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How Do Electrolytes Affect the Body?

By Sue Roberts, M.P.H., R.D.

Electrolytes are charged particles that assist with fluid movement in and out of body cells. They ensure that the acid-base and water environments are properly balanced to ensure that all physiological processes can run smoothly. Disturbances in electrolyte balance have adverse effects. Sodium, potassium, hydrogen and bicarbonate are examples of the most important body electrolytes.

Electrolytes and Water Balance

When salt dissolves in water, it splits into two electrically charged components called electrolytes. Some electrolytes are found within body cells, and others are found outside. Water tends to follow the movement of electrolytes in and out of cells so that optimal balance is maintained. Most body fluid is found outside the cells. If too much water were to enter cells, they could burst. If not enough, cells could collapse. Conditions such as vomiting, diarrhea, burns, sweating and even medications can cause excessive electrolyte loss. This may be harmful. Maintaining an adequate fluid intake is essential to prevent dangerous medical situations.

Sodium's Effects

Sodium is an electrolyte found outside the cells. It is primarily responsible for the fluid volume there but also plays a role in acid-base balance. Proper sodium amounts are important for nerve transmission and muscle contraction, too. The kidneys filter sodium out of the bloodstream and return the amount needed back into the bloodstream for optimal body functioning. The Dietary Reference Intakes set the adequate intake level for sodium at 1,500 milligrams a day for individuals between the ages of 19 and 50 years old and 1,300 milligrams a day for those 51 to 70 years old. Older people need even less -- 1,200 milligrams a day.

Potassium Functions

Potassium resides within body cells and helps with fluid and electrolyte balance and nerve and muscle contraction. Maintaining proper heart beat and blood pressure depends on appropriate functioning of potassium. Low dietary potassium intakes are associated with elevated blood pressure; high intakes prevent this. Because fruits and vegetables are good sources of potassium, eat five to nine servings of these each day to meet the adequate intake of 4,700 milligrams a day.

Chloride's Job

Chloride works with sodium to maintain normal fluid and electrolyte balance as an extracellular electrolyte. Chloride is also found as part of hydrochloric acid, a compound necessary for proper food digestion. Deficiencies of chloride are rare, but severe vomiting, diarrhea or sweating can cause a toxicity. Ensure adequate hydration to prevent this. Adequate intakes for chloride are 2,300 milligrams a day for people who are 19 to 50 years old, 2,000 milligrams a day for those who are 51 to 70 years old and 1,800 milligrams a day for anyone older.

Hydrogen and Bicarbonate

Hydrogen electrolytes play a role in the body's acid-base balance. When they are present in high concentrations, the body fluids are very acidic. To facilitate proper physiologic functioning, this acid state must be neutralized by substances known as buffers. Bicarbonate functions as a buffer, neutralizing acidic conditions in the body. It is produced in all cell fluids along with being secreted from the pancreas during digestion.

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