Sodium, Potassium & Chloride: Electrolyte Deficiency & Toxicity Symptoms

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  • 0:01 Electrolytes
  • 1:03 Regulation of Electrolytes
  • 2:19 Deficiency
  • 3:25 Toxicity
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Sodium, potassium and chloride are electrolytes needed by your body for proper fluid balance, nervous system function and heart function. Learn how they are regulated and what happens if there are too few or too many in your body in this lesson.


If you ever worked out hard in a hot environment, you likely wiped the sweat from your forehead and grabbed a sports drink to rehydrate your body. Sports drinks are different than water, which can also rehydrate your body. The difference is that sports drinks contain electrolytes. Chances are you've heard this term before, but do you know what electrolytes are? Well, in nutrition, electrolytes are defined as positively or negatively charged ions that help your body regulate fluid balance.

When you drink a sports drink, you rehydrate with both water and electrolytes. Water will get into your body faster and stay there longer when it's accompanied by electrolytes because water flows toward concentrations of electrolytes, through a process called osmosis. In this lesson, we will learn more about the regulation of three important electrolytes - sodium, potassium and chloride - and what happens when there are too few or too many of these substances in your body.

Regulation of Electrolytes

Your body is pretty good at regulating electrolyte concentrations, which prevents them from dropping too low or getting too high. This close regulation is likely because electrolytes are so important. Besides the role the three electrolytes share in maintaining a proper balance of fluids, we see that sodium and potassium are important for proper nervous system function, and potassium is important for proper heart function.

Thirst is a mechanism that your body uses to regulate electrolyte balance. For example, in the traditional American diet, we tend to ingest a lot of sodium combined with chloride. In science, we refer to this as sodium chloride, but in your kitchen, you call it table salt. When you eat a lot of salty foods, your thirst is stimulated in hopes that you will increase your water intake to match the increased electrolyte intake.

Yet, when it comes to regulating all three of these electrolytes, nothing compares to your kidneys, which are the primary regulators of electrolyte concentrations in your body. Basically, when your intake of sodium, potassium and chloride is low, your kidneys do not let as many of these electrolytes leave your body through urine. If your intake is high, then excretion by the kidneys increases.


Most healthy individuals do not have difficulty maintaining sufficient amounts of electrolytes in the body. This is partly due to the efficient regulation by the kidneys, but also due to the fact that sodium and chloride are plentiful in our diet. There are also sources of potassium found in all of the food groups, particularly in fruits and vegetables.

However, certain conditions can lead to an electrolyte deficiency in which any one or all of the electrolytes are depleted. For example, a person who suffers from anorexia nervosa, which is an eating disorder characterized by a fear of gaining weight and refusal to eat, can die due to heart failure brought on by a deficiency of potassium.

If there's a deficiency of all of the electrolytes, as we might see with persistent sweating, diarrhea or vomiting, the person can develop an electrolyte imbalance, which can result in a range of symptoms related to the nervous system, heart and fluid balance. These symptoms may include confusion, muscle cramps, weakness, irregular heartbeat, acid-base imbalance and constipation.

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