March 18, 2013

Allergy treatment just adds salt

Can breathing in a room saturated with sodium chloride magically cure your respiratory troubles? With a dash of skepticism, we gave it a try.

Rants, raves, reviews and resources for Dallas-Fort Worth parents

I recline the zero-gravity chair back to a lying position, fire up the massagers beneath my back and legs, and close my eyes.

A machine as quiet as a hairdryer on the low setting kicks on, and within seconds, I do something I haven't done for days -- take a deep breath.

Four days earlier, I'd exiled myself to the couch at home, keeping the company of a box of tissues, a neti pot and a regular dose of over-the-counter decongestants -- I was cursing the mountain cedar in the air.

But now, on this Tuesday afternoon, in the midst of a "halotherapy" treatment at the new Ariasalt Salt Therapy Center, I feel as though my lungs are undergoing a thorough cleansing, and I am very relaxed.

Ariasalt isn't a spa, and it's not a medical office -- though the effects of the treatments offered there can be both rejuvenating and healing.

The science behind salt treatments goes something like this: Microscopic particles of pharmaceutical-grade salt are pumped into salt-covered treatment rooms through halogenerators and are ionized, creating a negatively charged, dry aerosol environment. When those tiny particles are breathed into the lungs or come into contact with skin, they help open airways, reduce inflammation, boost the immune system and increase serotonin levels.

Halotherapy is touted for conditions from allergies to asthma, from eczema to emphysema. (And coughs, stress and snoring, too.)

No one touches you or gives you a robe to put on. You simply show up, sit in a chair, relax -- and breathe.

It sounds a little like hippie science fiction, and no one's more aware of that than Ariasalt owner and operator Jordan Jones.

He has been working on this concept -- the first of its kind in Tarrant County -- for about 18 months. Those who've long driven by the "coming soon" sign in front of the busy Ridglea shopping center can now satisfy their curiosity. Ariasalt opened in late February.

Jones, 29, began researching natural salt therapy when his nephew Bram, now 4, was diagnosed with severe asthma when he was a few months old.

"I'm not anti-medicine, but especially in children, if there's another way to remedy the symptoms they have, I prefer to explore the natural options before having to give them some kind of drugs," says Jones, a Weatherford native and married father of two young children, ages 17 months and 3 months.

Halotherapy centers are popular in Europe, and a few dozen exist in the United States, Jones said. He visited salt therapy centers in Florida for research; a similar facility has been open since 2011 in west Plano.

The therapeutic properties of salt have been well documented through history, from people swimming in the Dead Sea to cure ailments to those seeking healing in salt mines in Europe.

Although no clinical studies of salt therapy have been conducted in the United States, Time magazine wrote that a 2006 report published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that cystic fibrosis patients benefited from inhaling hypertonic saline. The same year, a study in the European Respiratory Journal found that salt therapy relieved smoking-related symptoms, such as coughing and mucus production.

A 19th-century Polish doctor was the first to publish his observations that salt mine workers rarely suffered respiratory ailments. Salt therapy centers such as Ariasalt seek to re-create those European salt mines with their dry aerosol environments.

To do this, Jones imported 35,000 pounds of pink Himalayan salt from Pakistan; bricks of the salmon-color salt cover the walls, floor and some of the ceiling in four treatment rooms of the 2,400-square-foot facility. (It's the same Himalayan salt that has become popular in cooking.)

Importing the salt, Jones admits, with all the fees and red tape, proved to be much more difficult and time-consuming than he'd imagined. Figuring out how to place it in the walls was a challenge, he said, and he knows he'll have to replace it in the floor as it wears down.

Ambient light in the treatment rooms makes the walls and ceiling appear as though they're glowing, and the effect is sublime. While most salt-therapy centers cover their treatment rooms in white salt from floor to ceiling, Jones says he wanted to use the pink Himalayan salt to a achieve a less clinical, more luxurious ambience.

Adults can relax in a group therapy room with four chairs, a couple's room with two or a private room with a single chair.

A darling children's treatment room masquerades as a playroom, with the Himalayan salt on the walls in the shape of a castle, loose Dead Sea salt on the floor (like a beach without the water), and toys to play with, including a Lego table and a slide. The salty air is pumped in while kids play; parents can choose to sit in the room (for a fee), or outside on the other side of large glass windows.

"It's a place where kids don't know they're having a treatment," Jones says.

Ariasalt ("Aria means 'air' in Italian," Jones explains) offers single sessions ($30-$55), bundles of five to 15 visits ($135-$630) and unlimited memberships from three months ($150-$275 per month) to one year ($70-$150 per month). A typical treatment lasts 45 minutes.

Ariasalt currently does not accept insurance, and because it is not an aesthetician or medical facility, it needs no special license to operate.

For his part, Jones, who attended Texas State University and worked for his family's construction company, never dreamed of a career in anything remotely wellness- or spa-related. He says he has never suffered from allergies or any of the other conditions that salt therapy can help alleviate, but he knows of many people -- like his nephew -- who fight them on a daily basis.

"I'm excited to help a lot of people," he says.

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