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Electrolyte Loss Can Shock the System

Electrolyte Loss Can Shock the System

If you want to talk shop with endurance athletes such as distance runners and triathletes, or for that matter football and soccer players giving it all in extreme heat, you need to know how to discuss electrolytes. As in, "Be sure you replenish your electrolytes when you start to become dehydrated; otherwise you risk wreaking havoc on your body."

In many sports that involve a whole lot of heavy sweating, it's all about "electrolytes this" and "electrolytes that." That would be all well and good, if anyone really knew what the heck they were talking about. Next time some smug, smart-aleck jock starts spouting off about electrolytes like they are some sort of health expert insider, look them straight in the eye and say something like, "Okay, pal, explain to me exactly what are those electrolytes you keep talking about and what is it they do in terms of keeping us healthy." Silence. There's a whole lot of talk going on about a subject that few people actually know well, other than the fact that your body needs them.

If discussing electrolytes isn't one of your strong suits, but you'd like to get up to speed, relax. We're here to tell you a little bit about electrolytes, which emedicinehealth.com describes as "the smallest of chemicals that are important for the cells in the body to function and allow the body to work. … They generate electricity, contract muscles, move water and fluids within the body, and participate in myriad other activities."

Even if you couldn't define 'electrolytes,' before now anyway, to an inquisitive Pee Wee football wannabe or a gym workout novice seeking guidance, they are familiar to you once you hear their names. Chances are you consume some or all of them in your daily diet, whether or not you know it; their names are sodium, potassium, magnesium, bicarbonate (HCO3), calcium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate (HPO4) and hydrogen carbonate (GCO3).

The best thing is, you don't need a table of periodic elements to grasp the idea that maintaining proper electrolyte levels is important to your short-term, as well potentially your long-term, health. "Electrolytes regulate our nerve and muscle function, our body's hydration, blood pH, blood pressure, and the rebuilding of damaged tissue. Various mechanisms exist in our body that keep the concentrations of different electrolytes under strict control," reports medicalnewstoday.com.

Just so you know, fruits and vegetables are rich in electrolytes, as are some nutritional supplements and sports drinks with names such as Gatorade, PowerAde and Vitamin Water.

So, you ask, what can happen when you lose too many electrolytes through sustained loss of body fluids during exertion, otherwise known as dehydration? Signs and symptoms can include irregular heartbeat, weakness, bone disorders, changes in blood pressure, confusion, seizures, numbness and nervous system disorders, adds medicalnewstoday.com.

It helps in all this to know that our bodies, essentially, operate on electrical currents. The heart, muscle and nerve cells utilize electrolytes to regulate voltages across cell membranes and to transmit electrical impulses across themselves to other cells. In other words, this is nothing to be trifled with.

There are numerous causes besides athletic exertion for imbalances of electrolyte levels, such as kidney disease, vomiting for long periods of times (such as during bouts of the 24-hour bug or during pregnancy), bulimia (a well-known eating disorder that involves eating and then quickly purging meals), congestive heart failure and cancer treatment.

Not all treatments are over the counter. Doctors can also prescribe oral electrolytes to help in the replenishment of fluids lost to vomiting and diarrhea. Consult with your physician if you have any questions about how to be prepared for such circumstances.

Wanna get into the conversation on electrolytes? Start with asking the right questions of the right people – your health care provider.