What Is an Electrolyte Imbalance?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 05, 2021
3 min read

Electrolytes are chemicals naturally occurring in your body fluids. They include chloride, phosphate, potassium, sodium, and calcium. These are important for normal body functions and should be present in certain concentrations.

The kidneys maintain a balance of electrolytes by shifting sodium levels as the body requires. 

When the level of electrolytes in your body is too low or too high, the resulting condition is called an electrolyte imbalance. 

Maintaining an electrolyte balance is vital for your body to function smoothly.

Electrolytes are essential. They help: 

  • Regulate fluid levels in the body and blood plasma 
  • Keep the blood pH in the normal range 
  • Allow muscle contractions, including heartbeat 
  • Transmit messages from the muscles, nerve cells, heart, and other cells 
  • Help in blood clotting 
  • Form new tissues 

An electrolyte imbalance is caused when you lose a large amount of body fluids. For example, if you are sweating or vomiting too much, it can lower the levels of some electrolytes in the body. 

In fact, when you're sweating, you lose 2% to 6% of your body weight. If you do not hydrate sufficiently, sweating can lower electrolyte concentration. 

In some cases, burns may lead to electrolyte imbalance. In others, medications for underlying diseases, such as chronic kidney disease, can also disturb the normal electrolyte balance of the body. 

Here are some other causes of an electrolyte imbalance: 

  • Not eating and drinking enough 
  • Chronic respiratory diseases
  • Metabolic alkalosis, a condition in which your blood pH is higher than normal 
  • Medications, such as laxatives and steroids 

Since electrolytes are needed for essential body functions, an increase or decrease in their number is quickly noticeable. Some symptoms of electrolyte imbalance are: 

  • Cramps 
  • Dizziness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Mental confusion 

Maintaining a balance of electrolytes in your body is relatively easy:

Drink water. Make sure you are drinking water two hours before going to the gym or doing any other kind of physical activity. 

Also, try to drink at least four to six ounces of water after every 20 minutes of physical activity, and drink water after exercising. 

Drinking water is the simplest and the best way to prevent electrolyte imbalance complications. 

Other fluids that help balance your electrolytes include:

Coconut water. Coconut water has a low sugar level and will not cause a sugar spike in your blood. Still, it has more calories than tap water. If possible, opt for unsweetened coconut water to cut down calories. 

Electrolyte or sports drinks. Sports drinks also help make up for the lost electrolytes since they contain electrolytes. Most of them have potassium chloride and sodium chloride. If you work out for less than 75 minutes, standard water should work fine.

If you are exercising for a longer interval, an electrolyte drink will replenish your electrolyte count quickly. Typically, eight ounces of an electrolyte drink has 100 milligrams of sodium and 30 milligrams of potassium. Make sure to read the label to check if the drink actually has electrolytes, though, since some of them don't. 

Eat electrolyte-rich foods. You can also eat certain foods to increase electrolyte levels in the body, such as potatoes, avocados, oranges, bananas, strawberries, turkey, and spinach. 

‌Don’t rehydrate with carbonated or energy drinks. They may cause a sudden spike in your blood sugar levels. 

To prevent electrolyte imbalance, drink plenty of water during physical activity. Eat a balanced diet containing electrolyte-rich foods. Don't engage in strenuous activity outdoors during hot weather. If you're working out inside, don't do it without an air conditioner, especially if you sweat heavily. 

Talk to your doctor if your symptoms don’t go away. They will do a physical exam and may order a blood test to check your kidney function.