What Happens When Your Body Is Low on Electrolytes?

Reviewed on 6/29/2021

Electrolytes
The role of electrolytes in the body includes prevent cells from shrinking or swelling, enable normal muscle contraction and relaxation, maintain normal blood pressure, maintain normal rhythm and rate of the heart, and more.

Electrolytes are essential in regulating critical bodily functions. When your body is low on electrolytes, whether it’s due to vomiting, diarrhea, or dehydration, it can impair these crucial functions and lead to significant discomfort.

The role of electrolytes in the body include the following:

  • Prevent cells from shrinking or swelling
  • Enable normal muscle contraction and relaxation
  • Maintain normal blood pressure
  • Maintain normal rhythm and rate of the heart
  • Maintain blood pH in the normal range (7.35 to 7.45, slightly alkaline)
  • Maintain brain health and orientation
  • Assist blood clotting
  • Transmit nerve signals from heart, muscle, and nerve cells to other cells
Table: Effect of low electrolytes on the body
Electrolyte Imbalance Normal levels (mEq/L) Effect of low levels

Hyponatremia

(Low sodium

135-145
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Low blood pressure
  • Confusion
  • Lethargy
  • Thirst
  • Severe sodium loss can result in seizures, coma, and death

Hypocalcemia

(Low calcium)

8.5-10.2
  • Muscle irritability
  • Twitches or tics over face or limb muscles
  • Cramps (particularly in legs and back)
  • Severely low calcium level causes muscle spasms, spasms of the larynx (voice box) and seizures
  • Abnormal heart rhythms, atrial fibrillation may also be seen
  • Heart blocks may be observed

Hypokalemia

(Low potassium)

3.5-5.5
  • Muscle weakness
  • Temporary limb paralysis
  • Distension of abdomen
  • Loss of normal intestinal movements
  • Breathing problems
  • Sudden stopping of the heart
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Kidney problems

Hypomagnesemia

(Low magnesium)

1.7-2.2
  • Loss of appetite nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Muscle aches

As magnesium deficiency worsens:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle contractions
  • Cramps
  • Seizures
  • Personality changes such as irritability
  • Abnormal heart rhythms

Hypochloremia

(Low chloride levels)

96-106
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Breathing difficulties

Hypophosphatemia

(Low phosphate levels)

2.5-4.5
  • Muscle weakness
  • In severe cases:
  • Respiratory failure
  • Heart failure
  • Seizures and coma

What causes electrolyte imbalances?

Electrolytes and water in your body are regulated by your kidneys, lungs, and hormones. However, various conditions can cause electrolyte levels in your body to become imbalanced. Although mild imbalances may go undetected, extreme electrolyte imbalances can cause heart and kidney kidneys and in some cases even be life-threatening. Both infants and the elderly are particularly at risk of the dangers of an electrolyte imbalance.

Table: Causes of electrolyte imbalances
Causes Symptoms Treatment
Loss of body fluids
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach flu
  • Fever
  • Excessive sweating
  • Heatstroke
  • Shock due to blood loss
  • Replace fluids with oral rehydration solutions or clear liquids
  • Replace fluids intravenously with saline or Ringer’s lactate
Medications
  • Laxative overuse
  • Steroid use
  • Diuretics
  • Chemotherapy
  • Digitalis
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Stop medications under supervision if possible
  • Replace fluids and electrolytes orally or intravenously
Hormonal diseases
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Addison’s disease
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Treat hormonal imbalances
  • Replace fluids and electrolytes orally or intravenously
Other conditions
  • Emphysema
  • Kidney failure
  • Ingestion of toxins
  • Environmental poisons
  • Sepsis
  • Severe burns
  • Treat the root cause
  • Undergo dialysis to filter out toxins
  • Replace fluids and electrolytes orally or intravenously
Psychiatric causes
  • Anorexia
  • Bulimia
  • Replace fluids and electrolytes orally or intravenously
  • Consume calories as needed
  • Psychiatric counseling is recommended

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References
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4129840/

http://chemocare.com/chemotherapy/side-effects/electrolyte-imbalance.aspx

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