A salt cave, a health trend that has taken off in big cities across the globe, is on its way to Lafayette with claims of helping with anxiety, congestion and allergies.

Lafayette Salt Cave, 2504 Johnston St., is the idea of local special education teacher Marta Wallace Ellinger, who first encountered the practice of relaxing in a room pumped with salt-laden air while visiting friends in Asheville, North Carolina, in January. She said she thought the hourlong session they booked was for a tour, but when they arrived at the spa, she and her friend decided to go through with the treatment.

It was a life-changing experience, she said.

"I'm a pretty laid-back person, but it was an immediate sense of relaxation," Wallace Ellinger said. "I went that one time and I just loved it so much that I came back and couldn't get it out of my mind, and I couldn't find anything. So I thought, 'Lafayette could use something like that,' and the idea wouldn't leave my head, and by March, I was applying for my LLC."

The first salt caves were set up around 155 years ago by Dr. Feliks Boczkowski in Poland when he noted that local salt miners did not suffer lung diseases. He had a grotto carved out within the Wieliczka salt mines 400 feet underground. It became a popular spot for those suffering respiratory diseases and is still in use today as a health resort and tourist site.

Many American cities, from New York and Austin and Baton Rouge — which has Fleauxt, 832 Jefferson Highway, Suite 4 — have salt caves set up.

Lafayette Salt Cave will open in August.

Wallace Ellinger's salt cave will seat eight people per hour for the 45-minute session where those attending will sit in gravity chairs in a darkened room lit by Himalayan Salt lamps and allowed to relax as fine salt particles are pumped into the room. She also plans to offer sound bath sessions run by friends who used to operate out of the now closed Yoga Garden across the street.

Wallace Ellinger's place isn't the first salt cave in Acadiana. The Natural Path, 100 Sabal Palms Row, Suite No. 2, in Youngsville, which has been in business for over three years, also offers its own therapeutic services, which include a salt cave.

"It's a lot like if you were by the ocean," said Nicole Moore, who owns The Natural Path. "It mimics the air quality there. Our clients love it. People in Louisiana are usually using it for congestion of pressure in their nasal passages or allergies, but others use it for anxiety and to help them relax."

Moore said her clients rave about how sometimes they go in to relax and the salt cave treatment helps drain congestion and pressure they didn't realize they had. At peak season, Moore can see a flow of people booking sessions every hour in the four-person salt cave.

Moore does stress, though, that while clients have seen health improvement from the treatment, her location is not a medical establishment and does not offer cures for ailments — only ways to "improve wellness."

However, while some doctors and the health-minded rave of the benefits of the practice, others argue it's no more effective than relaxing for an hour in a normal dark room. There have been few clinical studies of the effects of salt rooms, and most have not properly controlled for variables.

Organizations like the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America have said the practice does not appear to be harmful, except in very rare cases where bronchoconstriction, which is a constriction of the airways in the lungs due to the tightening of surrounding smooth muscle, occurs but it should not replace long-term control medications. 

Also, a 2006 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that inhaling hypertonic salt improved lung function in people with cystic fibrosis. A study in the European Respiratory Journal found that inhaling aerosolized salt temporarily improved smoking-related symptoms like mucus production and coughing in cigarette smokers.

For Wallace Ellinger, who has experienced the positive effects of salt cave therapy, she said she believes bringing one to Lafayette can only help improve health and wellness in Acadiana, which is why she plans to operate the Lafayette Salt Cave after working at Prairie Elementary School every day.

She plans to eventually hire employees to help her run it while she's working her day job.

"At first, in August and September, until I get comfortable, I'm only going to do evening and weekends, but once we get going I want to be open more so more people can take advantage of this," she said. "It's just there's a huge list of things that it's good for and a small list of things it's bad for. Like don't come if you have tuberculosis or acute congestive heart disease, but otherwise, come on in after we open and give it a try."

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Email Dan Boudreaux at dboudreaux@theadvocate.com.