With the hustle and bustle of the winter holidays just behind us and the return to work and school routines, you may be feeling like you need a vacation. There are plenty of ways to de-stress and relax, such as reading a good book, getting a massage or taking a nap. But you might be interested in some other types of relaxation therapies that have recently become more mainstream, such as halotherapy and float therapy. Should you try them? And are they safe?
No, halotherapy isn’t necessarily for angels. Also called salt therapy, halotherapy is nothing new. Halotherapy dates back to ancient Greece, when Hippocrates promoted the use of salt to help treat respiratory disorders. According to the Salt Therapy Association, modern salt therapy originated in the salt mines and caves of Eastern Europe: salt miners enjoyed health benefits of salt as they chiseled away, including fewer respiratory problems and healthy skin.
In 1839, Polish physician Felix Boczkowski, who took an interest in the health of the salt miners, opened a therapeutic spa at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, providing salt baths and promoting them for those with respiratory issues. Salt mines also played a role in World War II, when they were used for bomb shelters. Notably, people seeking shelter in salt mines had fewer respiratory problems.
Fast-forward a few more decades when the first halotherapy device was developed in Russia in 1985 — it simulated the technique of grinding and crushing salt to disperse salt particles in the air. Halotherapy has continued to grow in popularity and has since spread worldwide.
How halotherapy works
“Dry” halotherapy typically involves sitting or lying in a man-made salt cave or grotto that is kept at low humidity. The cave consists of Himalayan crystal salt rock, with soft lighting from rock lamps. There are reclining chairs and, often, soothing music plays in the background. A halogenerator pumps micro-particles of salt into the air. All you have to do is sit back, breathe in the salty air and relax, typically for between 30 and 45 minutes.
“Wet” halotherapy involves a mixture of salt and water, and methods include gargling with or drinking salt water, bathing in salt water, or using salt water for nasal irrigation, such as with a spray or a neti pot.
Potential halotherapy benefits
Halotherapy is thought to work in several ways. First, inhaling salt particles can help break up mucus and reduce inflammation, thereby clearing up airways (particularly helpful if someone has asthma, bronchitis or a sinus infection). The salt particles themselves may absorb toxins, allergens and bacteria in the airways and on the skin, helping with skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.
In addition, it’s thought that salt produces negative ions, which, in turn, are reputed to lead to a number of benefits, including improved energy, better sleep, lower blood pressure, stronger bones and regulated body pH. (The ever-popular Himalayan salt lamps are touted for their ability to produce negative ions, by the way.)
With salt therapy rooms opening up all across the U.S, it’s easy to believe that halotherapy is onto something. After all, if it can help you breathe easier, give you glowing skin and help you relax, what’s the harm? The American Lung Association concedes that halotherapy may indeed help to thin mucus, making breathing easier. However, scientific evidence in support of all of these benefits is lacking. A 2013 study found that halotherapy did not improve lung function or quality of life in people with non-cystic fibrosis bronchiectasis; a review paper published in 2014 looked at studies of halotherapy in people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and found that most of them were flawed. Further, another 2014 study showed that halotherapy actually triggered anti-inflammatory responses in people with asthma or chronic bronchitis. There is also some concern that chronically inhaling sodium could potentially raise blood pressure.
If you’re interested in trying halotherapy (or are already a devoted fan), be sure to check with your doctor about its safety. Many “salt rooms” advise that people with chronic kidney disease, acute respiratory disease, cancer, high blood pressure or an infection avoid halotherapy.
And what about using salt water as a therapy? In most instances, saline sprays or using neti pots are done to help treat stuffy noses, sinus infections or allergies rather than beating stress. Be extra careful if you use a neti pot; they can actually increase the risk of a sinus infection, and there’s a documented case of a woman who died from a rare amoebic infection after using a neti pot for a month. If you do use a neti pot, always use sterile, distilled or boiled water rather than tap water, which can contain organisms. Gargling with salt water may help provide relief from a sore or irritated throat, allergies and canker sores, and may help remove bacteria from the gums, decreasing the risk of gum disease and tooth decay. Be careful not to swallow the salt water and check with your doctor about gargling if you have high blood pressure.
Float therapy — also known as floatation therapy or restricted environment stimulation technique (REST) is another type of therapy gaining in popularity, especially among people who experience anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and pain. Float therapy originated in the 1950s from Dr. John Lilly, a neuroscientist. Float tanks at that time were called sensory deprivation tanks, as Dr. Lilly was studying the effects of external stimuli deprivation on human consciousness. In the late 1970s and 1980s, floatation therapy centers began to appear in the U.S. The term “deprivation tank” was replaced with “restricted environmental stimulation therapy.” Today, float tanks can be found in special float centers, spas and some physical therapy practices.
How float therapy works
It’s all about the water when it comes to float therapy. The float tank is filled with water and magnesium sulfate — aka Epsom salts — that provides buoyancy, enabling you to float. Once you enter the tank, you float on your back with your head partially submerged. You’re effectively cut off from sound, light and sight. Floating in the dark silence is thought to evoke a deeply relaxed state. Most float sessions last an hour.
Potential float therapy benefits
For some people, float therapy is the ultimate form of relaxation — you’re away from external stimuli, so there’s really nothing to do but float and relax. Studies back up benefits of float therapy, too. In a 2018 study in the journal PLoS One, a one-hour session in a float tank led to a significant decrease in anxiety and improvement in mood in 50 participants with anxiety disorders. Another 2016 study in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed a reduction in depression and sleep difficulties in 46 people with generalized anxiety disorder.
Other research shows that float therapy improves sleep and may reduce stress levels, which can be beneficial for reducing blood pressure and the risk of heart disease; in addition, sufferers of muscle pain, stiff neck and headaches can find relief after spending time in a float tank. Even if you don’t suffer aches, pains or experience anxiety, float therapy may give your mood a boost and increase your sense of well-being.
Bottom line on float therapy
With today’s stress-filled, hectic lifestyles, float therapy has appeal for many people. Overall, this therapy is considered to be safe. However, people with chronic kidney disease, epilepsy, infections, low blood pressure, skin ulcers or claustrophobia should likely avoid this. Also, if you have asthma, a heart condition or skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema, check with your doctor before trying out this therapy.
Some people worry that they will drown in the float tank — drowning is nearly impossible, as the buoyancy of the water keeps you afloat. (Never do float therapy if you have been drinking alcohol or are taking drugs with a sedative effect). If you’re worried about feeling claustrophobic, you can choose to leave the lid to the tank partially or fully open. You may initially feel a little nauseated after your first float session, and you may experience some stinging if the tank water gets into your eyes. The only other side effect is the hit to your wallet: a one-hour session will set you back between $50 and $100.
The final word on halotherapy and float therapy
There isn’t much information available on the effects of halotherapy and float therapy may impact blood glucose levels. However, in addition to getting the green light from your healthcare team if you are interested in either of these therapies, check your blood sugar before and after your “treatment” and, in the case of float therapy, let someone know that you have diabetes and make sure treatment for low blood sugar is available if you take medication that puts you at risk for hypoglycemia.
Want to learn more about maintaining emotional health with diabetes? Read “Reducing Diabetes Stress: Alternative Treatements” and “Relaxation Techniques for Stressful Times.”