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What Is Bicarbonate?
January 21, 2019
What Is Bicarbonate?
Bicarbonate is a type of electrolyte which is measured to give an estimation of the body’s acid-base balance or pH.
Our body needs electrolytes to keep our fluids balanced and they are needed so our cells can communicate with one another.
What Role Does Bicarbonate Play in The Body?
Bicarbonate is an essential component of the physiological pH buffering system in the human body. Up to ¾ of the carbon dioxide in the human body is converted to carbonic acid which is quickly turned to bicarbonate. Bicarbonate is an alkali so helps to keep the acid-base balance of the body stable.
Bicarbonate alongside water, hydrogen, haemoglobin, phosphate and carbon dioxide makes up the buffering system which is required to act quickly if pH changes are detected.
If bicarbonate levels are too high or too low, then this can suggest that the body is struggling to maintain its acid-base buffering system.
This could be caused by an electrolyte imbalance or the inability to remove carbon dioxide – a waste product – from the body.
Causes Of Low Bicarbonate Levels
The causes of low bicarbonate levels within the body are:
- Intense exercise with inadequate rehydration
- Diarrhoea which leads to dehydration
- Drink huge amounts of water which contain no electrolytes
- Kidney disease
- Metabolic acidosis
It is common to drain your electrolyte stores if you sweat a lot during intense exercise or less intense exercise during hot weather.
Chronic diarrhoea can make you feel unwell and can disrupt your electrolyte balance.
Therefore, it is essential that you remain hydrated as dehydration can also affect your mental status as well as having harmful physical side effects.
However, drinking too much water that does not contain electrolytes can cause overhydration. This can result in your electrolyte levels dropping too low. If they also drop too quickly it can be fatal. So it’s important to sustain the right level of hydration and electrolyte balance during intense exercise.
There are certain diseases that can result in low bicarbonate levels such as chronic kidney disease where the kidneys are not able to remove excess acid from the body.
Metabolic acidosis is another disease that is caused by too much acid being produced in the body and is an underlying cause of low bicarbonate. Metabolic acidosis can cause inflammation, bone disease, and protein-energy wasting.
The symptoms of metabolic acidosis are:
- A fast heart rate
- Weakness and feeling tired
- The need to take long and deep breaths
- Headache and/or confusion
- Loss of appetite, vomiting and/or nausea
Causes Of High Bicarbonate Levels
Equally, increased bicarbonate due to a gain or loss of acid in the body can make you feel unwell.
Ongoing vomiting which results in a loss of acid within the body can be a cause of increased bicarbonate and can lead to dehydration.
Because of the overall cause of an increase or decrease in your bicarbonate levels, you may also have a lack of energy, feel tired or experience a change in your mood.
How Can I Improve My Bicarbonate Levels?
Your diet should consist of plenty of whole foods and less junk or fast food. Eating fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables alongside lean cuts of meat can ensure a good nutrient intake.
Try eating more complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans, legumes, and vegetables. In the body, these complex carbs are turned into glucose (sugar) for energy and help to keep the body hydrated.
Exercise is fundamental to living a healthy lifestyle. But you must always remember to keep yourself sufficiently hydrated.
Every time we sweat through exercise we are losing important fluid, so we need to make sure we replace it to keep our fluid levels balanced.
If you have recently been ill with diarrhoea and/or vomiting, there are rehydration therapy products available to buy from your local pharmacy. These contain the important electrolytes you may have lost as well as restoring your fluid loss too.
- Vaughan-Jones, R, D and Spitzer, K, W. (2002). Role of Bicarbonate in the Regulation of Intracellular pH in the Mammalian Ventricular Monocyte. Biochem Cell Biol: 80(5), pp 579-96.
- Seifter, J, L. (2014). Integration of Acid-Base and Electrolyte Disorders. The New England Journal of Medicine: 4(37), pp 1821-1831.
- Chang, T, I, Oh, H, J and Han, S, H. (2013). A Low Serum Bicarbonate Concentration as a Risk Factor for Mortality in Peritoneal Dialysis Patients. PLoS ONE: 8(12).
This information has been medically reviewed by Dr Thom Phillips
Thom works in NHS general practice and has a decade of experience working in both male and female elite sport. He has a background in exercise physiology and has published research into fatigue biomarkers.
Dr Thom Phillips
Head of clinical services
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