Salt is a substance that has an important place in human history. It was one of the earliest commodities to be traded, and is the subject of many superstitions and religious rituals. There are frequent references to it in the Old Testament, including that of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back to see the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In addition to being one of the earliest food seasonings, it was also an essential method of food preservation.
While an excessive salt intake is associated with several health conditions including stroke and high blood pressure, it is a myth that salt is intrinsically unhealthy; small amounts are essential for maintaining the body’s electrolyte balance.
The salt we are familiar with as table salt is a processed and refined product that contains nothing other than sodium chloride and a few additives. Natural sea salt, on the other hand, tastes a little bitter due to the presence of magnesium and calcium, and contains a range of other trace minerals. Himalayan salt, with its distinct pinkish colour, is claimed to contain a total of 84 minerals, and is often considered to be one of the healthiest to eat.
Down the salt mines
However, salt is also claimed to offer further remarkable health benefits, and what is known as salt therapy is gaining devotees. It is known to date back to time of Hippocrates, the celebrated Ancient Greek physician, who considered that the inhalation of steam from salt water was very beneficial for bronchial and lung disorders.
In more recent times, the benefits of salt exposure came to light in the salt mines of Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. Found in Poland, Romania, Austria and Ukraine, these were formed in prehistoric times as a result of the evaporation of ancient lakes and seas.
The town of Wieliczka in southern Poland is a major salt centre with a huge mine, which from 1826 onwards included brine baths for treating 36 different diseases. In 1843, a Polish doctor named Felix Boczkowski made the important observation that salt miners never suffered from respiratory conditions, and were in good health despite their arduous work.
Later, during World War II, a salt cave near the German town of Ennepetal was used as a protection against heavy bombing. Those with respiratory conditions were cured, while healthy people strengthened their immunity and never caught colds.
The reason for all these remarkable outcomes is considered to be fine aerosol microparticles of salt, in some cases mixed together with those of other minerals including calcium, magnesium and sulphates. The range of conditions that advocates claim can be helped by salt includes asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and cystic fibrosis. Major causes of respiratory disorders include smoking, the inhalation of smoke from cooking fires in less developed countries, and industrial pollution, particularly in China.
In Central and Eastern Europe, spas have traditionally played a major role in the healing culture. With an emphasis on rest, clean air, exercise and boosting well-being, they have championed a low-intervention, holistic alternative to drug-orientated mainstream Western medicine. Speleotherapy, a word derived from the Latin word for ‘cave’, involves taking spa visitors into salt mines; today, Wieliczka even has its own salt mine sanatorium. The town of Praid in Romania has a salt mine with large underground cavities that are now used for healing, and include a church, school, and playground, hospital, and internet café. Across Eastern Europe, sports teams regularly train in salt caves to improve lung function as a means of maximising sports performance.
Russia has led research into the effectiveness of salt mines in dealing with asthma and bronchitis. However scientific tests have been hampered by various challenges. Each chamber in a mine has its unique microclimate, and healing can be boosted by other factors including the quiet setting and high humidity. Often a person will combine speleotherapy with other modalities. There have been criticisms that in some cases the tests were badly designed, but their quality is improving, and the results look favourable.
The salt room alternative
Most people live a long way from the nearest salt mine, and travel is often expensive and inconvenient. In order to create simulated salt environments, the Russians first built salt therapy rooms in some clinics during the 1980’s. Usually lined with crystalline rock salt (halite), these are also known as halochambers (from the Greek halos meaning salt) or salt spas, and their use for healing is known as halotherapy. Over the space of an hour, the idea is to switch off and relax with leisurely activities such as watching videos or reading. These rooms are often promoted as benefiting all breathing–related conditions, and helping skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema and dermatitis.
Widely found in Eastern Europe, and in Russia where they are certified as medical devices, salt rooms have since spread to North America, and have been in Australia for nearly a year, with one in Sydney, two in Melbourne and more on the drawing board. Their walls are made from blocks of salt sourced from Europe, and there is crushed salt underfoot. They were given a mention late last year on the TV show, Today Tonight.
In order to work properly, salt rooms require a halogenerator, a unit that circulates salt aerosols, and most importantly of all, the size of particles floating in the air needs to be closely regulated. It is generally considered that, for the best results, the temperature should be maintained between 18-24 degrees Celsius, and humidity should be around 50%. Negatively electrically charged (negative ion) particles have the advantage of repelling one another and avoiding clumping together, while dry particles are considered to have a stronger impact on the airways.
How it works
As a rule, the smaller the particle, the greater the health benefits for people suffering from respiratory conditions. While particles above 10 microns have no effects, those between 5 and 10 microns are able to reach the trachea (windpipe) and central bronchial area. Below 5 microns, they reach far into the lungs, and between 0.1-2.5 microns they penetrate deep into every corner of the bronchi (passages that connect the trachea to the lungs), bronchioles (finer connecting passages), and alveoli (small air sacs within the lungs).
These particles kill pathogenic micro-organisms by dehydrating microbial cells, soothing inflammation, reducing the thickness of mucous, and restoring the body’s ability to remove both mucus and pathogens from the airways.
Potential side-effects are minimal. The amount of salt breathed in is extremely small, and will have no effect on people with conditions that are worsened by salt intake, such as hypertension. Some people feel a tickling in the throat, and sometimes, especially for bronchitis patients, in the days following there is an increase in coughing before a general improvement is experienced. Other salt therapy users have also been known to experience dyspnoea (breathing discomfort).
Importantly, there is no risk of a negative interaction with any other drug, making salt therapy an ideal complementary approach.
To make salt therapy available to the maximum number of people via a portable unit, salt pipes are now on the market. These first appeared in Hungary in 2002, and are usually made from ceramic materials. Lasting for about five years when used for around 15-20 minutes daily, they are not designed to be refillable. After breathing in from the inhaler through the mouth, it is important to exhale through the nose to ensure that the respiratory tract is fully cleansed.
Tests in the capital Budapest found that 56% of people using these pipes experienced improved lung function, and 74% had an improvement in their breathing. The pipes are used by the Csepel Hospital in Budapest for outpatient medical care, and are now available in other European countries including the UK.
It is possible to buy a newer design of dry salt inhaler that contains halite crystals from Praid. Another option is a pocket salt pipe that has a nasal adaptor, and delivers salt aerosol particles via the nose directly to the upper respiratory tract including the sinuses.
Cystic fibrosis is an hereditary condition that causes the airways to become clogged with mucous. Sufferers observed an improvement when they were at the beach, and in time this led to the development of a special nebuliser. This small mask covering the nose and mouth dispenses a salt water aerosol in a 7% solution, as opposed to the regular medical saline solution of 0.9%. Again, the daily use was about 15-20 minutes, and it continued for a year.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 summarised the results of a three-year Australian trial involving 164 patients that was carried out by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. It identified a moderate improvement in lung function, and the number of flare-ups that led to people being admitted to hospital was halved.
In European countries where salt therapy is a part of their history, it is largely recognised as an effective form of healing. Halotherapy devices are often approved by the health authorities, and salt therapy is frequently covered under the public health care system.
In contrast, the experience in other Western countries has been different. Salt therapy has been slow to catch on due to a combination of factors; a lack of familiarity with Russian literature as an obstacle to reading scientific studies, a narrow focus on drugs, and general medical conservatism. As part of Channel Seven’s Today Tonight coverage, viewers were informed that doctors urged people not to follow ‘alternative therapies’ ahead of ‘proven treatments’.
Most drug therapies for respiratory conditions such as steroids and corticoids have only palliative effects, and can cause some serious side-effects. Salt has been found to work very well, with the benefits being long-lasting, and as a method of treatment it is also cheaper.
As salt therapy spreads around the world, it will be interesting to see what further benefits it can provide. Will we soon see salt rooms dotted all over the country, with some of the more affluent designing them into their houses? Only the future will tell.
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