Sodium deficiency and chloride deficiency are associated with a contracted extracellular (ECF) volume and impaired growth in young children and growing rats. In cell culture, lowering sodium in the medium reduces growth factor-stimulated Na+/H+ exchange activity, intracellular pH (pHi), and DNA synthesis. We studied the effect of chronic sodium deficiency and chloride deficiency upon growth, extracellular acid base status, and muscle pHi in young rats. We fed growing rats for 21 days either a control diet, or one deficient in sodium (0.005%), chloride (0.005%), or calories. Muscle pHi was measured using 31phosphorus nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Rats fed either the sodium-deficient or chloride-deficient diet developed ECF volume contraction and hyponatremia; growth in length and weight was impaired. Muscle pHi was decreased (pHi = 7.074 +/- 0.006, 7.078 +/- 0.006 vs. control 7.100 +/- 0.002; P < 0.02). In calorie-restricted rats, growth was impaired but pHi was not affected (pHi 7.103 +/- 0.008). Metabolic alkalosis developed in the chloride-deficient group; acid base status was not affected in the sodium-deficient group. Despite differences in ECF acid base status, both groups had a low muscle pHi. We speculate that the low muscle pHi was a result of the ECF volume contraction and hyponatremia; low muscle pHi may contribute to retarded cell growth.