Salt caves and salt spas are nothing new, and halotherapy—a term used to describe the use of salt for health purposes—has been used for years to treat respiratory conditions and promote overall wellness.
Recently, these facilities are being marketed toward athletes, with companies claiming that time spent in a room breathing salty air can boost performance. The problem: there's little published data on this subject, and all evidence is still anecdotal. But salt therapy can still have some positive effects, particularly if you're feeling congested.
Breathing salty air can help clear up chest congestion—at least temporarily, says Rob McElroy, a naturopathic medicine doctor in Mercer Island, Washington, and a four-time Ironman triathlete. If you've ever used a neti pot or a saline sinus rinse, he explains, you know that salt's good at breaking up mucus, which can help open stuffed up breathing passages.
But for someone without noticeable congestion or breathing problems, McElroy doesn't think halotherapy will make much of a difference. All the published research on halotherapy has been done on people with chronic lung conditions like asthma or bronchitis, and there's no evidence that it can alter a healthy person's breathing patterns or increase their lung capacity.
"If a patient were to tell me he's a competitive athlete with seasonal allergies and he tends to get congested around his race, then I would certainly recommend this—especially if he wanted to explore options besides traditional medications like Claritin," he says. "But I wouldn't necessarily say that salt therapy is good for all athletes or that they should prioritize this in their training regimen."
Perhaps the greatest athletic benefits of halotherapy have nothing to do with your respiratory system. A lot of "salt spa" facilities create very calming environments, with colored lights, soothing music, and natural elements like waterfalls. "Just like any spa environment, it can evoke a relaxation response, which helps the body rebuild and recover from stress," McElroy says. "Athletes spend a lot of time in fight-or-flight mode, and can have a hard time entering a parasympathetic state and relaxing."
There's nothing dangerous about halotherapy, says McElroy, and nothing wrong with exploring it to see if you might benefit from it—although it's not recommended for people with very high blood pressure or certain chronic conditions, and some doctors worry that salty air could potentially irritate airways in asthmatics. With sessions running anywhere between $10 and $100 a pop, you may decide it's simply not worth it.
Bottom line: It's worth a try if you suffer from allergies or chronic congestion and you would like to explore a drug-free treatment option. Or if you're just looking for a nice way to relax and decompress. But don't expect any miracles, especially if you're breathing just fine--any benefits you may experience are not thought to last long.