6 Alarming Signs That Point to an Electrolyte Imbalance

One of the main reasons why we’re all constantly advised to stay hydrated has to do with electrolytes. These water-soluble compounds must be maintained at specific levels for your body to function. Offsetting this balance can lead vital body functions to shut down and inner organs to be affected, causing a multitude of very unpleasant symptoms. Read all about electrolyte disorders, their signs, and their causes in this educational guide.

Why are electrolytes important?

Electrolyte Imbalance water bottle

Electrolytes are natural compounds necessary for the physiological functioning of the body. Calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium are all examples of electrolytes. Electrolytes are present in all bodily fluids, including blood and urine. We receive them by ingesting certain foods, drinks, and even plain water.

Different electrolytes perform varying functions in the body, for example:

  • Magnesium is important for healthy muscles, bones, teeth, and nerves.
  • Sodium is responsible for optimizing fluid levels, as well as nerve and muscle function.
  • Potassium helps the heart, muscles, and nerves, and supports your metabolism.
  • Calcium is essential for healthy blood pressure and the nervous system. It’s also important for the production of hormones, and enzymes.
  • Chloride, like calcium, aids in maintaining cardiovascular health, as well as bodily fluids.

When the levels of electrolytes are either too high or too low, an electrolyte imbalance occurs. Severe imbalances of this kind can result in emergency hospitalization due to seizures, cardiac arrest, and coma.

Causes of electrolyte imbalances

Electrolyte Imbalance tired woman on bed

Anyone can develop an electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes are excreted by the body through bodily fluids, including sweat and urine. Hence, conditions or states where someone loses a lot of bodily fluids can lead to an electrolyte imbalance. The classic example is a foodborne illness causing an electrolyte imbalance due to a loss of fluids as a result of vomiting and diarrhea. 

Severe burns, broken bones, overhydration, dehydration, and some medications can be responsible for an electrolyte disorder. Certain underlying conditions make some people more likely to get an electrolyte disorder, namely:

  • Kidney disease
  • Live cirrhosis
  • Congestive heart failure 
  • Problems with the thyroid and adrenal gland
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Eating disorders (e.g., anorexia and bulimia).

Last but not least, kids and older adults are more susceptible to electrolyte imbalances than other adults. In older people, specifically, dehydration can lead to electrolyte disorders. Read more about the risks and symptoms of dehydration in seniors here - 5 Serious MISTAKES That Can Lead to Dehydration in Seniors.

Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance

Depending on the electrolytes that are most affected, the body can respond to an electrolyte disorder in different ways - some more severe than others. For example, an excess of sodium in the blood leads to a condition called hypernatremia which makes you experience insomnia, restlessness, and shallow breathing. Listed below are the 6 most common symptoms of electrolyte imbalances:

1. Nausea

Electrolyte Imbalance dizzy man

Feeling sick on your stomach and vomiting can indicate a variety of electrolyte disorders or result in one. If you’re feeling nauseous after a sweaty workout, during a hike, or after a prolonged period of time without drinking, an electrolyte imbalance may be to blame.

2. Dizziness or confusion

Experiencing brain fog, dizziness, or confusion after a period of activity can certainly point to an electrolyte issue, especially when it’s combined with other symptoms listed here. In fact, it’s important to pay attention to any sudden changes in mood, as irritability, fatigue, or a feeling of disorientation can all indicate that something bad is going on in the body. Extreme changes may even indicate that the brain is affected - says the Cleveland Clinic.

3. Headache

Electrolyte Imbalance woman feeling sick

A headache is one of the first symptoms of many electrolyte imbalances, including a sodium deficiency (called hyponatremia). This is often caused by dehydration, which is why drinking a glass of mineral water or even plain old filtered water can often help you get rid of a headache.

4. Swelling in the ankles, face, and abdomen

If you wear rings or a wristwatch, you may have noticed that it feels tighter when you walk around without drinking water for a while. We recognize this symptom as “water retention” or “fluid buildup,” and it’s one of the tell-tale signs of an electrolyte deficiency. The same happens when you have a bowl of salty popcorn in the evening and wake up with puffy eyes the next morning. You’re experiencing these symptoms because excess sodium makes your body retain water.

5. Weight gain after a workout

Electrolyte Imbalance scale

If anything, workouts should make you lose a little weight; not the other way around. So, if you step on the scale before and after a workout, you should notice a slight decline in weight due to sweating. Athletes sometimes do this to test if they’re drinking enough water during a workout; a decline in weight is an indication that you should drink more during training.

However, people with low sodium levels can actually end up gaining weight during exercise. This indicates fluid buildup and means that you should drink less during a workout. If that doesn’t help, it could also be that you’re eating too much salty food.

6. Cramps and seizures

Electrolyte Imbalance man sick working out

Muscle cramps, seizures, and coma are all possible symptoms of a severe, life-threatening, electrolyte imbalance. The faster these symptoms tend to develop, the more dangerous they are according to the Mayo Clinic.

Such severe electrolyte disorders can permanently damage the inner organs, including the brain. Other signs of an electrolyte imbalance that requires emergency treatment are: 

  • Alkalosis - excessive blood alkalinity
  • Metabolic acidosis - the buildup of acid in the body
  • Dark and cloudy urine due to myoglobinuria (blood myoglobin in the urine) or rhabdomyolysis (muscles leak proteins and electrolytes into the blood)
  • Delirium - a mental state in which you are so disoriented that you’re unable to think clearly.

How can you manage and treat an electrolyte imbalance?

Electrolyte Imbalance woman with a headache

The course of treatment depends on the severity of the disruption, as well as the specific electrolyte imbalance and its cause. For example, if you’re experiencing a headache due to minor dehydration, slowly drinking a few glasses of water, another beverage, or an electrolyte drink will make you feel better right away. More serious dehydration, such as that caused by vomiting and diarrhea, may require that you drink oral rehydration salt (ORS) solution, which is available at every drugstore. 

Lastly, severe electrolyte imbalances require medical treatment like:

  • IV fluids and medicine to rehydrate and restore a healthy electrolyte balance in the body.
  • Oral medications that replace missing electrolytes.
  • Hemodialysis - used to correct electrolyte disorders brought on by kidney damage or kidney failure.
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