clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

ELECTROLYTES PART OF BODY'S DELICATE BALANCING ACT

Question: Please write a column about electrolyte imbalance.

- A.C.

Answer: An electrolyte carries an electric charge in a solution. Body electrolytes are sodium, potassium, chloride and bicarbonate.

"Electrolyte balance" refers to the competing or balancing nature of body electrolytes. In the best of biological worlds, positively charged sodium and potassium electrolytes stay in careful balance with the negatively charged chlorides and bicarbonates.

Beyond this simple understanding, things get a bit arcane, but our high-school chemistry hints at what a shift from a normal chemical status might mean. The names of the four electrolytes themselves offer hints.

A single example tells us what follows from the slightest change in our chemical status quo. Diuretics - or "water pills," as we sometimes refer to them - foster the release of body fluid, including its sodium and potassium. In some people, that can lead to untoward events, such as interference with nerve-controlled functions. The heart might start acting up, beating chaotically. Other muscles might cramp.

Drugs do not have to be involved. An illness featuring vomiting or severe diarrhea can cause a similar decline in key electrolytes, with well-known physical symptoms.

How the body maintains health amid all the chemistry goes to the irreducible core of life itself.

Question: My husband just had a heart attack, and at the hospital he was given a drug called a "clot buster." He says it's new, but I remember getting a similar drug for my leg clot years ago. Can you settle this?

- R.K.

Answer: Your husband got a different medicine than you got years ago. The drug your husband received at the hospital dissolves clots in heart arteries. Such drugs are streptokinase or plasminogen activators. "Clot busting" is an interesting description of their action.

You got heparin. Rather than dissolving a clot, heparin prevents clots from enlarging. An enlarged clot poses the danger of breaking up, sending a section off in the circulation to cause serious mischief or death itself should it enter lung circulation.

Question: I am reasonably active exercise-wise. My doctor said my blood shows subclinical hypothyroidism. He gave me thyroid medicine for that. I have no thyroid symptoms, so am reluctant to take the medicine. I also have a high cholesterol level despite my care over the years to eat well and avoid fats. Please offer a suggestion.

- Mrs. E.W.

Answer: Your blood test says your thyroid is not up to par, even though your body says you're fine. That's what "subclinical" means - illness without outward symptoms.

Your medicine should correct any sluggishness or drying of skin, which are among the many things that can happen to a person with an underactive thyroid.

Your high blood cholesterol despite a stringent diet might be linked to a sluggish thyroid.

Low thyroid and high cholesterol don't necessarily go together. But it's worth noting.

Continue with your medicine, Mrs. W., and you'll be fine.

Question: You discussed leg cramps recently. I am a victim of them. I have been taking vitamin E for them for the past two years. I have never had a leg or foot cramp since starting. Just want to pass it along.

- Mrs. B.W.

Answer: You are not the first reader to write me offering a vitamin E answer to the painful leg-cramp problem. I have no proof for or against the idea. Perhaps we will hear from others familiar with such therapy.