This article looks at the causes and effects of an electrolyte imbalance. An electrolyte is any substance that contains free ions and can therefore conduct an electric current. In practical terms, electrolytes are salt ions in solution, and physiologically, many are vitally important for basic bodily functions. The main electrolytes important to the body are sodium ions, potassium ions, chloride ions, calcium ions, magnesium ions, bicarbonate ions, phosphate ions, and sulfate ions.
Electrolytes are very tightly controlled in body fluids such as plasma, blood, and interstitial fluid. They must remain in a very specific concentration. When electrolytes fall out of the normal concentration range, it can cause an electrolyte imbalance. Even a small variation in electrolyte concentrations, whether higher or lower than normal, could lead to significant and even life-threatening medical problems.
Electrolyte Imbalance Affects Cell Function
Electrolytes are so important in the body because they are what make it possible for many types of cells to maintain a difference in electrical voltage across their plasma membranes. Nerves, cardiac muscle, and skeletal muscle all rely upon electrolytes to fire in response to the depolarization of the cell membrane. Without electrolytes, and the voltage they create, the body wouldn’t be able to send nerve impulses or cause muscular contractions.
Electrolytes also play a role in maintaining proper pH balance in blood and body fluids. An electrolyte imbalance can cause metabolic acidosis or metabolic alkalosis, which can lead to many negative health consequences.
Eating disorders can cause an electrolyte imbalance. For instance, in Anorexia Nervosa, so little nutrition may be consumed that insufficient electrolytes can be maintained in the blood and body fluids. In addition, in compulsive exercising disorders, excessive electrolytes may be lost through sweat during workouts. Both can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, seizures, organ failure, heart attack, and even death.
Binging and Purging Can Cause Electrolyte Imbalance
In binging and purging eating disorders such as Bulimia, an electrolyte imbalance may result from both excessive vomiting and use of saline or sodium phosphate enemas. When persons vomit regularly, as in Bulimia, stomach acid containing hydrogen ions and chloride ions are lost. This causes a loss of potassium ions and sodium ions and thus low concentrations in the blood. In response, the body creates further electrolyte derangements as it tries to compensate for this loss of vital sodium. The kidneys attempt to retain sodium ions at the expense of hydrogen ions leading to a condition called metabolic alkalosis. Metabolic alkalosis occurs when the blood becomes too basic with a pH greater than 7.4 and can damage the body tissues and even result in death.
Furthermore, using saline or sodium phosphate enemas can also generate a severe electrolyte imbalance. Excessive use of these types of enemas increases sodium and bicarbonate ions while decreasing potassium and calcium ions. New warnings have been added to the labels of these products because they have been associated with death due to an electrolyte imbalance in rare cases.
Engaging in any disordered eating behaviors on the spectrum of eating disorders can result in an electrolyte imbalance. Although the mechanisms may differ whether a person abstains from consuming food, compulsively exercises, or purges via self-induced vomiting or through the use of enemas, a dangerous electrolyte imbalance can result and lead to many negative health consequences, even death.