Fluid And Electrolytes

Fluid And Electrolytes - A Balancing Act

There is always a dance of sorts going on in our body involving fluid and electrolytes. The fluid in question is primarily water, and the electrolytes consist of a half dozen or so minerals which are essential to our health and well-being. The minerals or electrolytes are dissolved in the fluid. These minerals carry an electric charge, which is why they are called electrolytes.

Some, if not most, sports drinks contain electrolytes. Bottled water of course does not. Sports drinks are designed to replace the electrolytes we may lose, primarily through sweating. Before sports drinks became popular, people who were active in sports or simply active in hot weather would occasionally eat a salt tablet in addition to consuming water. The use of salt tablets, which would provide most of the electrolytes the body has a need for, has by and large been discontinued. When we are exerting ourselves we do need to maintain a healthy balance of fluid and electrolytes, but fluid is far and away the more important of the two. We have to have the water, but if we take too many salt tablets we could upset the balance of electrolytes, which can be a bad thing. That could conceivably happen from drinking sports drinks, but one would have to drink an awful lot of them. As far as sports drinks are concerned the real question is whether or not the electrolytes they contain really do any good, as it's mainly the water that is needed.

If we have to low or to high a level of electrolytes we can become ill, although this is usually something that happens over time, and not in the course of an afternoon's workout. It is necessary sometimes for people to take mineral supplements if they have a deficiency, or watch their diet or change medications if suffering from an excess. As far as fluid is concerned, it's difficult to drink too much water, but drinking too little can easily bring on problems.

Just what are these minerals that we refer to as electrolytes, and what happens if the balance isn't right?  The electrolytes of primary importance are sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium chloride, phosphate, and carbonate. Taken together these sound more like what might be found in a garden fertilizer, but the analogy is not far off, as these minerals act much the same in keeping our body healthy. A deficiency or excess of any of these minerals can result in problems, but an imbalance of either sodium, potassium, or calcium typically leads to the most problems. The levels of these three electrolytes can change when the amount of fluid in our body changes.

Sodium - Too low a sodium level, hyponatremia, can occur when one drinks too much water, sweats excessively, and does not ingest enough sodium, the logic behind the need for salt tablets, and can lead to dizziness, muscle weakness, and drowsiness or confusion. Too high a sodium level, hypernatremia, can result from not taking in enough fluids, and the symptoms may be much more severe, ranging from sluggishness to seizures and even coma.

Potassium - A low potassium level, hypokalemia, may over time cause the body to produce less insulin, increasing blood sugar levels. Diuretics are often the cause of hypokalemia. If the level becomes very low, heartbeat irregularities may surface. While the symptoms of a low potassium level may be mild to not noticeable in most cases, too high a potassium level, hyperkalemia, can lead to a very dangerous situation. Hyperkalemia is often a sign, though not necessarily a cause, of kidney failure, but can adversely affect the heart requiring treatment, usually in the form of medications which prevent the body from absorbing potassium.

Calcium - The third electrolyte is calcium. A low calcium level, hypocalcemia, is usually the result of an infection, a hormone imbalance, or a vitamin D deficiency. Weakness and peripheral numbness are the most common symptoms. Hypercalcemia, excessive calcium in the system, may not cause a problem if the excess is not large, but if it is dehydration can result, which can at times lead to a very serious situation.

The important thing when it comes to fluid and electrolytes is to drink plenty of water, as we're so often advised to do. The electrolytes will 9 times out of ten, if not 99 times out of 100, take care of themselves.