Niculae Stoica hadn’t yet started elementary school in his native Bucharest, Romania, when his parents decided he needed to go to a nearby salt mine. Although the image of such an underground place might bring to mind Soviet-era convicts doing hard labour, Stoica’s visit was entirely health-centred. He suffered from asthma, and his parents took him there in hopes of offering their son some relief.
The way Stoica tells it, repeated trips to that mine had a dramatic effect on him: he hasn’t suffered from the condition since. Now living in North Vancouver, Stoica opened Saltwonder—a “cave” he built himself out of Himalayan rock salt—almost a year ago. It’s one of a growing number of such centres across the country. And although the therapy is common in some parts of the world, most western physicians—including a Vancouver respirologist—view it skeptically.
“I learned about this as a child, because the first thing the doctor recommended to me for respiratory problems was to go to the salt mine,” Stoica says in an interview at Saltwonder. “I’m more than convinced that it works.”
Salt therapy, also known as speleotherapy, was discovered in the 1840s in Poland, where a researcher found that salt miners rarely suffered from tuberculosis and respiratory diseases.
The therapy is based on the premise that microscopic salt molecules, when inhaled, travel through the respiratory system and kill bacteria, clear mucous, and absorb moisture. The molecules are also said to form ionic bonds with contaminants, which get transferred to phlegm and are then discharged from the body via coughing. In human-made salt caves, temperature and humidity levels are controlled to create a microclimate that mimics that of a natural salt mine or cave. The environment allows the salt particles to be released naturally from salt walls and blocks. The supposed results are the optimization of respiration and cellular function as well as the reduction of tissue inflammation.
The therapy is so well regarded in Ukraine, in fact, that there’s an entire hospital dedicated to the practice. Located in the country’s Transcarpathian region, the Ukrainian Allergologic Hospital treats about 2,000 adults and 1,000 children annually. Proponents say the approach can help treat everything from bronchitis and colds to conditions unrelated to the respiratory system, such as insomnia, joint pain, and eczema.
Interest in salt therapy is growing. Last year, the 14th annual International Symposium of Speleotherapy took place in Turda, Romania, drawing practitioners from the Czech Republic, Turkey, Russia, Slovakia, and Austria, among other countries. In Canada, there are several salt-therapy centres in Ontario. Besides Saltwonder, B.C. is also home to Surrey’s Healthy Breathing Center.
Despite its increasing popularity, Dr. Chris Carlsten, with the Vancouver General Hospital’s Lung Centre, says in a phone interview that the therapy’s purported health effects lack scientific support.
“I come from the perspective that the idea of benefit needs to be defined and justified with evidence, evidence of a certain standard within the medical and research community,” says Carlsten, assistant professor in UBC’s faculty of medicine and UBC chair in occupational and environmental lung disease. “I don’t think this therapy has anywhere close to enough evidence that I’d be looking for. I am worried about potential harm. We see the side effects of all kinds of alternative approaches on lung diseases, and they can be devastating. Bacteria could enter into the lungs.
“I’m most concerned for vulnerable people,” he adds, such as those with serious conditions such as cystic fibrosis. “If it’s a placebo effect, I’m not so hard-nosed that I’m not happy to support people if something is helping them, generally. But I do see potential harms here, and it doesn’t seem to be regulated. I was trained in public health, and we’re about prevention and safety first. The general approach is to surveil something for problems and rule out potential harms, and only when you’re confident about the benefits outweighing the risks would you then introduce a new treatment.”
Stoica, meanwhile, says that more and more people are becoming curious about the salt cave and trying it out.
At Saltwonder, you step into the salt room in your regular clothes, save for little booties that slip on over your shoes, unless you prefer to go barefoot and feel your feet atop the pebble-size salt crystals. There are a few patio-style lounge chairs in the space, and the walls emanate a soft, peach-coloured glow. Spa music plays in the background. There are plastic buckets and beach toys for when kids visit. Some people meditate or sleep, and some even practise Qi gong. Stoica himself goes in daily for spiritual purposes. Sessions last 45 minutes and cost $45.
“Most doctors [here] have never heard about it,” Stoica says. “Everybody has to decide for himself.”