Electrolytes are naturally occurring chemicals and elements in the body that change into their ionic form and can conduct electricity. A balance of the electrolytes is important for the normal function of cells and organs, as well as for the maintenance of the relatively stable pH environment and to control the fluid in intra and extracellular environments. There are many types of electrolytes, but the most common ones that are measured via blood tests are sodium, chloride, potassium, and bicarbonate.

Electrolytes are found nearly everywhere in the body; in the blood, urine, other fluid around cells and bodily fluids. It is also abundantly found in food, drinks and other supplements like vitamins. The kidneys are the most important organs when it comes to maintaining the electrolyte levels. The kidneys are responsible for removing excess electrolytes and water from the body in the urine.

Electrolyte imbalances or disorders are common and can cause bodily dysfunction. When there isn’t proper management of electrolytes, life-threatening complications like coma, cardiac arrest and seizures can occur. These are serious conditions, and therefore it is important to main right levels of electrolytes.

Because there are so many different types of electrolytes and different diseases affect specific ones more than others, it is worthwhile to have a broad overview of the type of symptoms one can expect when an electrolyte level is not right. Common symptoms that one may experience include:

  •    Irregular or fast heartbeat
  •    Fatigue and lethargy
  •    Convulsions or seizures
  •    Nausea and vomiting
  •    Abdominal cramping
  •    Muscle weakness and cramping
  •    Irritability
  •    Confusion

Typically, mild electrolyte disorders do not cause symptoms and are only detectable via blood tests. These disorders can go undetected until they become more serious and potentially life-threatening. There are many different causes for electrolyte disturbances, but the most common is due to loss of bodily fluids, for example, profuse vomiting, sweating or diarrhea.

Because the kidneys are primarily responsible for the balancing and maintenance of the electrolyte environment in the body, kidney disease results in electrolyte abnormalities. Kidney disease is a progressive loss of the function and destruction of the kidneys. It is important to understand kidney disease and how it is implicated in electrolyte disturbances because it is common and potentially lethal. Approximately 30 million people in the United States are affected by chronic kidney disease (CKD), and many millions more are at risk of developing kidney diseases.

Common diseases that cause CKD are high blood pressure and diabetes, two widespread diseases in the USA. Therefore, understanding the vast implications that are caused by having CKD is important. CKD can lead to toxicity from inability to filter waste products, electrolyte disturbances, anemia, and acidosis.

The kidneys are directly responsible for monitoring the filtration of electrolytes such as potassium, calcium, and sodium. In CKD, the potassium levels may be high, and the bicarbonate levels may be low. The result of this is that there is an acid-base imbalance and the patient can develop acidosis. This is when the pH in the blood drops below the normal level.

Testing for electrolyte abnormalities requires a simple blood test. Levels of electrolytes are routinely measured in patients who go for medical check-up or are in hospital for unrelated illness. If the common symptoms for electrolytes imbalance are experienced by a person, a simple blood test can help in early diagnosis. When detected, electrolyte abnormalities need to be corrected by administering fluids and other medication which can balance the levels of electrolytes in the blood.