With ‘salt caves’ being used to curb the common cold, plus numerous athletes taking to them for injury prevention and recovery, we (and the skeptical scientific community) are left wondering how this natural remedy might actually work. WH&F journalist Angelique Tagaroulias investigates.
When you think about invasive nasal flushes to relieve sinus issues, treating eczema with potent creams and sweating it out in saunas to aid recovery post-gym – the idea of sitting in a massage chair in a cosy room full of salt for 45 minutes to help with all of the ailments above sounds like a dream.
Halotherapy, derived from halite or rock salt and more commonly known as salt therapy, is a natural alternative that helps to relieve symptoms of respiratory and skin conditions, as well as acute stress.
Sound too good to be true? Perhaps it is.
Salt therapy was first used in 1843, when a Polish doctor discovered that miners in salt mines had low instances of respiratory and skin conditions, especially when compared to their coal-mining counterparts. The natural therapy has become commercialised in the last 20 years, with the development of the halogenerator: a machine which dispenses micro-sized salt particles into the air of a salt room through a small hole in the wall, replicating the environment of the century-old salt cave.
“Salt therapy is a complementary therapy that works in conjunction with people’s medication,” explains David Lindsay, founder of Salts of the Earth (saltsoftheearth.com.au). “Salt is a natural antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antihistamine, and the therapy relieves the symptoms of the condition so that the medication can get in and treat it.
“The halogenerator grinds down the salt to a particle size, allowing it to get deep into your lungs. From there, the dry salt air lines the walls of the airways. If there’s any inflammation in the walls there’ll be fluid retention so, through osmosis, the salt draws fluid out, helping to relieve the inflammation while dislodging any mucus so that it can be coughed up.”
Similarly, salt landing on the skin relieves inflammation and irritation caused by lingering bacteria or allergic reactions.
For sports recovery, Lindsay says salt therapy works on the well-documented phenomenon of an athlete’s suppressed immune system and inflammation in their airways.
“The salt helps relieve inflammation of the lungs post-workout, allowing you to breathe in more oxygen, and most people also report having a fantastic sleep the first night after a session. Considering we do most of our physical and mental recovery at night, this is significant,” he says.
The research, though, is mixed. There is anecdotal evidence to support its benefits for skin, allergy and lung conditions, as well as for relaxation and sports recovery; but the Lung Foundation Australia warns there is no scientific evidence to suggest it improves asthma or lung conditions. And The National Asthma Council Australia even warns that salt therapy can irritate the airways of an asthmatic, causing wheezing.
There’s also concern from the medical community regarding infection control in the warm confines of a salt room. To mitigate the risk, Salts of the Earth provide a consultation prior to the salt session, where a specialist runs through contraindications to identify whether the client has a contagious or at-risk condition. Anyone over the age of 60 is advised to consult with their GP first in case of high blood pressure. Aside from that, Lindsay assures salt therapy is suitable for almost anyone.
The road test
Being a sufferer of hay fever and sinus issues, when I was told a natural therapy might relieve congestion and allergy irritations (think several uncontrollable sneezes, startling the boss sitting on the other side of the office), I was excited to be introduced to the salt room.
I had a consultation with the salt therapy specialist who talked me through my condition and symptoms, explained what the salt session would entail and how I might benefit.
I popped on my disposable paper hat and booties (to prevent hair from falling into the mounds of salt) and entered the salt room looking like a character from Greys Anatomy. I took to the comfortable, adjustable armchair, put my feet up and turned the massage function on. Shortly after, the lights dimmed, music began to play softly and, within seconds, I was breathing in the salt air with zen. Apart from a little mist in the air, you would have sworn you were sitting and breathing in any regular (relaxing) room.
I was in a relaxed state throughout the session and, towards the end, my nasal passages felt clearer, I could breathe better and my nose became runny (thankfully a box of tissues was placed strategically beside each chair).
FYI: the massage chair helps any mucus to move around and come out. Gross, but effective.
Similar to when you go for a swim in the ocean and emerge with a runny nose, Lindsay says salt entering your sinuses is responsible for relieving any congestion. “The benefits to dry salt air, as opposed to the ocean and nasal flushes, is that the dry salt air has a natural anti-inflammatory effect because it’s able to dry up more fluid,” he says.
I did another few sessions over the coming weeks, and although there isn’t much scientific evidence to prove its benefits, the salt certainly helped me personally. I’m thankful for my clearer sinuses, sense of relaxation and improved slumber.
We pick the brains of three professionals to delve a little deeper into salt therapy in the August 2018 edition of Women’s Health and Fitness magazine – grab your copy today!