Since ancient Rome, people have believed in the physical and mental healing powers of hot springs, which, in the American South and West, are still popular tourist destinations. U.S. spas promoted mud baths in the 1940s, and the '70s brought in-home saunas and hot tubs. Now comes the next step in the quest for holistic relaxation: salt caves.
Eastern Europeans have long thought that just sitting in naturally occurring salt caves could relieve allergies, asthma, eczema, hypertension, ulcers and stress. Recently, they've built simulated caves in the U.S. The Chicago area, because of its large Polish population, is the epicenter of the trend. Several spas in other parts of the country have installed salt breathing rooms. And the Florida-based Silesia Group builds salt rooms for private homes and sells portable salt caves for the backyard. "The atmosphere helps regulate your breathing, gets the stress out," says Madzia Stoklosa, whose Megi's Spa Salt Cave in Park Ridge, Ill., is constructed of 10 tons of salt from a 600-year-old mine in Wielczka, Poland.
The caves draw clients from professionals just wanting to chill out after a hard day at work to people with more serious ailments. Anna Wuszter, who has a rare bone cancer that has led to the removal of her lower jaw, has had 38 surgeries since 2006. But since sitting in Megi's for an hour at least twice a week for a year, she says, "I can sleep better. I don't have nightmares anymore. The doctors told me that the scars are healing better and faster."
On a recent afternoon, 10 people reclined in deck chairs and on blankets under salty stalactites in Galos Caves in Chicago. The recorded sound of waves filled the dimly lit room. It smelled like a seaside town. The floor is made of loose rock salt from the Dead Sea and is warmed to enhance the scent and coziness. After 45 minutes, for which they had paid $15 each, Dan Zegar, 50, and Denyse Waters, 57, didn't want to leave. Waters thought the salt air had cleared her sinuses. But Zegar's appreciation was broader: "If there are some medicinal properties to it, great. But it doesn't matter. It was so relaxing."