Critical bodily processes are controlled by various substances floating around in your blood. The term “electrolyte” describes these substances. The electrolyte dissolves in the water, and the positive or negative ions separate. The ability of your muscles and nerves to react depends on the efficient movement of such electrolyte ions between the body cells.

Unfortunately, very low or high concentrations of these electrolytes can harm your body in various ways. Read this article to learn about some causes of electrolyte imbalance, their symptoms, complications, and how to manage them.

Understanding Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolytes are dissolved minerals that produce an electrical current in body fluids. Electrolytes are natural minerals your body can receive via food, drinks, or supplements.

Electrolytes, especially those found in urine, blood, or tissue, are essential for maintaining fluid balance, controlling heart rhythm, and maintaining typical neuron and muscle protein synthesis.

Simply put, electrolytes are body minerals that:

  • Help maintain a healthy blood pressure
  • Keep you hydrated
  • Repair the broken bones or tissues
  • Maintain your body’s functionality by continuously stimulating nerve and muscle cells with electrical current.

Therefore, an electrolyte imbalance is when your body has an excess of one mineral or a deficiency of another. This could impact the function of your vital body organs. Possible causes of this disproportion include kidney failure.

In other words, it’s either an abundance of one mineral or a deficiency of another.

Examples of electrolytes include:

  • Potassium
  • Sodium
  • Calcium
  • Chloride
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphate

Types of electrolyte imbalance

One or more of the minerals in your body may be out of whack if you have an electrolyte imbalance.

Potassium: The ions of potassium are positively charged. Potassium helps keep the heart beating at a steady rate. Potassium imbalances have been linked to a variety of cardiac symptoms.

  • Hypokalemia- This is a low potassium level that can lead to weariness, weakness, and muscular spasms.
  • Hyperkalemia- The high potassium content may lead to cardiac arrhythmia or increased heart rate, muscle spasms, and fatigue.

Sodium: Positively charged sodium ions are sodium. They facilitate the uptake of nutrients by cells and contribute to a healthy water balance in the body. The brain is not immune to the systemic effects of altered sodium ion concentration. These are some examples of sodium imbalances:

  • Hyponatremia- This is a low sodium level that can lead to neurological issues like haziness and headaches.
  • Hypernatremia- this may lead to increased heart rate, anxiety, and insomnia.

Chloride: Chloride is essential for maintaining proper fluid and pH levels. The negative charge of chloride ions means that an excess of them can induce a decrease in the body’s pH. The more acidic a solution is, the lower its pH value.

Chloride imbalances can take the following forms.

  • Hypochloremia: Due to low chloride levels, arrhythmias may develop.
  • Hyperchloremia: The high chloride content of this solution could lead to cramping, irregular heartbeat, and other neurological problems.

Magnesium: The magnesium in the bones is very high, and the enzymes in your body wouldn’t work without these positively charged minerals.

Magnesium deficiency manifests in a variety of ways, including:

  • Hypomagnesemia, also known as low magnesium, can trigger ventricular arrhythmias
  • Hypermagnesemia or high magnesium levels can slow reflexes, reduce blood pressure, and impair breathing.

Calcium: Your teeth and bones contain calcium. It is a positive electrolyte that facilitates communication between nerves and muscles.

The following are examples of calcium imbalances:

  • Hypocalcemia is deficient calcium which may cause involuntary muscle movements, pain, weakness, disorientation,
  • Hypercalcemia, or high calcium, can lead to muscle weakness, anxiety or confusion, and constipation.

Phosphate: Phosphate, a negatively charged ion, is essential for proper food metabolism. Moreover, it is found in high concentrations in DNA, cellular membranes, and even bone.

Examples of phosphate imbalance include:

  • Hypophosphatemia/low phosphate: There may be no outward signs of this, but it can progress to anorexia and reduced bone and muscle weakness over time.
  • Hyperphosphatemia/high phosphate: this may manifest as cramps or twitches

Bicarbonate: Negatively charged bicarbonate is formed when hydrogen atoms and carbon dioxide are combined. The majority of the carbon dioxide in your blood is in this form. The blood’s bicarbonate level is a reliable indicator of the body’s overall pH.

If your blood bicarbonate level is low, it could mean your blood pH is too low, or your body is excessively acidic. This condition is known as metabolic acidosis in the medical field. The symptoms are vague and may include anything from:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting

Causes of Electrolyte Imbalance

Short-term illness, medicine, dehydration, and underlying chronic conditions can all contribute to an electrolyte imbalance. Electrolyte imbalance could result from several factors, but one of the most prevalent is fluid loss.

You may experience electrolyte imbalance due to the following:

Medications and medical-related conditions like:

  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Sepsis
  • Cancer
  • Medications for diseases like cancer, heart disease, and hormone imbalances
  • Use of diuretics, which stimulate the kidneys to release extra water,
  • Urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and other infections
  • Experiencing illness characterized by fluid-losing symptoms such as those vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, and high fevers
  • Chemotherapy treatments may lead to electrolyte deficits, including calcium shortage and potassium imbalance.

Diet-related causes:

  • A diet lacking in vital nutrients found in complete foods
  • Malabsorption or the inability to absorb nutrients from a diet

Various types of diets, such as the ketogenic diet, cause significant water loss and the flushing out of essential electrolytes like magnesium, potassium, and salt, even if you drink plenty of water.

Including bone broth in your diet is a terrific method to naturally replace these and to gain other minerals and amino acids.

Electrolyte disorders in kids

Many childhood infections, especially those that induce diarrhea and vomiting, can lead to electrolyte abnormalities. Extreme dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities might result from this.

Electrolyte imbalances are common in critically unwell children, especially those with respiratory or neurological disorders. In a study of children in critical care, 84% were found to have electrolyte imbalances. The most prevalent abnormality was hypocalcemia.

How Do You Know You Have an Electrolyte Imbalance?

Electrolyte imbalance symptoms can vary widely depending on the electrolyte in question, and the degree of the mismatch, amongst other circumstances. In certain cases, you might not even notice a slight unbalance.

But when an electrolyte is out of whack, you may notice the following symptoms:

General symptoms;

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain or stiffness
  • Nausea, diarrhea, and constipation

Signs of neurological distress;

  • Dizziness
  • Shaking or shivering
  • Frailty of muscles
  • Muscular twitches or spasms

Symptoms affecting the skin and mucous membranes;

  • Dry skin or absence of sweat
  • Bad breath and dry mouth

Suppose your electrolyte imbalance is due to a urinary tract infection or kidney. In that case, you may notice an increase or sometimes a decrease in urine production, which may be dark or murky.

Severe manifestations;

In extreme cases, electrolyte imbalances could cause fatal dehydration. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, please dial 911 immediately:

  • Shift in levels of consciousness
  • Altered behavior; perplexity, hallucinations, drowsiness, and delusions

What Are Some of the Problems Associated with an Electrolyte Imbalance?

Besides the severe signs mentioned above, coma, seizures, and other symptoms of abrupt cardiac arrest are only some of the severe, life-threatening issues resulting from an electrolyte imbalance.

Alterations in Heart Rate

Hyperkalemia occurs when potassium levels become dangerously high. Muscles can become weak, tingling, or numb because this disrupts the regular impulses transferred from nerves to forces. Furthermore, elevated potassium levels have been linked to irregular pulse, which can heighten feelings of nervousness.

Increased calcium levels also impact the circulatory system and electrical transmission channels of the heart and may cause irregular heartbeats.

Severe Muscles Stiffness or Spasms

Muscle pain and stiffness are common early warning indications of dehydration or a sudden drop in potassium and magnesium levels. Constipation and cramping are additional symptoms of hypokalemia (very low potassium levels).

Muscle spasms, cramps, stomach pain, and convulsions are all symptoms of hypocalcemia or low blood calcium levels.

Sleeplessness and Nervousness

If you suffer from muscle spasms, a racing heart, or night sweats, you know how difficult it is to sleep and stay asleep. Constant discomfort and mental disruptions from low magnesium and high potassium levels make it difficult to get quality sleep, even though you may always feel exhausted.

Disorientation, Lightheadedness, and Mood Swings

Hypernatremia, or excessive salt in the blood, can cause weakness and dizziness. You may also experience delirium and seizures, and it even comes when this progresses.

Sore bones

Fatigue, weakness, and inability to focus are all symptoms of hypercalcemia.

Trouble Digesting Food

Your ability to defecate relies on properly contracting the muscles lining your digestive system. Hence, symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and hemorrhoids can be caused by either an excess or deficiency of electrolytes.

Very low salt levels can also trigger nausea and vomiting. If this ailment is not treated, it can lead to headaches, confusion, and breathing difficulties.

Therefore, ensure you immediately visit your doctor should you notice or experience these symptoms or any causes of electrolyte imbalance.

When Should You Consult a Medical Professional?

Those who recognize themselves in the explanations of symptoms below should consult a doctor to learn how to treat and avoid the condition.

Electrolyte Abnormality Diagnosis

Your doctor can identify whether or not you have an electrolyte imbalance by doing a series of tests on you. Urine and blood tests and a discussion of your medical history and any persistent symptoms will likely be performed to diagnose any underlying conditions.

Electrocardiograms (EKGs), ultrasounds, and X-rays of the kidneys are occasionally required to detect serious electrolyte imbalances that might lead to cardiac problems.

The ideal amounts of electrolytes, such as potassium, magnesium, and sodium, will be monitored by your doctor. Since the human body exerts so much effort to maintain a restricted range of electrolyte concentrations, any deviations from this norm are usually rather obvious.

Electrolyte imbalances are detected when a patient has a level that is either too high or too low, as measured in millimoles per liter of blood.

Your doctor may also recommend the following blood tests:

  • Anion gap: This measures the possibility of pH imbalance by comparing the concentrations of various electrolytes.
  • Basic metabolic panel: BMP checks the levels of electrolytes, glucose, and a few toxins in the blood.
  • Comprehensive metabolic panel: CMP tests also assess kidney and liver health using a BMP

How Are Abnormalities in Electrolyte Levels Treated?

Electrolyte imbalances are treated differently based on the type of imbalance present and the underlying cause.

Mineral imbalances can often be treated with specific medications. Among these are:

Intravenous (IV) fluids

Rehydration is facilitated by intravenous (IV) fluids, most often sodium chloride solutions. This is a standard treatment for those dehydrated due to vomiting or diarrhea. Electrolyte deficits can be treated by administering IV fluids with additional nutrients.

Image alt text:  Bag of fluid for IV infusions

Author credits: By NIAID, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Specific Intravenous Meds

Electrolyte equilibrium in the body can be swiftly restored with intravenous medicines. As a bonus, they shield you from harm while you undergo alternative treatment.

Depending on the extent of your electrolyte imbalance, you may be prescribed medications like magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride, and calcium gluconate, among others.

Nutritional Supplements and Oral Medications

Supplements and drugs taken orally are commonly used to treat mineral deficiencies that have persisted. This occurs more frequently in those with chronic renal disease.

Possible drugs and supplements for electrolyte imbalance include:

  • Potassium chloride
  • Magnesium oxide
  • Calcium-based therapies, such as calcium carbonate and sevelamer hydrochloride (Renagel), and lanthanum-based therapies, like Fosrenol

Depending on the causes of electrolyte imbalance, these may help restore electrolyte balance in the short or long term.

Other Methods for Restoring Electrolyte Balance

Restoring or managing electrolyte imbalance requires a combination of treatment methods. Here are some of the ways you can deploy to solve the various types of electrolyte imbalance:

Readjust Your Diet

Determining the causes of electrolyte imbalance is the first step in fixing it. Many people are at risk for a potentially fatal electrolyte imbalance because their diet is high in packaged or processed foods that are high in sodium yet lacking other electrolytes such as magnesium or potassium.

Therefore, regain your health through your diet– reduce your use of processed foods, packaged foods, and restaurant meals, and increase your preparation of fresh, whole foods at home to rectify a mild electrolyte imbalance.

Your diet should primarily consist of whole, unprocessed foods, with a heavy emphasis on getting in sufficient potassium and magnesium-rich produce. Low potassium levels, which can cause blood pressure issues, and magnesium shortage, which can lead to stress, restlessness, and muscular cramps, may be alleviated by eating a diet rich in both minerals.

The amount of calcium in your diet is another factor to think about. Leafy greens, other vegetables, beans, and legumes are excellent plant-based sources of calcium for people who prefer to avoid dairy products. Therefore, raw dairy products are the way to go if you’re trying to get enough calcium into your diet without resorting to supplements.

Limit or Watch Your Consumption of Sodium

Check the salt content of the food you buy pre-prepared before eating it. Excessive salt in the diet causes the kidneys to excrete more water than normal, which can throw off your body’s electrolyte balance.

Here’s how salt functions inside your body:

Sodium causes water retention because water naturally gravitates toward salt. Yet, the inverse is also true: if you’re losing salt, you’re also losing water, which can lead to dehydration and intense thirst. Then hypernatremia, a disorder characterized by abnormally high blood sodium levels, occurs, and it’s more prevalent among the elderly, those with diabetes, and consumers of highly processed foods.

Diarrhea, some diuretics or laxatives, intense exercise, and strenuous exercise without adequate hydration can all lead to salt loss, leading to its own set of complications.

Therefore, monitoring your salt intake might help you avoid uncomfortable symptoms like bloating, fatigue, dehydration, weakness, restlessness, and muscle spasms. Getting enough of the other vital electrolytes is easy if you drink lots of water and consume whole meals.

Verify Your Medicines

Certain drugs, especially those used to manage hypertension, cancer, or other diseases, are among the causes of electrolyte imbalance. For instance, patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer frequently exhibit the most severe kinds of electrolyte imbalance.

The use of diuretics or laxatives can also alter the potassium and sodium levels in the blood and urine. Besides, some diuretics are considered “potassium-sparing; they increase potassium while lowering other electrolytes. This causes stress, racing heartbeats, tummy troubles, and disturbed sleep.

Therefore, discuss with your doctor about adjusting your dose if you’ve recently started a new medicine or supplement and are experiencing mood, energy, heart rate, or sleep problems.

Take in Sufficient Fluids

Electrolyte imbalances result from either a lack of water (dehydration) or an excess of water (overhydration) (too much water). Keeping your sodium and potassium levels from getting either high or too low can be aided by drinking adequate water without causing cell swelling.

Remember to replenish your fluid stores if you’ve been unwell (especially if your fever has caused vomiting or diarrhea). If you don’t drink enough water, you could have several complications, like dehydration, bladder infections, kidney stones, and urinary tract stones. For this reason, taking precautions against dehydration is crucial.


Excessive or too little of one or more body minerals can lead to electrolyte imbalance. Depending on the mineral (calcium, magnesium, potassium), there may be a variety of potential causes and remedies.

If you are having extended diarrhea, sweating, or vomiting, it is crucial to take measures to maintain your body’s water balance. Your doctor may prescribe different doses of your medicine or treat any underlying illnesses that brought on the electrolyte imbalance. You must also ensure you replenish adequately, especially after strenuous exercise or being sick. In the long run, these strategies will keep electrolyte imbalances at bay.