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Fluid & Electrolyte Balance

Tiffany Budert-Waltz, Rebecca Gillaspy
  • Author
    Tiffany Budert-Waltz

    Tiffany is a doctoral candidate at Barry University in the field of education. She has earned her Master’s degree from Barry University and her Bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University. She also has a Florida Teaching Certification in Mathematics issued by the Florida Department of Education.

  • 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.

Understand fluid and electrolyte balance and its importance to human health. Find out causes of electrolyte imbalance like kidney disease, exercise, and diet. Updated: 01/19/2022

Fluids and Electrolytes

Electrolytes are compounds that separate into ions, or charged particles, in water. Electrolytes form when salts, such as sodium chloride or potassium phosphate, dissociate and form ions. For example, sodium chloride dissociates into a sodium ion and a chloride ion when dissolved in water.

There are two types of electrolytes:

  • Cations
  • Anions

The major positively charged electrolytes are known as cations. Examples of cations include sodium, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. The major negatively charged electrolytes are anions. Examples of anions include chloride, phosphate, sulfate, and bicarbonate. If a compound dissolves in water and dissociates into an anion and a cation, then that compound is an electrolyte.

Water in the body is found in two compartments: the intracellular fluid compartment and the extracellular fluid compartment. Electrolytes found in the intracellular fluid compartment include potassium cations, magnesium cations, and phosphate anions. The extracellular fluid compartment contains electrolytes such as sodium cations, chloride anions, and bicarbonate anions.

Electrolytes dissolved in the body's water help maintain fluid balance. The body controls the amount of water in each compartment by controlling the electrolyte concentrations in each compartment. The body system responsible for maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance is the urinary system, where the kidneys are located. The kidneys assist in the maintenance of electrolyte and fluid balance. It is important to balance fluids and electrolytes as changes in intracellular or extracellular electrolyte concentrations can have a major impact on the functions of the body.



Fluids & Electrolytes

I love to drive, yet I'm the first to admit that I take my car for granted. As long as the engine starts when I turn the key, I'm happy. What I ignore is the fact that under the hood there are many fluids and electrical connections that must be maintained and balanced in order for my car to take me from point A to point B.

The human body is a lot like a car in the sense that it has fluids and electrolytes, which are electrically charged minerals, that need to be in balance. Electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, must be maintained at certain levels for your nerves, muscles and other body processes to function properly. In this lesson, you'll learn about factors that influence fluid and electrolyte balance in the body.

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  • 0:01 Fluids & Electrolytes
  • 0:55 Illness
  • 1:31 Environmental Factors
  • 2:40 Diet
  • 3:03 Kidney Problems & Diuretics
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Fluids and Electrolytes Imbalance

Fluid and electrolyte balance is achieved by the body through the process of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the collective series of adjustments that prevent change in the internal environment of the body. Electrolytes are involved in maintaining homeostasis through the following physiologic body functions:

  • Osmotic equilibrium
  • Acid-base balance
  • Intracellular and extracellular concentration differentials

Acid-base balance is an equilibrium state of hydrogen ion concentration. When an acid-base imbalance occurs, the body attempts to compensate by developing an opposite acid-base imbalance to offset the effects of the primary disorder. If the acid-base balance gets disrupted and remains untreated, the effects can be electrolyte abnormalities or even death. Sodium is integral to the maintenance of acid-base balance. The sodium-potassium pump functions to balance cellular electrolytes by actively pumping sodium out of cells in exchange for potassium.

Illness, environmental factors, diet, and diuretics are all factors that affect the balance of fluids and electrolytes.

Illness

Illness can lead to water imbalance in the body. Too much water can cause water intoxication via overhydration as well as hyponatremia. Hyponatremia refers to low sodium levels in the blood.

On the other hand, a water deficit can result in dehydration. Dehydration is the excessive loss of water from the body. Signs of dehydration include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased urine output
  • Poor skin turgor, or skin elasticity

Skin turgor can be tested by pinching the skin on the top of the hand. If the skin takes longer than a couple seconds to return to normal, then the skin turgor is considered poor. This is an indicator of dehydration.

Dehydration can be due to illness where fluid is lost, such as having diarrhea, emesis, or hemorrhaging,

Environmental Factors

Electrolyte imbalance can occur due to environmental factors. Environmental factors capable of inducing fluid loss through the lungs and through sweat include:

  • High altitude
  • Low humidity
  • High temperatures

Heavy exercise can result in electrolyte imbalance. For example, athletes can lose three to four pounds from fluid loss when exercising in high temperature and low humidity. Athletes are prone to losing electrolytes through sweat. Hyponatremia can occur if too much sodium is excreted while sweating.

To help remember hyponatremia, some individuals use the following mnemonic device: Hope You Plan On Not Attending The Recital Each Monday In April

Diet

An adequate balanced diet is essential in maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance. A diet that includes an abundance of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is best for maintaining electrolyte balance. Poor diet results in an imbalance. If there is not enough sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, or phosphorus in the diet, a fluid and electrolyte imbalance will occur. For example, low magnesium intake is considered to be a risk in developing hypertension.

Illness

When you're sick, especially if your illness involves vomiting, diarrhea, or a fever, you're at a greater risk for fluid and electrolyte imbalance. These factors cause your body to lose water. If a large amount of water is lost from the body, the result is dehydration.

This would obviously alter the fluid balance of the body, because electrolytes are dissolved in body fluids. It can also alter the electrolyte concentrations. Water can be replenished by drinking, but sometimes when you're feeling ill it can be difficult to drink enough water to replenish what you lost.

Environmental Factors

Dehydration is also a concern for people who engage in heavy exercise. This risk is accentuated if the activity is performed in a hot environment. For example, if the thermometer reads 90 degrees Fahrenheit and you set out to run 20 miles, you can be certain that you will lose a lot of water and salt (aka sodium) through sweat. This loss will decrease the level of water and electrolytes in your body. To correct this imbalance, you need to rehydrate properly. For instance, if you get home after your 20 mile run and only drink water without replenishing the lost salt, you could end up with hyponatremia, which is a condition in which the level of sodium in the blood is too low. To help recall this term you can remember that the prefix hypo means low and the symbol for sodium on the periodic table is Na, so hyponatremia is literally low Na, or low sodium. This condition will leave you feeling tired and confused, and could escalate into seizures or a coma.

Diet

The fluid and electrolyte balance in your body is affected by your diet because the foods and beverages you take in provide water and electrolytes. This explains why people with conditions like anorexia nervosa, which is an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation, or bulimia, which is an eating disorder characterized by self-induced vomiting, can develop an imbalance.

Kidney Problems

The kidneys are important regulators of fluid and electrolyte balance in the body. Your kidneys have the ability to excrete excess water and electrolytes through the urine. They can also retain water or electrolytes if their levels drop too low. If kidney problems develop due to infection, inflammation, or trauma, the kidneys' ability to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance can be thrown off.

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Video Transcript

Fluids & Electrolytes

I love to drive, yet I'm the first to admit that I take my car for granted. As long as the engine starts when I turn the key, I'm happy. What I ignore is the fact that under the hood there are many fluids and electrical connections that must be maintained and balanced in order for my car to take me from point A to point B.

The human body is a lot like a car in the sense that it has fluids and electrolytes, which are electrically charged minerals, that need to be in balance. Electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, must be maintained at certain levels for your nerves, muscles and other body processes to function properly. In this lesson, you'll learn about factors that influence fluid and electrolyte balance in the body.

Illness

When you're sick, especially if your illness involves vomiting, diarrhea, or a fever, you're at a greater risk for fluid and electrolyte imbalance. These factors cause your body to lose water. If a large amount of water is lost from the body, the result is dehydration.

This would obviously alter the fluid balance of the body, because electrolytes are dissolved in body fluids. It can also alter the electrolyte concentrations. Water can be replenished by drinking, but sometimes when you're feeling ill it can be difficult to drink enough water to replenish what you lost.

Environmental Factors

Dehydration is also a concern for people who engage in heavy exercise. This risk is accentuated if the activity is performed in a hot environment. For example, if the thermometer reads 90 degrees Fahrenheit and you set out to run 20 miles, you can be certain that you will lose a lot of water and salt (aka sodium) through sweat. This loss will decrease the level of water and electrolytes in your body. To correct this imbalance, you need to rehydrate properly. For instance, if you get home after your 20 mile run and only drink water without replenishing the lost salt, you could end up with hyponatremia, which is a condition in which the level of sodium in the blood is too low. To help recall this term you can remember that the prefix hypo means low and the symbol for sodium on the periodic table is Na, so hyponatremia is literally low Na, or low sodium. This condition will leave you feeling tired and confused, and could escalate into seizures or a coma.

Diet

The fluid and electrolyte balance in your body is affected by your diet because the foods and beverages you take in provide water and electrolytes. This explains why people with conditions like anorexia nervosa, which is an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation, or bulimia, which is an eating disorder characterized by self-induced vomiting, can develop an imbalance.

Kidney Problems

The kidneys are important regulators of fluid and electrolyte balance in the body. Your kidneys have the ability to excrete excess water and electrolytes through the urine. They can also retain water or electrolytes if their levels drop too low. If kidney problems develop due to infection, inflammation, or trauma, the kidneys' ability to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance can be thrown off.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How can fluids and electrolytes be balanced?

Fluids and electrolytes can be balanced through a balanced diet with adequate amounts of macronutrients and micronutrients, along with monitoring the use of natural diuretics.

What body systems maintain fluid and electrolyte balance?

The body system responsible for maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance is the urinary system, where the kidneys are located. The kidneys maintain the balance.

What are some electrolytes in body fluids?

Electrolytes are found in body fluids. In the intracellular fluid, potassium, magnesium, phosphate, and sulfate are found. In the extracellular fluid, sodium, calcium, chloride, and bicarbonate are found.

What are common causes of electrolyte imbalance?

Common causes of electrolyte imbalance include water intoxication, dehydration, hyponatremia, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and environmental factors, such as excessive sweating.

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