What happens when your electrolytes are too low?

Electrolytes are minerals in your body that have an electric charge. They are in your blood, urine and body fluids. Your muscles and nerves work properly because of a normal balance of electrolytes. Sodium, calcium, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and chloride are all electrolytes. You get them from the foods you eat and the fluids you drink.

Levels of electrolytes can become too low if you have severe vomiting, diarrhea, sweating from exercise or heat exposure, or drinking too much water. Not drinking enough fluid can also cause electrolyte imbalances. Medicines or problems with your kidneys can also affect electrolyte levels. Some people choose to have elective electrolyte infusions, but it’s important to be aware of the health risks and safety concerns.

When electrolyte levels drop too low, it can be a serious concern. Here’s a look at the importance of electrolytes and how to tell if yours are too low.

What are the main types of electrolytes?

There are six major electrolytes:

– Sodium
– Potassium
– Chloride
– Calcium
– Phosphate
– Magnesium

These minerals dissolve into particles that conduct electricity when mixed with water. They’re essential for many body functions.


Sodium, sometimes called salt, helps control blood pressure and blood volume. Sodium levels are largely controlled by your kidneys. Most people get more than enough sodium from foods and beverages. Processed foods and restaurant meals tend to be very high in sodium.


Potassium has many jobs, including helping muscles contract, controlling your heart rhythm and managing waste. Many fruits, vegetables, dairy foods, fish and meat contain potassium. The mineral is especially plentiful in potatoes, citrus fruits, tomatoes and bananas.


Chloride, like sodium, helps keep the right balance of bodily fluids. This electrolyte is largely reabsorbed by the kidneys. Table salt is sodium chloride, so adding salt to foods adds chloride at the same time.


Known for its role in keeping bones and teeth strong and healthy, calcium also assists muscles, nerves and heart function. Dairy products are excellent sources of calcium. Spinach, broccoli, oranges, almonds and soy products also provide this mineral.


Most dietary phosphate comes from protein-rich foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and milk products. Phosphate levels typically remain stable without much conscious dietary effort.


Magnesium helps regulate muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Leafy greens, whole grains, legumes, dairy foods, fish and chocolate are good sources. Since magnesium is removed from many processed foods, deficiency is relatively common.

What causes low electrolytes?

Many factors can lead to low electrolyte levels. Possible causes include:

– Severe vomiting or diarrhea from gastroenteritis, food poisoning or medications
– Dehydration from exercise, sweating, fever or inadequate fluid intake
– Poor appetite, malnutrition or eating disorders
– Alcoholism
– Diuretics or certain other drugs that increase urine excretion
– Chronic conditions like diabetes and kidney disease
– Adrenal, thyroid or pituitary gland disorders
– Rare hereditary electrolyte transport disorders

Gastrointestinal losses

Throwing up or having diarrhea, especially for prolonged periods, can lead to dehydration and the excessive loss of fluids and electrolytes. If the imbalance isn’t corrected, low electrolytes can cause medical problems.

Heavy sweating

Sweating heavily without replenishing fluids, which happens during strenuous exercise and in heat waves or fevers, can also deplete needed electrolytes. Athletes and outdoor workers have to make sure they drink enough of the right beverages.

Inadequate intake

Consuming too little calcium, magnesium or potassium from whole foods or supplements can lead to insufficient levels. Some fad diets very low in carbohydrates can result in minimal potassium intake. Eating disorders, alcoholism, fasting and starvation can also cause electrolyte deficits.


Some types of diuretics, laxatives, corticosteroids and lithium may affect electrolyte balance, especially sodium and potassium. Amphotericin B, a drug that treats systemic fungal infections, often causes low magnesium and potassium levels.

Underlying conditions

Various chronic diseases are associated with improper electrolyte levels. These include congestive heart failure, kidney disorders, hyperaldosteronism, hyperparathyroidism, hypothyroidism and diabetes. Rare genetic disorders can impair absorption or transport of electrolytes.

What are symptoms of low electrolytes?

Mildly low electrolyte levels may not cause any symptoms. More significant deficits can produce the following:

– Fatigue, weakness, muscle aches or spasms
– Dizziness, lightheadedness, confusion
– Headaches
– Irregular heartbeat, chest pain
– Nausea, vomiting
– Muscle twitches or tremors
– Tingling or numbness
– Constant hunger, even after eating
– Frequent urination
– Poor appetite or indigestion
– Restlessness and anxiety
– Cramping during exercise
– Seizures

Severe electrolyte imbalances can be life-threatening. Emergency medical care is needed for serious symptoms like seizures, heart arrhythmias or a near loss of consciousness.


Mild to moderate hyponatremia, or insufficient sodium levels, may cause nausea, muscle cramps, fatigue, confusion and headache. With severe deficiency, symptoms can include restlessness, irritability, muscle weakness and spasms, seizures and coma.


Low potassium, called hypokalemia, can result in many of the general symptoms above. Severe potassium deficiency contributes to abnormal heart rhythms, paralysis, muscle damage and even cardiac arrest.


Hypocalcemia, or calcium deficiency, is uncommon from dietary inadequacy alone. Low calcium levels usually occur when vitamin D levels are insufficient or the parathyroid glands don’t work properly. Symptoms might include tingling, muscle cramps, delirium, lethargy and depression.


Signs of hypomagnesemia include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and muscle contractions. Without treatment, severe magnesium deficiency can lead to numbness, seizures, irregular heartbeat and coronary spasms.

When should you go to the emergency room?

Seek immediate medical care if you experience any of the following more worrisome symptoms:

– Fainting or near loss of consciousness
– Chest pain, irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations
– Shortness of breath
– Severe muscle weakness
– Seizures
– Sudden behavior changes, hallucinations, delirium or paranoia
– Tingling or numbness

Emergency treatment for critically low electrolyte levels may include IV fluids, electrolyte infusions and medications. Prompt medical care can restore blood mineral content before permanent health damage occurs.

How are low electrolyte levels diagnosed?

A doctor can check for low electrolyte levels with a simple blood test. Results are usually available within a day. Standard electrolyte panels measure levels of sodium, potassium, chloride and bicarbonate. Other electrolytes like calcium or magnesium may be evaluated with separate tests if symptoms suggest they might be out of balance.

Reference ranges for normal electrolyte values are:

Electrolyte Normal Range
Sodium 135-145 mEq/L (milliequivalents per liter)
Potassium 3.5-5 mEq/L
Chloride 95-110 mEq/L
Magnesium 1.5-2.5 mEq/L
Calcium 8.6-10.3 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter)

What is the treatment for low electrolyte levels?

Treatment aims to reverse electrolyte imbalances and prevent complications. Steps include:

– Discontinuing medications that might be causing depletion, like diuretics or laxatives
– Addressing and resolving any underlying medical conditions
– Consuming more electrolyte-rich foods and beverages
– Taking over-the-counter electrolyte replacement supplements
– Receiving IV fluids containing electrolytes
– Getting prescription medications that reduce potassium loss

For mild deficits, eating more electrolyte-rich foods and avoiding excess water intake may be sufficient. Moderate to severe electrolyte imbalances usually require medical intervention.


Adding more salt to foods or consuming salty snacks can treat mild hyponatremia. Intravenous saline solutions quickly correct dangerously low sodium levels. Fluid restriction helps reverse dilutional hyponatremia from retaining excess water.


Eating potassium-rich foods like tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, dairy, oranges and beans can help correct hypokalemia. But severe potassium deficiency requires immediate treatment with IV or prescription potassium.


Increasing dietary calcium from milk, yogurt, greens, nuts and fortified foods can help improve hypocalcemia. Calcium supplements may also be recommended.


Magnesium supplements, muscle rubs and Epsom salt baths can restore mild to moderate magnesium deficiency. Prescription magnesium is used for critically low levels.

Can you reverse low electrolytes through diet?

If low electrolyte levels aren’t too severe, making dietary changes can often restore balance. Some foods that are high in key electrolytes include:


– Pickles
– Pretzels
– Ham, pastrami
– Baked beans
– Bouillon cubes or soup broth
– Soy sauce
– Cheese


– Baked potato with skin
– Milk, yogurt
– Prunes, plums, apricots
– Lentils
– Spinach
– Salmon
– Bananas


– Milk
– Yogurt
– Cheese
– Tofu
– Collard greens
– Almonds
– Fortified cereals, juices


– Beans
-Whole grains
– Dark leafy greens
– Avocados
– Nuts and seeds
– Fatty fish
– Bananas

Focusing on electrolyte-rich foods and avoiding excessive sodium or fluid intake can often correct mild deficits without medical treatment. But if low electrolyte symptoms persist or worsen, see your doctor.

Can electrolyte infusions boost health?

Receiving intravenous fluids containing electrolytes has legitimate medical uses. When recommended by your doctor, IV electrolyte solutions can quickly improve:

– Severe dehydration
– Intractable vomiting or diarrhea
– Dangerously high or low electrolyte levels
– Very low magnesium during pregnancy
– Fluid loss after blood loss or burns

However, some alternative medicine clinics now offer IV electrolyte drips even when there is no medical necessity. Many claims are exaggerated about the benefits of these elective treatments.

Potential risks of unnecessary IV electrolytes include:

– Blood clots or vein inflammation from the IV
– Infection
– Fluid overload
– Mineral excesses or imbalances
– Interactions with medications you take

The FDA also warns that inadequate sterilization of equipment and poor injection technique can spread infections at facilities offering IV therapies. Make sure any clinic is properly licensed.

Talk to your doctor before considering elective electrolyte infusions, which should be reserved for treating actual deficiencies when medically warranted.

Can drinking an electrolyte sports drink help?

Sports drinks can effectively and conveniently replenish electrolytes lost through heavy sweating. During demanding athletic events like marathons, a well-formulated sports beverage can help:

– Replace sodium and potassium lost in sweat
– Provide carbohydrates for energy
– Promote fluid absorption
– Prevent dehydration

Drinking sports beverages can benefit other people who engage in prolonged vigorous activity in hot weather, like outdoor laborers, soldiers in training and endurance exercisers.

However, many people drink these beverages in less strenuous circumstances where they provide excess calories without clear benefit. Water is a healthy rehydration option for more moderate activity.


Electrolytes like sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium perform many crucial roles in sustaining normal body functions. Even mild deficits can lead to unpleasant symptoms. When electrolyte imbalance is more severe, it becomes a medical emergency requiring prompt treatment.

Diarrhea, vomiting, heavy sweating and some medications are common causes of depleted electrolyte levels. Eating more mineral-rich foods can often raise low levels. But medical care involving IV electrolyte solutions may be needed for more significant imbalances that don’t quickly resolve on their own. Always see your doctor for evaluation of persistent electrolyte-deficiency symptoms.

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