Amber light glows against the Himalayan and Dead Sea salt that lines the walls. I feel like I’m in a cave in Old Jerusalem, someplace ancient and pure. A sea of loose salt shifts beneath my bootied feet, and once I’m reclined with zero gravity, a fine, dry salt mist blows into the room. The negative ions are said to increase oxygen flow to the brain, a fringe benefit, but for now all I feel is a sweet lassitude.
Clay Juracsik, owner of The Salt Room—which is in Maplewood, not Old Jerusalem—plays the usual mind-numbing New Age music, a playlist made to order for massage therapists and everybody else trying to slow us down. Soon even that drops away, and I’m only conscious of the fact that I’m breathing deeply, with none of the drippage, stuffiness, and sneezes to which my allergies and sinuses condemn me daily. I’d live in this room if he’d let me.
His enterprise is called halotherapy, “halo” being Greek for salt. The particles range from .5 to 10 microns, so tiny they can be inhaled deep into the lungs. Juracsik says the therapy can help asthma, bronchitis, allergies, smoker’s cough, other frequent coughs, and ear infections; cystic fibrosis, psoriasis, eczema and skin allergies; arthritis and other joint pain; stress, anxiety, snoring, fatigue, and depression.
We joke about the pharmaceutical commercials on TV, with their lists of side effects like death and psychosis. This is just…salt. Pure and simple. Yet salt’s proved capable of
- *Scrubbing the nose, throat, and lungs clean, thinning their mucus and clearing blockages
- *Killing microbes by sucking water from their cells, dehydrating them.
- *Reducing swelling in the respiratory tract and inflammation of the skin.
Juracsik is frustrated because local physicians haven’t exactly cheered dry salt therapy. He says he has one doctor who’s a regular client—but stays anonymo
us. Others just say, “We need more studies.” Yet inhaling saltwater is a standard remedy for allergies when it’s bottled in a little squeeze bottle, and for centuries doctors have sent patients to the seaside to recuperate. The ancient Egyptians used salt as a cure, and Hippocrates prescribed it freely.
Our current version of halotherapy began in the 1800s in Poland, after a doctor realized that patients who worked in the salt mines had remarkable respiratory health. He turned a salt cave into a clinic. Then, about 25 years ago, Dr. Alina Chervinskaya, a physician in St. Petersburg, found a way—along with a group of other medical experts—to blow the salt into a room.
Quite a few studies have been done—but in Russia, Finland, Italy, Poland. A 1995 study in the Journal of Aerosol Medicine showed 97 percent improvement for chronic bronchitis and 85 percent improvement in mild to moderate asthma, and halotherapy’s been sanctioned by the Russian Ministry of Public Health since 1990.
But even without U.S. physicians’ blessing, halotherapy is gaining sway in the U.S. When The Salt Room opened, in late 2010, Juracsik says it was the first such facility in the Midwest, seventh in the country. Now there are more than 125.
Salt's pretty harmless; most doctors’ caution is simply that there isn’t enough solid evidence yet, and they worry that patients will toss their medication or inhalers and throw away their money. (A first visit to the Salt Room is $35; sessions in a course of treatments drop to about $12.50 apiece.)
Why, I wondered, did it take salt so long to cross the ocean? “What happened in Russia stayed in Russia,” points out Ülle Pukk, cofounder of the Salt Therapy Association. She’s from Estonia, and I can tell, even by phone, that she’s shrugging. “After the fall of the Soviet system, this information became available to the rest of the world,” Pukk says. “By then there were over 1,000 salt rooms in medical facilities in Russia. Salt is anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial. Even in traditional rituals, it’s used to symbolize purity and protection.”
The saltwater used in Neti pots or inhaled in steam is fine, she adds, but “that particular molecule is already saturated. It’s lazy, because it’s filled with moisture. In dry salt therapy, we dehydrate the salt crystal, put it into the generator, and add kinetic energy.
“The quality of the air we breathe seems to be decreasing,” Pukk notes. “This is the only way we can detox our lungs naturally. And detoxification is going to be really important for the future.”
Juracsik had a more immediate goal. Yes, it helped that he spoke Russian and could set up the Russians’ halo-generator. But his business was inspired by his little girl’s asthma.
She’s entering her teens now, and she doesn’t want to come sit in the boring salt room anymore, he says with a parental sigh. She feels no need. Her breathing’s clear and strong, and on her last check-up, there was no sign of asthma.