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Electrolytes - Meaning, Sources, Imbalance

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

What Are Electrolytes?

Water and electrolytes work hand in hand. Water acts as the transport medium for electrolytes to move throughout the body. The electrolytes act as the messenger.

When electrolytes dissolve in the body fluids such as blood, it becomes an electric charge (positive or negative electric charge). That charge sends signals to the heart, muscle cells, and other body cells from the nerves. That charge helps with controlling or managing blood pressure, muscle contraction, hormone regulation, and maintaining fluid balance, just to name a few.

The most common sources of electrolytes are found in minerals or compounds. More specifically the four main sources of electrolytes come from sodium, calcium potassium, and magnesium. Chloride, phosphate, bicarbonate, and sulfate are also sources of electrolytes.

List of Electrolytes: Types of Electrolytes


Sodium carries a positive electrical charge when dissolved in the body’s fluids. An individual needs to consume about 500 mg of sodium daily so the human body can perform normal nerve and muscle functions such as, conducting nerve impulses, contracting and relaxing muscles, controlling blood volume, and maintaining the proper balance of water and minerals.

Sodium is mostly located in the blood and in the fluid around cells (extracellular fluid). The kidney controls the level of sodium in the body. When sodium consumption is too high, the kidney will adjust the amount of sodium excreted in urine or sweat to regain balance.

When sodium levels are too low, the kidney will be triggered to stimulate the adrenal gland. A hormone called aldosterone is secreted so the kidney can retain sodium and will excrete potassium. The pituitary gland will also be triggered resulting in the secretion of vasopressin (antidiuretic hormone) which causes the kidneys to conserve water.

Too little sodium can lead to hyponatremia and too high of sodium can lead to hypernatremia.


Chloride carries a negative electrical charge when dissolved in the body’s fluids. The estimated daily value for chloride is 2,300 mg so the body can balance acids and bases, balance electrolytes, help regulate fluids in the body cells and blood pressure, help the muscles and heart contract, help with digestion, send nerve impulses through the body to the brain, aid red blood cells (release oxygen and in-take carbon dioxide), and preserve electrical neutrality. Chloride is connected to sodium (chloride combined with sodium is commonly called salt) and potassium to maintain a balance between fluids and electrolytes, acids, and bases.

Chloride is most commonly abundant in the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, and lungs. The kidney is responsible for maintaining the proper level of chloride in plasma. Chloride is filtered through the glomeruli and absorbed along the proximal tubule.

Abnormal levels of chloride can lead to a metabolic disorder, metabolic acidosis, or alkalosis.


Potassium carries a positive electrical charge when dissolved in the body’s fluids. The daily recommended intake is 3,500 - 4,700 mg. Potassium's role in the body is to help maintain the balance of fluids, muscle contraction, and support blood pressure.

The collecting duct is the site where potassium is regulated. When the body releases aldosterone, this triggers the collecting duct to release potassium. Potassium is also absorbed through the collecting duct when the body needs to maintain fluid balance inside the body's cells.

Too little potassium can lead to hypokalemia and too high of potassium can lead to hyperkalemia.


Calcium carries a positive electrical charge when dissolved in the body’s fluids. The daily recommended intake is 1,000 mg - 1,200 mg. When you hear calcium, you automatically think that this is a mineral for healthy bones and teeth, but it does much more than that. It helps with blood clotting, blood pressure, muscle contraction, nerve functions, and regulating your heartbeats.

Calcium is absorbed through the lining of the small interesting. The kidney regulates the excretion of calcium when calcium levels are too high or too low. When calcium levels drop too low, parathyroid hormone triggers the bones to release calcium into the bloodstream. When calcium levels are too high, the calcitonin hormone triggers the body to stop releasing calcium and sends a signal to the kidney to excrete the excess levels of calcium.

Too little calcium can lead to hypocalcemia and too high magnesium can lead to hypercalcemia.


Magnesium carries a positive electrical charge when dissolved in the body’s fluids. The daily recommended intake is 400 mg - 420 mg. Magnesium’s role in the body is to support muscle and nerve function, muscle contraction, energy production, making DNA, protein, and bone, regulating your heartbeat, blood sugar, and blood pressure.

Magnesium is absorbed through the small intestine and stored in the body's bones, muscles, and soft tissue. Similar to calcium, the kidney acts as a filter, excreting excess magnesium. Absorbing magnesium is conducted primarily by the thick ascending limb of the loop of Henle (60% - 70%). Some magnesium is absorbed in the distal tubules.

Too little magnesium can lead to hypomagnesemia and too high of magnesium can lead to hypermagnesemia.


Phosphate carries a negative electrical charge when dissolved in the body’s fluids. The daily recommended intake is 700 mg. Phosphorus helps the body to filter out waste through the kidneys, support nerve and muscle function, muscle contraction, making DNA and RNA, manage energy storage and usage, but its main function is to aid in the formation of bones and teeth.

Phosphorus is absorbed through the small intestine and is primarily found in the bones and teeth (roughly 85%). The parathyroid hormone regulates phosphate levels and calcium levels. Vitamin D levels also play a role in regulating the levels of both phosphorus and calcium.

Phosphorus like calcium helps with building bones and teeth. They work together, if the body has too much calcium or phosphorus then it can’t absorb the other mineral. A high level of phosphates can lead to hyperphosphatemia and a low level of phosphates can lead to hypophosphatemia.


Bicarbonates differ from the other sources of electrolytes listed above, rather than being a mineral, bicarbonates are a component of salts. It is composed of two hydrogen atoms, one carbon atom, and three oxygen atoms. It carries a negative electrical charge when dissolved in the body’s fluids. Bicarbonates act as a buffering system to regulate the pH level in the body.

Since bicarbonate is a component of salt, it is partially reabsorbed during sodium reabsorption. Bicarbonate can be absorbed through a process called sodium hydrogen exchange. Hydrogen secretion takes place in the renal tubule and reacts with bicarbonate to form carbonic acid.

Unbalanced pH level in the body can lead to a metabolic disorder, metabolic acidosis, or alkalosis

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