from Eating Disorders Today
By Michael Myers, MD
Summer 2004 Volume 2, Number 4
©2002 Gürze Books
Electrolytes are the salts in your body. The most
common salts are sodium, potassium, and chloride.
Often associated with abnormalities in electrolytes
are abnormalities in the bicarbonate level. Although
not technically an electrolyte, bicarbonate is important
in maintaining the body's acid base balance. Located
in the blood and cells, electrolytes are important
in keeping your body functioning correctly.
Are Electrolytes Controlled?
Your kidneys, lungs, and other glands, including
the adrenal glands very tightly control the levels
of electrolytes in your body. The adrenal glands,
which sit on top of the kidneys and secrete hormones,
are especially important in controlling electrolytes.
For example, if you eat or drink salty foods, the
kidneys will excrete the extra salt to prevent excessive
sodium and water from being retained, which could
otherwise result in fluid overload and heart failure.
Another example is sweating. Sweat is composed of
both water and electrolytes (primarily sodium chloride,
commonly known as table salt). Your body responds
to sweating by changing the way the kidneys filter
the blood to regulate the amount of water and electrolytes
that are excreted in the urine. This results in
the concentrated urine you may excrete if you exercise
without consuming enough fluids.
Are Electrolytes Important?
All cells maintain an electrical charge across the
cell membranes that surround them, which permits
cells to perform their normal functions, such as
allowing nerve cells to control muscles and allowing
muscle cells to contract and relax. The electrolytes
in the serum (blood) produce this electrical charge,
which is literally the energy of life. If electrolytes
exceed their normal, tightly controlled range, normal
functions will cease. Muscles may weaken and cramp,
nerves may fail to conduct impulses correctly, or
the brain (which, after all, is a collection of
nerve cells) may not function correctly, leading
to confusion, lethargy, or even seizures.
Conditions Cause Abnormal Electrolytes?
The most common medical conditions that cause electrolyte
imbalances are persistent vomiting and diarrhea.
In either case, one loses not only fluids, but also
significant amounts of electrolytes. Many medications,
such as diuretics ("water pills") that are used
to treat either high blood pressure or fluid retention,
can result in electrolyte problems. Many endocrine
diseases, such as diabetes, can also cause electrolyte
imbalances. Whatever the etiology, treatment requires
replacement of not only the water portion, but also
the electrolytes, usually in the form of salty fluids.
Myers, MD, is a family physician in Orange
County, CA specializing in weight management and
eating disorders for the last 24 years.
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