Salt therapy, or holotherapy, has been used medicinally for centuries. It’s still relatively uncommon in the U.S., but that is slowly changing.
People swear by salt therapy also known as holotherapy. What can a glowing pink room full of salt do for you?
The Salt Cave of Minneapolis — the only therapeutic salt cave in the state of Minnesota — is owned and operated by Scott B. Wertkin.
“We try to stay away from the ‘spa’ word here,” Scott tells me. And yet, the light-filled entry, which doubles as a merchandise display area, is certainly gracious enough to merit the S-word. On this gray, sunless afternoon in Minnesota, the coral-colored receptionist’s desk and shelves full of Himalayan salt-crystal lamps glow all the brighter.
By infusing the air with tiny particles of salt, manmade caves, like Scott’s, simulate the environment found in naturally occurring salt caves commonly found in Asia and Europe. There, salt therapy or holotherapy, has been used medicinally for years, but since it’s still relatively uncommon in the United States, I’m not quite sure what to expect from my session.
My editor has accompanied me on this experiential interview, and she and I have been quietly speculating about whether or not we will need to strip down when Scott steps out of the salt room, holding a rake.
“Please, keep your clothes on,” he laughs. “But do take off your shoes.”
The floor of the salt cave is covered with four inches of pink, pebble-sized salt crystals — 4,500 pounds, to be exact — so bare feet are not recommended. Since I’m not wearing socks, Scott’s wife, Jenny, provides me with a pair of disposable, hospital-style booties. Later Scott will tell me that the salt floor has to be replenished yearly. He only opened the cave four months ago, so he’s not sure exactly how much replacement salt will be required, but he’s estimating about 500 pounds.
The walls are primarily constructed of rosy, crystalline bricks that sometimes degrade into rough-hewn crystals, then seamlessly transform back into regular rectangles. Initially, Scott felt the value of the Himalayan salt that makes up the walls and floor was purely aesthetic, but he’s since changed his mind. “The salt I use here is incredibly old, hundreds of millions of years,” he tells us. The more time Scott spent in his own cave, the more he started to believe in the ionizing power of salt crystals.
When salt is inhaled (as opposed to ingested) the treatment is supposedly effective against a range of conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, psoriasis, ear infections, allergies, bronchitis, colds, and even snoring.
And yet, there’s no way to quantify the effects of inhaling pharmaceutical-grade sodium chloride. It’s challenging enough finding hard scientific evidence.
But since the main benefits of salt therapy are thought to be respiratory, and my editor and I are both battling infamous Minnesota colds, we’re excited to test this theory.
Experience the Benefits of Salt Therapy Inside Your Very Own Home
Snoozing In A Sea of Salt
Inside the salt-lined grotto, bathed in a pink glow, my editor and I situate ourselves into the lounge-style chairs. “Go ahead and recline,” Scott says. “They go all the way back.” Fleece blankets are laid out for us to ward off chills and any discomfort the salty air might cause to exposed skin. The overhead lights are extinguished; a small collection of crystals shine from each corner, and a soft whirring indicates that salt-filled air has begun to stream through a small opening from the back wall. The whirring is a pleasant addition to the soundtrack playing from speakers concealed in the ceiling: lapping waves intermixed with birdlike chirps and trills.
Somewhere deep in my nose, I feel a tingle. When I open my mouth, I taste salt. I adjust my chair and discover I can feel the fine grains on my skin. I look up, and see some kind of white substance coating most of the ceiling and trailing down the room’s corners. Perhaps because of the holiday that’s just passed, the white stuff reminds me of mashed potatoes.
“I could just take a snooze,” my editor says. (Full disclosure: My editor is also my mom.) While Mom relaxes, I remain captivated by the white stuff, imagining that it’s build-up from the sodium chloride. I imagine that over time, this stuff will creep its way across the ceiling. It looks organic, like the hardened remains of a lava flow, only less disastrous. “Hey, what do you think all this white stuff is?” I ask. Mom blinks mildly by way of reply. Clearly, she’s surrendering to the mystery.
Prior to our session in Scott’s cave, my familiarity with salt was limited to the kind that comes in a shaker, and the gourmet kind added to make irresistible desserts (say, sea salt caramel chocolates, for example). Inside I’m compelled to touch the lovely walls that look more like they’ve been carved from some kind of semi-precious stone than from salt. They feel chalky, and leave a slight residue on my fingers.
Almost against my will, my body is relaxing. I inhale deeply. “I definitely feel less stuffy,” I say. Mom doesn’t respond. I look over, and see that her eyes have closed. Once she’s nodded back awake, she tells me she, too, is breathing better. We agree that our lungs feel more open, and our minds feel clearer. I would happily have stayed in the cave all day, but soon enough, it’s time to return to the real world.
Salt For Soothing: An Ancient Approach
Back in the foyer, Mom and I chat with Jenny. I’m wondering if the sense of relaxation I experienced in the cave was psychosomatic, or whether the salt might have had some real, physical effect on my mood. She’s not sure whether there’s scientific proof for what I felt, but she does tell me I’m not the only one who finds the cave to be a great stress-reliever. She herself has anxiety and sometimes finds relaxing to be a struggle. “I can de-stress in the cave better than anywhere else,” she tells me, “even my own bed.” Along with sinus and respiratory complaints, stress is one of the top reasons clients seek out salt therapy.
The ideas that inhaling salt can help those suffering from bronchial and lung disorders dates back to the time of Hippocrates. In days of yore, European monks’ prescription for patients with problems ranging from asthma to skin conditions to depression was simple: get thee to the nearest natural salt cave! If there were no caves nearby, the monks would actually grind salt rocks against each other to create a cloud of dust for their patients to inhale.
In the 19th century, Polish doctors remarked that salt miners didn’t seem to suffer from respiratory conditions. European spas (sorry, Scott, their word, not mine) have offered premium salt therapy treatments since. As is all too common with treatments that can’t be patented, scientific findings on salt therapy are scant. According to Scott, some of the most credible research out there is on the usefulness of salt therapy as a treatment for cystic fibrosis, an incurable, life-threatening genetic condition that causes mucus to build up in the lungs, digestive tract, and other areas of the body.
In 2006, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed inhaling a hypertonic saline solution could improve lung function for people with cystic fibrosis. No other studies have been conducted in the United States, although research suggests benefits of salt pipe inhalers. Eastern Europe, proudly speckled with a preponderance of naturally occurring salt caves and salt mines, is a particularly rich source of medical literature on the benefits of salt therapy. Nowadays, an increasing number of holistic practitioners and wellness brands are offering a wide range of salt therapy products, including salt pipe inhalers, Sole and salt detox foot tiles.
Rather than giving me a pitch on the powers of salt, Scott prefers to let the cave speak for itself. The strongest claim he’ll make regarding its curative powers is this: “If you put some salt on some boogers, I’m 90 percent sure that that they would liquefy.” Based on my unprofessional understanding of why salt therapy alleviates a variety of breathing-related ailments, Scott is probably right. Experts believe inhaling salt clears airways by loosening built-up mucus. (TMI alert: My personal experience corroborates that claim.)
Lightly Salted: Salt Therapy Grows Slowly Stateside
Salt caves are still a new phenomenon in the United States. When Scott opened his, there were only about 20 other facilities. The caves are more common in Canada and Europe, perhaps, Jenny speculates, because insurance companies in those nations cover the treatment.
“Their medical systems are designed to help you keep yourself well, rather than just focusing on treatments for full-blown problems, things like sinus surgeries,” Scott finishes dryly. He and Jenny have both had these, part of Scott’s inspiration to open the cave. Often, sinus surgeries require follow-up procedures years down the road, but Scott and Jenny hope that using the cave will help them avoid that fate.
At this point, Scott and Jenny’s 12-year-old son Jack wanders into the storefront. Jack’s asthma was yet another motivating factor toward opening the cave. Though his asthma was no longer severe after early childhood, Jack has had one relatively bad episode that was treated successfully with a session in the cave. “I wish it had been around when he was growing up,” Scott said.
We’re All Cave People
Although the cave room can be rented for non-medical purposes such as yoga classes and birthday parties, Scott’s primary focus is still the therapeutic applications of salt therapy. That’s a large part of why he’s so opposed to the word “spa.” When you call something a “spa,” he explains, “it loses credibility. It becomes more trendy, more nouveau.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Jenny says jokingly, “when I need to get my hair done, I’ve thought about how convenient it would be.”
“The thing is, we’re not really spa people,” Scott says, and then laughs. “We’re cave people.”
Hours later, I’m feeling glazed. Not just with the remnants of the sodium chloride, but with something much nicer. (Side note: I found out later the white stuff on the ceiling was not a crust of sodium chloride, but only decorative plaster, after all.) Still, I think of what Scott said about the energy given off by the ancient salt inside his cave.
I think I might be a cave person, too.