liter.
  • Bicarbonate – 440-600 mg/liter.
  • Potassium –  136 – 195 mg/liter.

Once you understand how you feel when any of these electrolytes are off, you can better control your levels through certain foods and liquids you consume and exercise. However, it is absolutely necessary that these levels be checked by a doctor through blood tests regularly. This is especially true if a person begins or increases their physical exercise or training program.

Professional athletes and coaches understand the need for proper electrolyte balance. The amount of electrolytes lost through sweat causes them to continually need to replenish their electrolytes.

Other professionals who must monitor the loss of electrolytes daily are:

  • Performers
  • Fire-fighters
  • Construction workers (and others who work outdoors)
  • Factory workers (and others who work in extreme temperatures)

Imbalances of electrolytes can make you very ill. Neglect of the issue could lead to organ failure and even death. Balancing electrolytes is not difficult if you work with the help of a professional.

Though children are rarely at risk, they too can experience an electrolyte imbalance. It is important to keep a child hydrated, especially if that child is into sports or lives in a very warm climate. Parental and adult supervision during activity is necessary. If a child is experiencing symptoms of electrolyte imbalance it could be a symptom of kidney or other organ issues and must be evaluated by a medical professional if after consumption of electrolytes there is no change, seek emergency attention.

There is no age restriction on electrolyte balances. All human beings need proper balance of electrolytes for a healthy body, clear mental capacity and properly functioning nervous system.

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