Can an electrolyte imbalance be fatal? Plus, a DIY electrolyte drink recipe

Can an electrolyte imbalance be fatal? Plus, a DIY electrolyte drink recipe

Electrolytes are often associated with sports and we tend to relegate it as only crucial to exercise enthusiasts, but there’s more to electrolytes than just replacing sweat losses.

Our lives depend on the electricity given off by electrolytes. Without sufficient electrolytes aiding the body’s electrical currents, it’d be impossible for us to move, think, or feel!

We could even have a heart attack if our heart doesn’t contract correctly because of irregular electrical currents due to an electrolyte imbalance. And anyone can experience electrolyte imbalance due to multiple reasons, which we explore in today’s article.

So, what are these electrolytes, and how can we tell we have an imbalance?

We explore all this and more below with our own Chief Science Educator at The Health Sciences Academy and UCL Doctoral Researcher, Alex Ruani. Including an easy recipe to make your own electrolyte drink at home.

Get ready to discover eye-opening insights!

Why do we need electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge. Because of this, they keep the ‘electric tissues’ of your body operational, including your neurons and your muscle tissue. Without sufficient electrolytes aiding these electrical currents, it’d be impossible for us to move, think, or feel!

Our lives depend on this electricity given off by electrolytes.

For example, think of muscle contraction – not just your abs or biceps, but also your heart is a muscle.

The contraction of your muscles, whether it’s your heart or your biceps, depends on the electrical charges of potassium, sodium, and calcium. But if muscle cells and their surrounding areas have low levels of these important electrolytes, your muscles won’t be responding as you’d like them to, and even your heart muscle could get weaker.

Or we could have a heart attack if our heart doesn’t contract correctly because of irregular electrical currents due to an electrolyte imbalance.

Certain hormones, with the help of our kidneys, help maintain electrolyte balance in the body. But dehydration or overhydration will disturb this electrolyte balance, leading to cardiac arrest and brain damage if unresolved.

How do we tell if we’re deficient?

In general, we take in sufficient electrolytes from the foods we eat.

But electrolyte concentrations can dip significantly if we:

  • become dehydrated from exercise
  • sweating heavily
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • intoxication (including excessive alcohol intake)
  • or starvation

That’s why some of the symptoms of low electrolyte levels correspond to those we experience from dehydration, such as headaches, wooziness or light-headedness, muscle cramps and spasms, nausea, sluggishness, and a general sense of fatigue.

Why are they essential for exercise?


Replenishing your water and electrolytes losses after training is important for recovery, particularly when you engage in exercise lasting longer than 2 hours or in vigorous exercise for an hour or longer. You could be losing as much as 2 litres of fluids and accompanying electrolytes in just one hour of strenuous exercise in extremely warm or humid conditions.


When we lose excessive amounts of fluids and the accompanying electrolytes during exercise, our blood volume goes down, and the heart has to work harder to pump blood, so moving becomes a lot harder too, and performance deteriorates. Your maximal aerobic capacity could fall by over 30% at this point, and your breathing would become more laboured, potentially followed by some dizziness, weakness, or confusion.


In these dramatic instances, it’s crucial to replenish fluid and electrolyte losses rapidly, such as with sports drinks designed with the ideal water to electrolyte ratio to quickly rehydrate and re-establish electrolyte balance in muscles and nerves to mitigate adverse health consequences.


But be cautious about drinking too much water at once during or after exercise, which can cause electrolyte levels to become too low or too diluted. This can literally drown the brain and be life-threatening. Over-hydrating at once can dilute the blood while also causing levels of sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes to fall and a flood of water into brain cells.

Severe hyponatremia or water poisoning can lead to sudden brain swelling, seizures, coma, breathing arrest, and death. Hyponatremia can also occur if there is an underlying medical condition where the kidneys cannot process all the water, primarily by excreting it through urination. 

What are some myths about replenishing our electrolytes?

Electrolytes are primarily found in foods, but drinks can also be fortified with electrolytes, such as sports drinks.

But it’s a misconception that we should only use fluids to replenish our electrolytes, as eating a main meal would usually achieve this, even for the active exerciser after an hour of training.

Electrolytes are found in the foods we eat, and we usually don’t need to worry about them. However, prolonged or strenuous exercise, extreme heat or humid conditions, or going without food for long periods means that we need to replenish fluid and electrolyte losses quicker than usual to mitigate the detrimental health effects.

How can we top up our electrolyte levels?


Rich sources of electrolytes include greens (e.g. spinach), fruits (e.g. avocado, olives, and banana), root vegetables (e.g. sweet potato), dairy (e.g. yoghurt and cottage cheese), beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.


Usually, drinks deliver electrolytes into your system faster than food, which takes longer to digest and be absorbed. Unless we experience dramatic fluid and electrolyte losses that need to be urgently replenished, sports drinks aren’t always necessary.

General drinks providing electrolytes include milk, coconut water, beetroot juice, tomato juice, and some plant milks fortified with magnesium and potassium.


Assuming you’re well-hydrated and consuming your regular meals, for intensive exercise lasting 30 minutes or low to moderate exercise lasting less than an hour, drinking water if thirsty is usually sufficient.

But if you’ve experienced large fluid and electrolyte losses through sweat and heat during high-intensity exercise lasting an hour or longer, a DYI sports drink could help by mixing fruit juice and water in a 1 to 3 ratio, plus a pinch of regular table salt.

So if you want to create a litre of your own sports drink and keep it chilled for later, you could mix 250ml of your favourite fruit juice with 750ml of water, plus (optionally) about 1 gram of table salt.

Berry juice, orange juice, apple juice, and pineapple juice naturally contain potassium and sodium, so adding salt to your DYI sports drink is optional.

Your Next Steps

Some clients would prefer to purchase electrolyte supplements to help keep their levels up, but sometimes these supplements are filled with so much sugar or salt, and may not work as intended, resulting in a number of unwanted effects, including excess water retention.

How can you help your clients understand when supplements work and when they may not work and mitigate the risk of harmful intakes?

Getting  specialised by completing the Advanced Dietary Supplements Advisor™ certification is your first step towards acquiring the unique knowledge and skills necessary for helping your clients.

This 27-unit certification is designed to help you build personalised dietary supplements programs for your clients and mitigate the risk of harmful intakes, dangerous combinations, and contraindications.

During this certification, you will learn: 

  • Building a supplement programme for your client
  • Advanced dietary supplements: The best, worst and how they interact
  • Toxicity and safety of vitamins and minerals
  • Immune supporting supplements and so much more

You can check out the curriculum right here, then go here to get the certification.

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