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  • Writer's pictureSandra Witt

Electrolytes … no they are not just salt!

What is an Electrolyte?

An electrolyte is a substance that conducts electricity when dissolved in water. The essential electrolytes are sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, chloride, calcium, and phosphate. These elements are critical in the body’s process of generating energy, maintaining the stability of cell walls, and overall function in general and are essential for a number of bodily functions. Electrolytes can be acids, bases, or salts and they can be measured separately by different blood tests.

Electrolytes keep the body hydrated so muscles and nerves can function properly; they regulate nerve and muscle function, balance blood acidity and pressure, and help rebuild damaged tissues.

So how does all this work?

Many automatic processes in the body rely on a small electric current to function and electrolytes provide this charge. The heart, muscle, and nerve cells use electrolytes to carry electrical impulses to other cells. These tissues rely on the movement of electrolytes through the fluid inside, outside, and between cells to provide the charges that helps muscles contract (think heartbeat), move water and fluids through the body, and support countless other activities.

Electrolytes interact with each other and the cells within tissues, nerves, and muscles; a balance of different electrolytes is vital for healthy function. For example for a muscle to contract, it needs a balance of calcium, sodium, and potassium. If these elements are out of balance the result is muscle weakness or cramping.

The level of any electrolyte in the blood can become too high or too low, resulting in an imbalance. Levels can change in relation to water levels in the body (hydration) as well as being are lost through sweating or a rapid fluid loss from diarrhea or vomiting (depletion). Lost electrolytes must be replaced to maintain healthy, balanced levels and water must be replaced to regain hydration… more on replacement later.

The concentration of electrolytes in the body is regulated by hormones. Hormones are a regulatory substance produced by an organism, which stimulate cells or tissues into action. The one we’re all most familiar with are the sex hormones that influence a bird’s behavior and mood. Other hormones like renin (from the kidneys), angiotensin (from lungs, brain and heart), aldosterone (adrenal gland), and anti-diuretic hormone (from the pituitary) keep the electrolyte balance in check.


Renin is an enzyme (a type of protein produced by cells) that changes the rate of a chemical reaction in the body. Renin is part of a group of linked hormones, which form the renin–angiotensin–aldosterone system. This “system” regulates blood pressure and is activated when there’s a decrease in blood flow to the kidneys following loss in blood volume or a drop in blood pressure as might happen with a hemorrhage.

Angiotensin is a protein hormone that causes blood vessels to become narrower. It helps to maintain blood pressure and fluid balance in the body.

Aldosterone is a hormone mainly acting on the kidneys and colon to increase the amount of sodium which is reabsorbed into the bloodstream and to increase the amount of potassium excreted in the urine. Aldosterone also causes water to be reabsorbed along with sodium which increases blood volume and thus blood pressure.

Anti-diuretic hormone is made by specialized nerve cells at the base of the brain known as the hypothalamus. These nerve cells transport the hormone through the nerve fibers (axons) to the pituitary gland where the hormone is released into the bloodstream. Anti-diuretic hormone helps to control blood pressure by acting on the kidneys and the blood vessels. Its most important role is to conserve fluid volume by reducing the amount of water passed in the urine. It does this by allowing water in the urine to be taken back into the body in a specific area of the kidney. More water returns to the bloodstream, urine concentration rises, and water loss is reduced. Higher concentrations of anti-diuretic hormone cause blood vessels to constrict which increases blood pressure.

When the body detects an out-of-balance condition, this system works to conserve as much fluid as possible, but dehydration is only resolved by increasing water intake yet water doesn't contains electrolytes. Taking in too much water without replenishing the electrolytes can result in diluting the electrolytes which may result in a potentially fatal situation.

When the kidneys are functioning properly, they are able to regulate electrolytes and fluid levels in the body. The body requires large amounts of potassium to function and 90% of the body’s potassium lies within the cellular walls. For this reason, it is essential to replenish electrolytes on a daily basis through intake of fluids and foods.

Replenishing Electrolytes

The best way of replenishing electrolytes is from food. This is another reason why a balanced and well planned diet is so important. Foods that naturally increase electrolytes include most fruits and vegetables.

Fruits & Vegetables

Apples, corn, beets, carrots and green beans … are these all rich in electrolytes. Other electrolyte-laden items include limes, lemons, oranges, sweet potatoes, artichokes, all types of squash and tomatoes. For best results, choose fruits and vegetables that are organic.

Dark Leafy Greens

Most greens are a great source of the major required electrolytes. Spinach, in particular, is high in minerals. You can choose from kale, beet greens, mustard greens, bok choy, and chard, to name a few. Each of these greens holds sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, as well as “prebiotics” that foster good gut flora and digestion.


Specifically, bananas are a great source of electrolytes since they are rich in minerals. Potassium is a key form of electrolytes and this fruit it one of the richest sources of potassium on the planet.

Nuts and seeds

Most nuts and seeds are very high in electrolytes. For best results, choose nuts that are unprocessed and organic. Almonds, cashews, walnuts, sesame seeds, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, and pistachios are all good sources of electrolytes.


Red, mung, white and pinto beans are the highest in mineral-rich electrolytes. Beans should be properly prepared and fully cooked (except mung beans which can be sprouted).

What causes electrolyte imbalances?

There are several reasons for an electrolyte imbalance:

  • Organ disease, like kidney disease, congestive heart failure

  • Dehydration and loss of electrolytes from prolonged vomiting, diarrhea, or sweating

  • Poor, unbalanced diet that doesn’t naturally replace these key elements

  • Imbalance of the acid-base and alkalis in the body

  • Drugs such as diuretics

  • Age as organs become less efficient over time.

What are the symptoms of electrolyte imbalance?

Symptoms will depend on which electrolyte is out of balance and whether the level of that substance is too high or too low. A harmful concentration of magnesium, sodium, potassium, or calcium can produce one or more of the following:

  • irregular heartbeat

  • weakness

  • bone disorders

  • twitching

  • confusion

  • seizures

  • nervous system disorders

  • excessive tiredness

  • convulsions

  • muscle spasm

A calcium excess can also occur. Signs and symptoms of excessive calcium may include:

  • frequent urination

  • irregular heartbeat

  • lethargy

  • fatigue

  • moodiness and irritability

  • nausea

  • stomach pain

  • vomiting

  • extreme muscle weakness

  • thirst

  • total loss of appetite

  • coma

  • confusion

  • constipation

These symptoms can also be the result of other causes so this is why it is critical for regular wellness visits with complete blood chemistry testing. That is the only way to determine the overall health of your bird, and that information should be used to make adjustments to the diet as well as provide you and your Vet information to indicate the need for further testing to determine if there’s an underlying medical cause.

Specific Electrolytes ... Information

Sodium (Na)

Sodium is most often found outside the cell, in the plasma (the non-cell part) of the bloodstream. Since water goes where the sodium goes, it is a significant part of water regulation in the body. If there is too much sodium in the body, due to high salt intake in the diet (salt is sodium plus chloride), it is excreted by the kidney, and water follows. Sodium is an important electrolyte that helps with electrical signals in the body, allowing muscles to fire and the brain to work. It is half of the electrical pump at the cell level that keeps sodium in the plasma and potassium inside the cell.

Sodium Imbalance …

Hypernatremia (too much sodium in the blood) is usually associated with dehydration, and instead of having too much sodium, there is too little water. This water loss can occur from illnesses with vomiting or diarrhea, excessive sweating, or from drinking fluid that has too high concentrations of salt.

Hyponatremia (too little sodium in the blood) is caused by water intoxication (drinking so much water that it dilutes the sodium in the blood and overwhelms the kidney's compensation mechanism) or by a syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone secretion which can be associated with illnesses like pneumonia, brain diseases, cancer, thyroid problems, and some medications.

Symptoms of Sodium Imbalance

Too much or too little sodium can cause cells to malfunction. Lethargy, confusion, weakness, swelling, seizures, and coma are some symptoms that can occur with hyper - or hyponatremia. The treatment of these conditions is dependent on the underlying cause, but it is important for the health care practitioner to understand the reason for the abnormal sodium level and correct the sodium imbalance in a controlled manner. Rapid correction can cause abnormal flow of water into or out of cells. This is especially important to prevent brain cell damage.

Potassium (K)

Potassium is most concentrated inside the cells of the body. The gradient, or the difference in concentration from within the cell compared to the plasma, is essential in the generation of the electrical impulses in the body that allow muscles and the brain to function.

Potassium Imbalance ...

Hyperkalemia (too much potassium in the blood) is a potentially life-threatening situation because it causes abnormal electrical conduction in the heart and potentially life-threatening heart rhythm problems. High potassium levels are most often associated with kidney failure, in which potassium levels build up and cannot be excreted in the urine. Medications can be used to lower potassium levels until the kidneys are able to excrete the excess in the urine. However, emergency dialysis may be required to remove the potassium if kidney function is poor.

Hypokalemia (too little potassium in the blood) is most often seen when the body loses too much potassium from causes like vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, and use of diuretics or laxatives. It is often seen in diabetic ketoacidosis, where potassium is excessively lost in the urine. Since chemicals in the body are related in their metabolism, low magnesium levels can be associated with hypokalemia.

Calcium (Ca)

Calcium levels are controlled by calcitonin, which promotes bone growth and decreases calcium levels in the blood, and parathyroid hormone, which does the opposite. Calcium is bound to the proteins in the bloodstream, so the level of calcium is related to the patient's nutrition as well as the calcium intake in the diet. Calcium metabolism in the body is closely linked to magnesium levels. Often, the body's magnesium status needs to be optimized before the calcium levels can be treated.

Calcium Imbalance ...

Hypercalcemia (too much calcium in the blood) is associated with kidney stones, abdominal pain, and depression. Also, too much calcium can be associated with heart rhythm disturbances. Causes of hypercalcemia include parathyroid tumors, other tumors including cancer, excess amounts of Vitamin A or D, and kidney failure.

Hypocalcemia (too little calcium in the blood) is usually associated with eating disorders or lack of parathyroid hormone. Symptoms include weakness, muscle spasms, and heart rhythm disturbance.

Magnesium (Mg)

Magnesium is an often forgotten electrolyte that is involved with a variety of metabolic activities in the body, including relaxation of the smooth muscles that surround the bronchial tubes in the lung, skeletal muscle contraction, and excitation of neurons in the brain. Magnesium acts as a cofactor in many of the body's enzyme activities.

Magnesium levels in the body are closely linked with sodium, potassium, and calcium metabolism; and are regulated by the kidney. Magnesium enters the body through the diet, and the amount of the chemical that is absorbed depends upon the concentration of magnesium in the body. Too little magnesium stimulates absorption from the intestine, while too much decreases the absorption.

Magnesium Imbalance ...

Hypomagnesemia (too little magnesium in the blood) may occur because of many reasons. Some have to do with dietary deficiencies, inability of the intestine to absorb the chemical, or due to increased excretion. Common causes of low magnesium in birds is associated malnutrition, chronic diarrhea, and diuretics. Symptoms involve the heart with rhythm abnormalities, muscles with weakness and cramps, and the nervous system which can cause confusion, hallucinations, and seizures.

Hypermagnesemia (too much magnesium in the blood) most often occurs in with kidney function disorders in which the excretion of magnesium is limited. In these cases, too much magnesium intake in the diet may cause elevated magnesium levels. Since the absorption and excretion of magnesium is linked to other electrolytes, other diseases may be associated with high magnesium levels, including diabetic ketoacidosis, adrenal insufficiency, and hyperparathyroidism. Hypermagnesemia is often associated with hypocalcemia (low calcium) and hyperkalemia (high potassium).

Symptoms can include heart rhythm disturbances, muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting, and breathing difficulties.

Bicarbonate (HCO3)

This electrolyte is an important component of the equation that keeps the acid-base status of the body in balance.

Water + Carbon Dioxide = Bicarbonate + Hydrogen

The lungs regulate the amount of carbon dioxide, and the kidneys regulate bicarbonate (HCO3). This electrolyte helps buffer the acids that build up in the body as normal byproducts of metabolism. For example, when muscles are working, they produce lactic acid as a byproduct of energy formation. HCO3 is required to be available to bind the hydrogen released from the acid to form carbon dioxide and water. When the body malfunctions, too much acid may also be produced (for example, diabetic ketoacidosis, renal tubular acidosis) and HCO3 is needed to try to compensate for the extra acid production. Measuring the amount of bicarbonate in the blood stream can help the health care practitioner decide how severe the acid-base balance of the body has become.


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