Last weekend, amidst planning fun activities for a New York City reunion, my friend suggested we try a salt cave. Her boyfriend was suffering from respiratory problems and given the "holistic" nature of the event, she figured (correctly) I would be up for it.
If not for Groupon, our 45 minute expedition into one of two Himalayan sea salt-filled rooms with dark red mood lighting would have cost us $45/each. Fortunately, we paid half of that. Upon arriving, we were led to choose either the larger, communal salt cave room with lounge chairs around a circle, or the beachy, private room, with blankets to over the mounds of salt crystals below. Given our desire to chat (perhaps contraindicated in a bona fide halo-therapeutic, or salt-therapy, endeavor), we opted for the beach-cave.
Surprisingly, despite the sand-like feel beneath my feet and reddish, sauna-like hue, this dry man-made salt cave was set to a cool, dry 68°F (20°C), free of humidity. Immediately upon walking in, my eyes began to water and within minutes, I felt a mild, frontal headache coming on. Needless to say, I am among the very-salt sensitive, and have had similar reactions at the beach. Not wanting to miss out on any fun with the group, however, I mustered through and allowed my lungs to inhale all the microscopic salt particles expelled into the cave through the halogenerator.
Once inhaled, these salt particles are claimed to absorb irritants, including allergens and toxins, from the respiratory system. Advocates say this process breaks up mucus and reduces inflammation, resulting in clear airways. Asthmatics and COPD patients seem to be the target population who might theoretically derive benefit from this unproven "science."
What does the research show? None of the above. In fact, wet halotherapy, or inhaling concentrated salts via hypertonic saline, has been proven to irritate the airways, causing cough and mucus, which can make asthma worse for some people. Even more worrisome, salt caves could cause bronchoconstriction and impair breathing in those with reactive airway disease, warns several medical societies.
Recently, researchers reviewed 151 articles about salt therapy. They checked for high-quality studies (randomized controlled trials), like those conducted for prescription medications.
Of the 151 studies, only one was a randomized controlled trial, but they reviewed 3 other studies to observe more people's responses. Although many people in the studies reported feeling better after undergoing salt therapy, missing information included:
- Whether the subjects had COPD or asthma
- What medications the patients took
- How severe their breathing difficulties were at the start of the study
- The long-term effect of the treatment (for example, people were examined only right after treatment)
Thus, no conclusions were drawn regarding actual benefits of this intervention.
Purported benefits or harms aside, I personally did not react so well to my halotherapy. I left with my chest feeling tight found myself sneezing and coughing in the following few days, which is quite unusual. My mouth felt incredibly dry, as if I had eaten an entire bowl of Ramen noodles with soy sauce and had forgotten to drink water. One other girl friend of mine felt similarly as irritated, while the rest of our crew were just feeling salty about the gimmick of it all. For those who do report a sense of wellness, there is something to be said for pausing to close your eyes in a dark room and shut off the rest of the world, but mindfulness does not require a salt cave.
Bottom line: the best way to detox and care for your lungs is to take deep, cleansing breaths of FRESH air. Avoid allergens or pollutants as best you can and save your dollars for the free, salty sea-breeze of a therapeutic beach walk.