The latest fad in homeopathy to hit the United States has roots in an unlikely place: the salt caves of Eastern Europe—a sort of primordial spa where people flocked for eons to treat ailments ranging from respiratory illnesses to skin infections. Dry salt therapy (or, as it’s officially known, “halotherapy”) involves basking in the sodium-rich air of small, custom-crafted “salt chambers.” Its lack of regulation and scientific backing hasn’t stopped its surge in popularity. According to Ulle Lutz, president of consultation service Salt Chambers Inc., about 150 halotherapy facilities have sprung up in the U.S. in the past two years. We gave one a test run.
Before I checked into Breathe Easy, a dry salt therapy spa in New York City, I had some reservations. Sodium may be an essential mineral that helps keep our cells functioning optimally and is crucial for muscle recovery, but if you consume too much of it (as Americans tend to do—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we consume, on average, 3,436mg a day, more than double the 1,500mg recommended intake, and almost seven times more than the 500mg our bodies actually require), you increase your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart and kidney disease. So what happens when you essentially mainline the stuff into your lungs?
“When you inhale the micron-size particles of salt,” says Gary Patrick, Breathe Easy’s CEO, “that salt stays in your system and continues to kill off bacteria for several days after your session.” To quell any of my concerns of a sodium overdose, Patrick assured me that the total volume of salt you inhale during the session is less than what you’d get from a sandwich bite. So inside I went.
The typical salt therapy session takes place in a small room with a “halogenerator,” a machine that cranks out millions of microscopic particles of salt. The walls are covered in salt crystals, and the air is briny. It’s a conveniently passive experience. “Some people listen to music, some people read,” Patrick says. “Some people lie there and fall asleep because it’s so relaxing.” Indeed, about 10 minutes into my 45-minute session at Breathe Easy, I found myself so relaxed and comfortable that I conked out.
Like “wet salt” therapy—neti pots or saline nasal spray—10 minutes in a salt chamber will clear out more mucus than you knew you had. As someone who’s been intimate with many neti pots during allergy season in my life, I noticed I was breathing through my nostrils more easily and breathing deeper into my lungs immediately after I left and for a couple of days afterward.
But so far, success stories like mine are largely anecdotal. John P. Tortu, D.O., of The Salt Vault in Parkesburg, PA, recalls a woman who had an undiagnosed rash on her face. “She said it was less red, less itchy after two sessions [of salt therapy],” he says. “The salt kills the bacteria that infects the skin lesion.”
Because so little English-language research has been done on it, most doctors can’t endorse dry salt therapy, but the general consensus is that the practice isn’t at all harmful. In fact, Patrick asserts, it can be beneficial for guys with active lifestyles. “If you’re breathing better, you’re going to work out better,”
If you have high blood pressure or a lung condition, Tortu says to check with your doctor. “But for the majority of the population,” he says, “I believe it’s great.”