Smelling Salt: Could Salty Air Help Asthma?

By Avery Keatley

If you Google “Himalayan Pink Salt,” you’ll come across a slew of products claiming to clean your skin, regulate the body, and ionize the air in your home.  Dr. Oz once called Himalayan Pink Salt the “fifth natural wonder of the world,”—perhaps unsurprising for someone whose favorite word is “miracle.” Himalayan pink salt is mined from the Khewra salt mine in Pakistan, the second oldest and second largest salt mine in the world.  The salt is immediately recognizable by its peach-pink hue, caused by iron oxide deposits. Just like table salt, Himalayan pink salt balances the body’s pH and helps maintain blood pressure. There are, however, two large differences between Himalayan Salt and table salt.

Purveyors claim the salt is over 250 million years old and is “the purest form of salt.” If they mean that because of its age it is free of pollutants, they might be right.  But halite, the mineral name for rock salt, isn’t any different from what you’d find in the shadows of the Appalachians, except for the color. Halite was formed by oceans that once covered parts of the ancient earth, including parts of Pakistan and North America. When the waters receded, they left behind sediment, some of which was salt. Salt mined in northern New York might be just as old as the salt mined in Pakistan. But the salt mined from the Appalachians is thrown on to driveways, not into gourmet dishes.

Himalayan Pink Salt. (“Khewra rock salt” by Cantons-de-l’Est – Own Work – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

So, besides the color, what’s the real difference between Himalayan salt and rock salt? It’s price, as you probably guessed. Himalayan pink salt, for cooking can run from 50 cents to one dollar per ounce, while table salt costs a fraction of a penny per ounce.  Rock salt from a hardware store runs about one-tenth of a penny per ounce. Websites hawking Himalayan salt advertise its multiple minerals—up to 84 not found in regular salt—but at least one report from Germany found only 10 extra minerals that amounted to two percent of the sample. Himalayan salt, like table salt, is 98 percent sodium chloride. But the sales pitch doesn’t end with consumption of Himalayan salt. Purveyors of the pink stuff suggest you inhale.

Salt mines have long been rumored to ward off illness. Feliks Boczkowski, a Polish doctor, first noted the phenomena in 1843. According to his observations, salt miners had lower rates of respiratory disease when compared to other miners. He concluded that the climate of the mine promoted respiratory health.  Unfortunately, since then, there’s been little academic work done to support this claim.  But that hasn’t stopped the salt cave phenomena.

Man-made salt caves are now popping up all across North America–in Orlando, Los Angeles, Niagara Falls, and Pittsburgh.  These man-made caves mimic the environment of real salt mines by covering the floor with finely ground salt and plastering the walls with rock salt. Clients enter, feet covered in cloth boots, and relax in the lounge chairs provided in many salt spas.  Children who visit salt caves are allowed to play with the salt on the floor as if it were sand. Tiny particles of salt are dispersed into the air, and are meant to be inhaled.

Man-made Salt Cave in Germany. (“Bad Soden Salzgrotte” by Reise-Line – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Salt cave proprietors claim that salt caves (often touted as Himalayan salt caves) help treat psoriasis, acne, allergies, and asthma.  Practitioners claim that the salt, which has high levels of negative ions, has been known for centuries to clean the airways and treat skin disease.  The theory is that clients inhale the vaporized salt, and with it, negative ions.

Negative ions occur naturally before thunderstorms and from the crashing of waves, and are rumored to have a relaxing effect (a claim which needs much substantiation yet.) This may explain some of the reason that salt caves supposedly treat stress-related asthma. Despite the promise that asthma sufferers may feel more relaxed in the presence of negative ions, going to a salt cave might not be a safe route for all. The tiny particles of salt diffused in the air can irritate the lining of the airways, and potentially trigger an asthma attack.

What a salt mine actually looks like. ("Khewra Salt Mine Pakistan" by Farhan Chawla- Own Work - Licensed under CC BY 2.0-
What a salt mine actually looks like. (“Khewra Salt Mine Pakistan” by Farhan Chawla- Own Work – Licensed under CC BY 2.0-

Many asthma sufferers seek alternative treatments due to the number and severity of side effects from prescription drugs. Unfortunately, there are no approved alternative therapies for asthma. Though some people claim they have overcome their asthma through yoga, Buteyko method, or salt therapy, there remains a lack of evidence to support these anecdotal claims. It’s too soon to say if alternative treatments have any effect on asthma. Until there is more research, we recommend that patients stick to their doctor’s advice, and use Himalayan Pink Salt for its only approved use—cooking.

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