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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When we consider electrolyte toxicity, we see that it's difficult to reach a toxic level for sodium, chloride or potassium. For example, if you ingest extra salt, sodium chloride, your thirst is increased and the extra water intake acts to balance the increase in salt. However, even though it's rare, a person can consume too much salt through salt tablets or by drinking saltwater. If toxic levels of sodium are reached, the person will start to experience weakness and irritability. If the problem persists, it could lead to delirium and even death.
As for potassium, you would not be able to eat enough food to reach a level of concern; however, toxic levels of potassium could be reached through the overconsumption of a supplement or if you have a kidney disorder that interferes with the excretion of potassium. We remember that potassium plays a role in proper heart function; therefore, a toxic level of potassium can result in an irregular heartbeat and potentially death.
Let's review. Electrolytes are positively or negatively charged ions that help your body regulate fluid balance. Three important electrolytes that carry out this function are sodium, potassium and chloride. In addition, we see that sodium and potassium are important for proper nervous system function, and potassium is important for proper heart function. Thirst is one mechanism that your body uses to regulate electrolyte balance, but your kidneys are the primary regulators of electrolyte concentrations in your body.
An electrolyte deficiency can occur under certain conditions. For example, anorexia nervosa, which is an eating disorder characterized by a fear of gaining weight and refusal to eat, could cause a deficiency of potassium that results in heart failure. Persistent sweating, diarrhea or vomiting can deplete all of the electrolytes, resulting in an electrolyte imbalance and symptoms such as confusion, muscle cramps, weakness, irregular heartbeat, acid-base imbalance and constipation. As for electrolyte toxicity, if toxic levels of sodium are reached, a person could experience weakness, irritability, delirium and even death. If toxic levels of potassium are reached, a person could experience an irregular heartbeat and potentially death.
Once you've finished with this lesson, you will have the ability to:
Define electrolytes and name the three most important ones
Identify some of the functions of sodium, potassium and chloride in the body
Understand the role of thirst and the kidneys in regulating electrolyte balance
Explain how deficiency and toxicity of these electrolytes could occur
Describe the signs and symptoms associated with deficiency and toxicity of these electrolytes
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