The human body mainly consists of water, which has several minerals dissolved in it. We refer to these minerals as electrolytes.
These electrolytes ensure a myriad of physiological functions, including nervous impulses, muscle contraction, maintaining proper hydration, and balancing pH levels.
The balance of water and electrolytes in the human body falls under a greater concept of physiology known as homeostasis, which refers to the body’s tendencies to maintain and restore balance to every physiological function.
In this article, we will briefly highlight the role of electrolytes in the human body and how these minerals control your level of hydration.
What are electrolytes?
An electrolyte is an umbrella term that describes all particles with a negative or positive electric charge.
In the field of nutrition, electrolytes refer to essential minerals found in the blood, urine, and sweat.
The primary electrolytes found in the body are:
Electrolytes are absolutely vital for the human body for a variety of reasons.Here are the main functions ensured by these electrically charged minerals:
Nervous system function
The brain relies on sending and receiving electrical signals to communicate with different cells splattered throughout the body.
Researchers refer to these signals as nervous impulses, which get generated by modifying the electrical charge of cell membranes.
To mediate these changes, the cell pushes sodium across its membrane, which leads to a cascade of reactions that end up changing the charge of the cell membrane.
Consequently, the nervous impulses temporarily turn into chemical interactions that once again launch new electrical signals.
Calcium is the primary electrolyte that ensures muscle contraction.
By connecting with the actin-myosin complex, calcium sets the sliding motion of proteins, which translates into muscle contraction and movement.
Another important electrolyte for muscle contraction is magnesium.
As mentioned above, water is kept under strict check to ensure that there is just the proper amount inside and outside cells.
Sodium, in particular, plays a major role in balancing fluid through a concept known as osmosis. This refers to the tendency of water to move through a cell membrane from a dilute (low concentration of electrolytes) to a more concentrated (high concentration of electrolytes) solution.
As a result of this fascinating system, the cells do not burst from overhydration, nor do they shrivel from dehydration.
Internal pH is strictly regulated by the body to make sure that your cells are functioning properly.
pH is a measure that indicates how acidic or alkaline a milieu is. Every second, your body recruits a variety of mechanisms to keep the internal pH between 7.35 and 7.45.
Deviating from these values leads to cellular dysfunction, and in severe cases, death.
Fortunately, the integration of electrolytes in weak acids and bases prevents acid-base imbalances.
When homeostasis goes rogue
Similar to other systems in the body, fluid and electrolyte homeostasis is subject to disturbances that interfere with the optimal function of the cells.
When fluid is the primary defect, we will be dealing with dehydration (overhydration is relatively rare). Moreover, electrolyte imbalance is the result of mineral disturbances.
Let us now take a look at each entity:
Dehydration is a medical term that describes fluid imbalance in the body due to excessive loss of water or insufficient fluid intake.
The most common causes of dehydration include persistent vomiting, severe diarrhea, and profuse sweating.
Doctors categorize the severity of dehydration based on the amount of fluid lost, which corresponds clinically to the seriousness of signs and symptoms.
For instance, losing 5% of your total fluid will not be as severe as losing 15%.
The other factor that plays a role in the management plan is determining the type of dehydration, which can be intracellular, extracellular, or a combination of both.
Overall, dehydration is a subtle condition that takes hours or even days to become clinically relevant but yields substantial damage to the vast majority of organ systems if left untreated.
Risk factors of dehydration
Researchers have been able to identify several risk factors that increase the chances of dehydration, including prolonged exposure to the sun (e.g., cyclists, marathon runners), which triggers the sweat response that eventually evaporates excessive amounts of water.
Other athletes (e.g., swimmers, bodybuilders) are also prone to develop dehydration, which may seem odd at first. However, remember that sweating occurs to lower the body’s core temperature regardless of the external environment.
In other words, if you are running a marathon in the middle of July or playing table tennis in your home, the body will react in a similar way.
Other risk factors include:
- Advanced age (older adults)
- Young age (Infants and toddlers)
- Some careers (e.g., welders, landscapers, construction workers, mechanics)
- Chronic conditions (e.g., diarrhea, peptic ulcers, nephrotic syndrome)
- Living in a high-altitude area
Depending on the affected electrolyte and whether it’s high or low, you can expect different clinical presentations.
In the case of severe electrolyte disturbances, the patient can experience serious complications that could eventually lead to death.
The most prevalent causes of electrolyte imbalances include hyperthermia (i.e., excessive heat), vomiting, and diarrhea.
Other illnesses (e.g., kidney disease, eating disorders, severe burns) can also precipitate this metabolic state.
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Numbness and tingling
- Muscle weakness and cramping
If you experience any of these symptoms, make sure to contact your primary care physician or head to the nearest hospital.
Water and electrolytes are vital for the human body, especially for athletes. Their balance is a priority to maintain the proper function of different organ systems.
Hopefully, this article managed to shed some light on this important topic; however, if you still have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section below or reach out to us by clicking on this link.