In physiology, the primary ions of electrolytes are sodium(Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), chloride (Cl−), hydrogen phosphate (HPO42−), and hydrogen carbonate (HCO3−). The electric charge symbols of plus (+) and minus (−) indicate that the substance in question is ionic in nature and has an imbalanced distribution of electrons, which is the result of chemical dissociation.
All known higher lifeforms require a subtle and complex electrolyte balance between the intracellular and extracellular milieu. In particular, the maintenance of precise osmotic gradients of electrolytes is important. Such gradients affect and regulate the hydration of the body, blood pH, and are critical for nerve and muscle function. Various mechanisms exist in living species that keep the concentrations of different electrolytes under tight control.
Both muscle tissue and neurons are considered electric tissues of the body. Muscles and neurons are activated by electrolyte activity between the extracellular fluid or interstitial fluid, and intracellular fluid. Electrolytes may enter or leave the cell membrane through specialized protein structures embedded in the plasma membrane called ion channels. For example, muscle contraction is dependent upon the presence of calcium (Ca2+), sodium (Na+), and potassium (K+). Without sufficient levels of these key electrolytes, muscle weakness or severe muscle contractions may occur.
Electrolyte balance is maintained by oral, or in emergencies, intravenous (IV) intake of electrolyte-containing substances, and is regulated by hormones, generally with the kidneys flushing out excess levels. In humans, electrolyte homeostasis is regulated by hormones such as antidiuretic hormone, aldosterone and parathyroid hormone. Serious electrolyte disturbances, such as dehydration and overhydration, may lead to cardiac and neurological complications and, unless they are rapidly resolved, will result in a medical emergency.
Measurement of electrolytes is a commonly performed diagnostic procedure, performed via blood testing with ion selective electrodes or urinalysis by medical technologists. The interpretation of these values is somewhat meaningless without analysis of the clinical history and is often impossible without parallel measurement of renal function. Electrolytes measured most often are sodium and potassium. Chloride levels are rarely measured except for arterial blood gas interpretation since they are inherently linked to sodium levels. One important test conducted on urine is the specific gravity test to determine the occurrence of electrolyte imbalance.
Electrolytes are commonly found in sports drinks. In oral rehydration therapy, electrolyte drinks containing sodium and potassium salts replenish the body's water and electrolyte levels after dehydration caused by exercise, diaphoresis, diarrhea, vomiting, intoxication or starvation. Athletes exercising in extreme conditions (for three or more hours continuously e.g. marathon or triathlon) who do not consume electrolytes, risk dehydration (or hyponatremia).
Because sports drinks typically contain high levels of sugar, they are not recommended for regular use by children. Water is considered the only essential beverage for children during exercise. Medicinal rehydration sachets and drinks are available to replace the key electrolyte ions lost during diarrhea and other gastro-intestinal distresses. Dentists recommend that regular consumers of sports drinks observe precautions against tooth decay.
A simple electrolyte drink can be home-made by using the correct proportions of water, sugar, salt, salt substitute for potassium, and baking soda. However, effective electrolyte replacements should include all electrolytes required by the body, including sodium chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium that can be either obtained in a sports drink or a solid electrolyte capsule.
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