By Dr. Will Cole
Himalayan salt lamps have been popular for a while now. These glowy pink lights give off all the trendy zen vibes and claim to purify the air and promote better sleep. But did you know that you can actually sit in an entire room filled with salt?
That’s right. These salt caves are popping up across the country in spas and as stand-alone businesses and boast a variety of healing capabilities. But how does this really work and ultimately, is it worth shelling out your hard-earned dollars on yet another wellness trend?
As a functional medicine practitioner, I am inundated on a daily basis with the latest health fads and clinical studies to determine what I should be recommending to patients in my functional medicine telehealth clinic. So, let’s take a look and see if this therapy is worth one's salt (pun intended).
The idea of salt caves originated in the 1800s after a Polish doctor noticed that salt mine workers had better respiratory health compared to other types of miners. Salt caves are still a popular therapy in Eastern Europe but are slow to gain the same type of traction in America.
Most of the research surrounding salt caves came from what is now Russia in the 1950s and 60s leading to the rise in halotherapy. The word “halo” is Greek for salt. Also known as dry salt therapy, the Salt Therapy Association further classifies this therapy into two types:
- Speleotherapy: A natural cave environment below the Earth’s surface that takes advantage of the cave’s climate conditions and salt air.
- Halotherapy: A man-made environment that uses special equipment to disperse dry salt aerosol throughout the room.
Halotherapy is further broken down into active and passive salt caves. Active salt caves must use a halogenerator to disperse salt particles in the air throughout the room. This is true halotherapy. Passive salt caves on the other hand don’t disperse any salt particles and instead rooms are covered with salt (Himalayan and Dead Sea being the most popular) on the floors and walls. While this is still considered halotherapy because it is man-made, it is attempting to recreate the natural cave environment found in speleotherapy. However, it doesn’t have quite the same benefits as true speleotherapy due to its lack of natural conditions which are difficult to recreate.
How does it work?
Salt is naturally rich in minerals including sodium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc and are all responsible for the optimal function of a variety of important biochemical processes in the body. Therefore, most of the research surrounding salt caves is looking at true halotherapy as the salt particles and associated minerals are being actively breathed into a person’s lungs and absorbed through the skin.
But that’s not to say there is no benefit to passive salt therapy. Himalayan salt releases negative ions and studies have shown that being exposed to high amounts of negative ions can boost your happy neurotransmitter, serotonin.
As more of an emerging therapy, there are limited long-term studies looking directly at the link between speleotherapy and its health benefits. But what we can see give us a lot of insight into the mechanisms and hope for additional research to be done.
1. Improved skin health
The topical use of sea salt improves hydration, barrier health, and decreases inflammation of the skin. Studies have found that people with psoriasis who took three to four salt baths per week had almost complete relief from symptoms after just three weeks. This same can be said for speleotherapy since the skin is absorbing the minerals through the air however, effects are more mild when compared to the benefits of full submersion so studies are more limited.
2. Enhanced respiratory health
Because of salt’s intensive anti-inflammatory properties, breathing in salt can work to lower inflammation in the lungs and therefore help alleviate respiratory problems like asthma.
Again, more research needs to be done to see the long-term effects of salt caves on overall health but there is no doubt that taking time to relax in a salt cave can have overarching benefits on your health, if not only for the stress reducing benefits.