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Can "Himalayan crystal salt" (a.k.a. rock salt from Pakistan) reduce stress?

"[Himalayan crystal salt] has a beneficial effect on the body of healthy people - significantly reduces stress, deepens and slows breathing, increases ability to concentrate, slows the aging of the skin, smooth wrinkles and accelerates fat loss by helping the fight against obesity." [Source: Himalayan Salt Cave]

I have heard some odd claims in my time. Surely, salt of any description is more likely to increase blood pressure. So, I find it difficult to take claims like the above with any seriousness.

  • It is worth noting that the company isn't (merely?) suggesting adding the rock salt to food (which is how I originally read the claim), but inhaling it while being massaged and receiving colour-therapy. – Oddthinking Jan 9 '12 at 1:24
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    If there is lithium in the salt, then the stress part of the claim is plausible. – David LeBauer Jan 9 '12 at 1:30
  • The claim is that the cave does this rather than just the salt. Salt Cave is an oasis of condensed marine microclimate containing large amounts of iodine, potassium, magnesium and other trace elements. With gentle lighting and relaxing music, suffers a complete relaxation. - So your seem to be skeptical of relaxing around salt rather than consuming salt. Healing properties of the Salt Cave are not achieved by the special salt that covers walls and floor of the cave but also by the salt graduation tower and salt water cascade that both produce salt aerosol infused into the cave as a mist. – Chad Jan 9 '12 at 17:32
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There has been very little or no research done on whether a salt cave can reduce stress levels (or many of the other supposed benefits you list). But, given that they generally make you recline in a darkened room and listen to relaxing music, I would say it's plausible that you would be more relaxed afterwards - but that says nothing about the efficacy of the salt itself. They don't describe the mechanism by which the salt works, so it's not really possible to study it. There are, however, people (including the site you linked to) that claim that salt aerosols and/or going into a salt cave can help with respiratory problems.

Using salt as an aerosol in a cave is known as either halotherapy (salt therapy) or speleotherapy (actually going into a (salt) cave). These are relatively new treatments in the west but have been practiced in Eastern Europe and Russia for several years.

A Cochrane review was conducted on Speleotherapy for the treatment of asthma, and of all of the (3) available trials meeting their criteria they found only one which did not have a flaw serious enough to warrant its exclusion.

MAIN RESULTS: Three trials including a total of 124 asthmatic children met the inclusion criteria, but only one trial had reasonable methodological quality. Two trials reported that speleotherapy had a beneficial short-term effect on lung function. Other outcomes could not be assessed in a reliable manner. A further search was conducted in July 2000. One further paper was excluded (see excluded studies)

REVIEWER'S CONCLUSIONS: The available evidence does not permit a reliable conclusion as to whether speleo-therapeutic interventions are effective for the treatment of chronic asthma. Randomized controlled trials with long-term follow-up are necessary.

Asthma Australia has warned against salt therapy, stating that it may actually trigger asthma attacks:

A respiratory physician and chair of the Asthma Australia medical advisory committee, Simon Bowler, said he would advise asthma sufferers against undergoing salt treatment.

''If somebody inhaled significant concentrations of a salt solution it could actually bring on an asthma attack,'' Dr Bowler said.

Salt inhalation may have modest short term positive effects on respiration and mucus clearance rates for those with cystic fibrosis, but I would expect the amount of inhaled salt in this study (5ml of 7% NaCl solution, 4 times daily) is much, much greater than one would receive from lounging around in a salt cave for an hour.

I have searched for other studies on halotherapy and speleotherapy, but many of them have obvious conflict of interest issues that are not addressed, for example one study was authored by the employee of a salt aerosol manufacturing company. Similarly, I don't know how reputable the Russian "Journal of Aerosol Medicine" is. There be dragons here.

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  • can't test it conclusively anyway. The process of traveling to the cave can itself either induce or relieve stress after all. – jwenting Jan 11 '12 at 11:53
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    @jwenting, if that is a concern, control for it by having people travel to the cave and not go in, or travel to a similar cave with sugar crystals for their rub-down. – Oddthinking Jan 11 '12 at 12:54
  • @jwenting It just seems to be a dumb thing to test anyway. I don't know that they are even really claiming that the salt itself causes relaxation, just that they provide a relaxing environment while you enjoy the "other benefits". They do however claim all of these BS medical effects due to the salt that are more readily testable, and in some cases could be extremely harmful - especially if people replace their real treatment with this nonsense. – John Lyon Jan 12 '12 at 22:36
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    @jozzas that was my idea as well, that the "beneficial effects" are caused mostly by the environment, not the salt. That's why my comment about the impossibility of excluding the environment from the test. – jwenting Jan 13 '12 at 6:21

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