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What are electrolytes?
Chemically, electrolytes are substances that become ions in solution and acquire the capacity to conduct electricity. Electrolytes are present in the human body, and the balance of the electrolytes in our bodies is essential for normal function of our cells and our organs.
Common electrolytes that are measured by doctors with blood testing include sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate. The functions and normal range values for these electrolytes are described below.
Sodium is the major positive ion (cation) in fluid outside of cells. The chemical notation for sodium is Na+. When combined with chloride, the resulting substance is table salt. Excess sodium (such as that obtained from dietary sources) is excreted in the urine. Sodium regulates the total amount of water in the body and the transmission of sodium into and out of individual cells also plays a role in critical body functions. Many processes in the body, especially in the brain, nervous system, and muscles, require electrical signals for communication. The movement of sodium is critical in the generation of these electrical signals. Therefore, too much or too little sodium can cause cells to malfunction, and extremes in the blood sodium levels (too much or too little) can be fatal.
- Increased sodium (hypernatremia) in the blood occurs whenever there is excess sodium in relation to water. There are numerous causes of hypernatremia; these may include kidney disease, too little water intake, and loss of water due to diarrhea and/or vomiting.
- A decreased concentration of sodium (hyponatremia) occurs whenever there is a relative increase in the amount of body water relative to sodium. This happens with some diseases of the liver and kidney, in patients with congestive heart failure, in burn victims, and in numerous other conditions.
A Normal blood sodium level is 135 - 145 milliEquivalents/liter (mEq/L), or in international units, 135 - 145 millimoles/liter (mmol/L).