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Heat Exhaustion

From Thomas Easley, RH

For this Summertime Series installment, let’s dive deep into heat exhaustion – a serious consequence of exposure to high temperatures and intense physical activity. We will uncover the complex interplay of physiological processes and biochemical pathways that contribute to this condition and explore herbal preventatives, including the importance of electrolytes. But first, let’s identify its various signs and symptoms.


Signs and Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is characterized by various symptoms, including:


  • Profuse sweating
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Low blood pressure upon standing
  • Muscle cramps
  • Dark-colored urine, a sign of dehydration

You may recall this graphic from Mel’s skin newsletter, but this info is worth repeating, as dark-colored urine is a sign of dehydration.

The Biochemical Pathways Involved in Heat Exhaustion

To unlock the biochemistry behind heat exhaustion, we should appreciate our body’s thermoregulatory processes. Your body meticulously maintains a balance, called homeostasis, where heat production equals heat loss. When this equilibrium is disrupted, it can result in conditions such as heat exhaustion.

1. Thermoregulation and Dehydration: When your body’s temperature soars, due to external heat or physical effort, thermoregulation begins. The hypothalamus – the thermostat of your body – springs into action, prompting sweating as a means of cooling. Comprised of water, sodium, and trace amounts of other electrolytes, sweat serves as a cooling agent. However, when sweating is excessive and not matched with proper fluid and electrolyte intake, dehydration can set in.

2. Impact on Cells: Dehydration may provoke hypovolemia (low blood volume), tampering with nutrient and oxygen delivery to cells. Consequently, cells convert from aerobic (oxygen-dependent) to anaerobic (non-oxygen-dependent) metabolism, yielding lactic acid and other metabolites that can disturb cellular function.

3. Stress Proteins: Furthermore, heat stress can elicit the expression of heat shock proteins (HSPs). These proteins, fondly called stress proteins, work hard to minimize damage by binding to other proteins, ensuring accurate folding and function. But when ongoing heat stress burdens this protection, protein damage and cell death can occur.

Image via BrainKart.

Causes of Heat Exhaustion

While heat exhaustion often stems from a mix of intense physical activity and high temperatures, other factors can also play a part. These include:

  • High humidity, hindering sweat evaporation – a key body cooling mechanism
  • Dehydration, undermining your body’s cooling capacity
  • Wearing excessive clothing, which traps heat and obstructs its dissipation
  • Overindulgence in alcohol, which can dehydrate the body
  • Specific medical conditions, like heart, lung, or kidney diseases, or any conditions causing fever

High humidity hinders sweat evaporation.

The Role of Electrolytes and Preventing Dehydration

Pictured: Citrus sinensis.

Electrolytes – like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium – are essential minerals that carry an electric charge. These minerals conduct electrical impulses, facilitating vital processes such as muscle contractions, nerve signaling, and maintaining fluid balance in the body.

Replenishing electrolytes is crucial during heat exhaustion, as they are not only lost via sweating but are also essential for sustaining proper hydration and preventing dehydration.

Homemade Electrolyte Solution

Whip up a simple yet effective electrolyte solution at home by following these steps:


  1. Mix 1-liter water, ½ teaspoon salt, and 6 teaspoons sugar in a water bottle or resealable container.
  2. Shake well until salt and sugar are completely dissolved.
  3. To improve the taste, add a cup of freshly-squeezed orange juice or lemon juice

The Lick and Chug Method

I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t like drinking electrolyte solutions – luckily, no one said you had to consume the ingredients in the same drink. I get a lot of utility out of licking a big pinch of salt off of my hand and chasing it with fruit juice. This method isn’t as exact, and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone that’s acutely dehydrated, but it’s not hard to dial in for prevention.

Pictured: Spearmint and lemon balm.

Mineral-Rich Herbal Infusions – Hydration Superstars

Quenching your thirst with some iced, sweetened, mineral-rich herbal infusions can contribute to preventing heat exhaustion this summer. These infusions are packed with vitamins and minerals, including electrolytes, improving hydration levels and providing a nutritional boost.

Red Raspberry Leaf: Rich in minerals like magnesium and potassium, red raspberry leaf is a revitalizing and cooling tea that can help with muscle cramps and refresh you on a hot summer day.

Lemon Balm: An excellent source of potassium, lemon balm has a delightfully citrusy and soothing flavor helping to ease anxiety and promote relaxation during the summer heat.

Spearmint: With a high content of calcium, potassium, and magnesium, spearmint infusions can aid in hydration, and the menthol makes you feel cooler.

When using herbal infusions for hydration it’s important to sweeten them.

I know, I know, sugar is the devil (or is it, I see a future blog post on this), but sugars form an integral part of the ‘sodium-glucose cotransport mechanism.’ This biological process is how our bodies absorb water.

In simple terms, glucose (a type of sugar) and sodium are absorbed together in our gut. The presence of glucose facilitates the absorption of sodium, which in turn pulls water into the bloodstream.

Therefore, sugars in rehydration drinks significantly enhance the absorption rate of water and electrolytes, accelerating recovery from dehydration.

When using herbal infusions for hydration it’s important to sweeten them. Sugars in rehydration drinks significantly enhance the absorption rate of water and electrolytes.

Treatment and Prevention of Heat Exhaustion

On spotting heat exhaustion, it is essential to initiate treatment immediately.

  • Rest in a cool place: Find comfort in a shady or air-conditioned environment.
  • Hydrate: Quench your thirst with water, electrolyte-rich beverages, or homemade electrolyte solutions.
  • Cool down: Resort to cool showers, baths, or damp towels to lower body temperature.
  • Loose clothing: Embrace lightweight clothing to allow heat dissipation.
However, prevention is far better than cure.

Precautionary steps involve staying well-hydrated, sidestepping intense activities during the hottest part of the day, donning loose and light-colored clothing, and taking periodic breaks when active on hot days. In addition, incorporating mineral-rich herbal infusions into your hydration strategy can help maintain electrolyte balance and further prevent heat exhaustion.

Keep in mind that heat exhaustion can quickly advance to heat stroke, a life-threatening situation. If symptoms persist or intensify, never hesitate to seek medical assistance.


Deciphering the intricacies of heat exhaustion is critical in preventing this condition. With this knowledge in hand, you’ll be better prepared to enjoy your summer activities while protecting yourself from the adverse effects of extreme heat. Including homemade electrolyte solutions and herbal preventatives, like mineral-rich infusions, will support you in staying cool, well-hydrated, and healthy all summer long.



Stay tuned for our next part of the summertime health challenges email series!