A salt of the earth therapy for congested Londoners

Timothy Barber
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ENTERING the treatment room at South London’s Salt Cave clinic is a bit like stepping into Narnia. You may be going via an anteroom in a converted Earlsfield community centre rather than through the back of a wardrobe, but what greets you is an all-white environment, with powder spread in little ripples and dunes across the floor, and crystal encrustations covering the walls and ceiling. It’s surprisingly transporting – there are even wave and seagull sound effects – and if nothing else, a deeply peaceful otherworld in which to relax on a comfy lounger for a while.

It has a greater purpose than that, however, namely to help clear up respiratory problems ranging from asthma, hayfever and other allergies to heavily blocked noses, coughs and even snoring. The chamber, which can seat up to eight people and also has a play area for kids, has its own micro-climate, meant to resemble that of a real salt cave. It’s controlled by a machine that pumps in air containing tiny sodium chloride crystals. You can’t see them, but they penetrate deep into a person’s airways and lungs.

“Salt has both anti-sceptic and anti-inflammatory properties,” says the Salt Cave’s owner and manager, Sofia Benke. “It reduces the inflammation in the respiratory system and loosens the mucus so that the person can expel it more easily.”

You might think of complimentary medicine as a hippyish notion, but the Salt Cave is a place with strong City credentials. Benke is a 30-year-old Hungarian who used to work in recruitment at Accenture’s Square Mile office, while her fiancé and co-owner of the business, Dennis Gull, is an investment banker with Lloyds Banking Group. They set up the Salt Cave a year ago after realising that a treatment that’s common in their homeland and other parts of Eastern Europe had real viability in London.

“I’d never had sinusitis until I came to London,” explains Sofia. “It’s the climate, the pollution, the old houses, and so many people here suffer as a result.”

In Hungary some hospitals have salt rooms, while sanatoriums have been established in old salt mines in Poland, and there have been Eastern European studies suggesting salt chambers can be beneficial. The Salt Cave recommends between 10 and 20 one-hour sessions (at a cost of £35 each), depending on the severity of the condition. However, it’s a relatively un-researched area of science, and Erica Evans of Asthma UK says that such a treatment should only ever be seen as a complimentary therapy and should never replace medicines and evidence-based treatments.

“It might help some people, but that is not proved,” Evans says. “Medicines and things like inhalers are definitely proven to be healing. I’d urge people to discuss it with their doctor first, and look at your lifestyle, including diet, stress and work-life, before turning to costly alternatives.”

Nevertheless, the Salt Cave has had over 1,000 customers in its first year of business, and testimonials from satisfied users range from asthma sufferers who claim to have found their symptoms reduced, to a runner who says his lung capacity had increased.

I only paid a single visit, on the back of a heavy cold, and could certainly notice clearer airways for a short time afterwards. The jury may be out on how successful such a therapy can really be, but with two more clinics planned to open in London in 2010, this particular City couple seem to have found a market with real growth potential.

There’s almost no condition that acupuncture specialists don’t claim to be able to treat. The therapy uses tiny needles inserted at points along the body’s “meridians” to balance or redirect energy flow. No one really knows how it works, but can its millions of supporters all be wrong? Try it at the London Acupuncture Clinic, Harley Street.

Flotation therapy involves floating inside a tank containing water heavily saturated with salt, in which your body effectively becomes free of the forces of gravity, allowing muscles to completely relax. It’s said to be a very effective stress-buster, and you can give it ago at Floatworks, Southwark.

Advocates of pulsed electro-magnetic-field therapy claim that it can aid a variety of conditions, from aches and pains to wound recovery, through passing an electro magnetic field around the body. All you have to do is lie on a mattress containing a magnetic coil, while a machine does the rest. Find out if it’s hooey or not at the Bemer Health Centre, Wandsworth.