Introduction to Electrolytes: Part 1

Cell electrolytes
Electrolytes passing through cells (click to enlarge)
One topic that frequently comes up in connection with kidney disease is electrolytes. They play an important role in the body, and relate particularly to kidney malfunction. But what are they, and what do they actually do? We will explore this topic in several installments, to try to explain how electrolytes work, and why their levels are important to monitor when you have impaired kidneys.


Electrolytes are substances that are electrically charged, or ionized. Because of this charge, they can carry electrical impulses along the nerves and muscles. These substances are, in fact, what make most parts of the body function at all. And if they aren’t present in proper levels, or certain types are out of balance, the body begins to suffer the consequences.
So for example, you may have some electrolytes carried along in the blood, and they would pass through membranes and cell walls into muscle tissue, to transmit impulses that make the tissue contract. Muscle contraction depends on the presence of three electrolytes in particular: Calcium (Ca2+), Sodium (Na+), and Potassium (K+), with the plus or minus values indicating what sorts of ions they are. Lower the levels of these three too much, or put them out of balance, and muscle function suffers.

So how does this relate to kidney disease? The kidneys play a major role in regulating fluids (which contain electrolytes) in the body. So when the kidneys are impaired or fail, this often throws out the balance, or results in a surfeit of some electrolytes. If this problem isn’t addressed, other parts of the body can be affected in serious ways, some of them potentially fatal.

In the next few installments, we’ll discuss specific types of electrolyte problems that are most closely associated with kidney disease. We’ll look at symptoms, but we’ll also try to discover ways to restore electrolyte levels and return to a safer, more healthy balance.

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