For centuries, people have been traveling to the seaside, finding the air to be therapeutic for both mental and physical conditions. Spa-goers have long professed the restorative effects of mineral baths. Now, salt caves are increasing in number and popularity, mimicking the environment of natural caves found in Poland and eastern Europe, with salt block walls, floors covered with granulated salt and even conditioned, salty air. This idea — that exposure to salt has health benefits, and can alleviate breathing disorders — is called halotherapy. Should you buy into this phenomenon, or take it with a grain of salt?
First, let’s start with what we know for sure about salt and health. When we reviewed six secret sources of sodium in our diets, we learned that the American Heart Association guidelines suggest limiting sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day. Sodium is vital for proper function of nerves and muscles, but extensive research has linked excess sodium to heart disease, stroke and obesity.
But research on the benefits of breathing salty air is thin, and historical references have an anecdotal feel — 19th century Polish physicians noticing that salt mine workers had fewer cases of respiratory disease, or German physicians remarking on the improved health of patients who hid from heavy bombing in salt caves during WWII. Sodium causes water retention, so could sodium in the lungs and sinuses cause water to collect there, thinning mucus and making it easier to breathe and expectorate? Hypothetically, say scientific advisors for the American Lung Association, but there’s not enough data to make a firm conclusion.
No physician worth their salt is going to claim that halotherapy can replace tested and proven medications and therapies for conditions like COPD and asthma. The standard advice appears to be the same as with many alternative therapies: proceed with caution. These treatments are often delivered by people with no medical training, and you should have a conversation with your physician before starting any alternative therapies.
Pass (on) the salt?
If you’re perusing salt cave websites, you’ll discover some common images: relaxing chairs, low light, quiet spaces … all the recipes for a perfectly healthy (and scientifically supported) meditation session! Sitting in a quiet environment without distractions and clearing our minds for 20 minutes a few times a week has been shown to reduce stress and inflammation, boost immune function and even improve cognitive ability. Don’t get us wrong, salt caves can offer a relaxing, even other-worldly experience, but you can replicate the most beneficial and rejuvenating aspects of the therapy right in your own home.