Monday, November 19, 2012 at 7 a.m.
The adult room of Delray Beach's Salt Suite looks like a well-groomed beach. Plush white leather chairs line the perimeter, a flimsy white plastic partition separating each. But there's no sand. Just salt. Everywhere.
On the ground are several inches of coarse, granular salt. The walls are coated with dense, jagged layers of the mineral, forming what looks like a monochromatic Jackson Pollock. A floor-to-ceiling pillar is covered in the stuff.
And though they're not visible, tiny ground up particles of salt flood the air. It's not cheap Morton's salt pulled from a kitchen. When Jessica Helmer and her husband decided to open this beacon of new age healing about a year ago, they imported 24,000 pounds of salt extracted from the Dead Sea. "It was 15 pallets, bagged up in 50 pound bags," she says.
Salt, Helmer says, is naturally antibacterial and an expectorant. She claims that her salt room is more sterile than an operating room. "Relaxing in it helps boost the immune system because you're breathing in a natural antibacterial," she claims. "It works on multiple things --allergies, asthma, sinusitis, COPD, emphysema."
Evidence published in medical journals on the benefits of salt rooms is scant. There have been no clinical trials in the U.S. Studies have, however, shown that aerosolized salt can help curb coughing and mucus buildup among smokers, while super salty tonics can lead to improved breathing among people with cystic fibrosis.
Despite the lack of hard evidence, Helmer's clients swear by it. "I've suffered from mild asthma and I really find it increases my lung capacity," says Bill Albert, who goes to the salt suite five or six times a week. Albert, 70, is an avid swimmer and says the benefits are most noticeable when he's in the water.
For a skeptic, a 45-minute visit to the salt room is hokey at first. Before the session starts, Helmer's voice comes through a pair of headphones and gives a brief history of how salt therapy, also known halotherapy, has evolved. She mentions that the history of salt rooms dates back to salt mines in Poland, where workers rarely got sick. The salt creates a negative ion environment, she says.
As the lights dim, easy listening tracks play, replete with flute solos and wind chimes. A woman a seat over says the room does wonders for allergies, then quickly nods off with an open mystery novel perched on her chest. A gentleman across the room reads from his iPad. Soon enough, the taste of salt lingers on the lips and the urge to sleep is overwhelming.
The first session in the room is free. After that, 45 minutes costs 45 bucks, but cheaper rates can be had through packages. Helmer says she has sold about 4,000 sessions this year. A big slice of her clientele: snotty children.
In a separate room for kids, bright lights beam off the salt covered floor and walls. There's a small play area and a vibrant mural of fish swimming around a reef. A knee-high girl with a runny nose romped around the white landscape. "Hopefully it'll help her sleep better tonight," the mother said while purchasing five more sessions in advance.
Jeannie Cassara, who lives in west Boca Raton, has been taking her four-and-a-half-year-old and 15-month-old kids to the Salt Suite for three months. Allergies and bloody noses have long plagued her older child, so she decided to try out alternative approach based on a friend's recommendation.
After a few weeks, Cassara says, her sons' allergies vastly improved and the bloody noses stopped. Now she takes her kids to the room three days a week. If a head cold or cough starts to set in, she'll up the visits to five days a week.
"It seems to clear up whatever starts to get at them," she says. "I don't know if it helps the immune system, but whatever it does it seems to help them get rid of a cold faster."