Allergy and asthma sufferers seek relief at Bethesda, Md. salt cave

This 390-square-foot salt cave in Bethesda contains 32 tons of pink Himalayan salt rocks, 4 tons of which are ground and spread on the floor. (WTOP photo/Rachel Nania)

BETHESDA, Md. (AP/WTOP) - When Janine Narayadu, a registered massage practitioner, was searching for a location for her new business, she was faced with an obstacle most business owners don't encounter: She needed a landlord who would let her build a room with 32 tons of pink Himalayan salt rocks, 4 tons of which were ground up to make a sand-like floor, in downtown Bethesda.

Narayadu eventually found a property owner for the Bethesda Salt Cave, which opened in June on Montgomery Lane.

Her next challenge? Finding a builder who could turn her salt-fueled vision into a reality.

"There are not too many people who can build with salt," Narayadu says. "Salt doesn't stick to a wall, and if you're making a cave like this, that's all-natural - there are no resins or anything in here; there's no glue; you won't smell anything in here. It's just salt. So, even my builder had to learn."

A salt cave is exactly what it sounds like: a dimly-lit room with the walls, floors and ceiling covered in salt. In Narayadu's cave, 22 tons of pink-hued Himalayan rock crystals, millions of years old, are piled on all four walls of a 390-square-foot room.

Lounge chairs, blankets and pillows sit atop coarse ground salt that's deep enough for your feet to sink into when walking through. And a circular pump with a purple light in the salt-covered ceiling dispenses purified Himalayan salt into the air.

"It's not like table salt; the only purpose of table salt is to flavor your food," says Narayadu, who encourages visitors to breathe the salty air in through the nose. "It really recreates the environment of the sea, when you have all that salt in the air, and that's what's really so healing."

Salt caves have been used as a form of therapy to treat asthma, allergies and other breathing conditions by European doctors since World War II, but their use as healing rooms dates back thousands of years.

Narayadu says the negative ionic charge present in the salt balances the body, allowing one to relax and feel more centered. "It's where I bring my body in to dock it and just bring up my energy levels," she says.

And the salt's naturally drying abilities can help many who seek an alternative form of therapy.

"If (someone) has sinus issues, sinus headaches, the best way to get the sinuses clear is to put salt in, because salt draws out water," Narayadu says. "So, if there's fluid in the nose or the sinus cavity, the salt is going to draw it out, dry it up; it's going to crystallize, and you're going to be able to get rid of it. And when the fluid comes out, it reduces pressure on the sinuses."

Salt's antimicrobial properties also kill bacteria and fungus, Narayadu says.

"It's very natural; it's been used over hundreds of years already. Most people, however, use a saline solution that they shoot up into their nose. This is just dry."

A 2006 study in the journal Allergy examined the effect of salt cave therapy on asthma patients with bronchial hyper-responsiveness - a condition that causes the airway to spasm and narrow. Seventeen of the study's 32 participants were exposed to a salt room for two weeks as an add-on treatment to inhaler use. The study found the participants exposed to the salt had reduced bronchial hyper-responsiveness compared with those in the placebo group.

Since opening Bethesda Salt Cave - Maryland's first - three months ago, Narayadu has seen people hoping to treat conditions beyond allergies, sinuses and asthma come through her doors. Practitioners who work with autistic children have asked to conduct treatment sessions with their clients and families in the salt cave. Parents of children with swollen adenoids have also come to Narayadu.

"They're reaching to us because they really want to find another solution," says Narayadu, who says she does not diagnose conditions and encourages pregnant women and those with underlying health issues to talk with their doctors before trying the therapy.

Unlike most alternative therapy rooms, the salt cave isn't always calm and quiet. On Thursdays, Narayadu hosts mommy-and-me salt-cave sessions - the kids bring "buckets of toys" to play with in the salt, and can even put on their own music.

"They can dig in their hands and their toes and have fun," she says.

Breathing and meditative classes are also held in the salt cave, and Narayadu plans to host restorative yoga classes as well. Of course, a quiet six- to eight- person session in the cave - the kind perfect for dozing off - is also offered. Each 45-minute session costs $45 for adults and $15 for children five and up. (Children under five are free with an adult.)

Narayadu says her goal is to build another salt cave room, as long as the demand from the community continues.

"The people that come here, they're looking for alternative answers and they're prepared to try anything, because they've come to the end of the Western medicine road, or they don't want to use Western medicine," she says.

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