Elizabeth McNamara visited the Bethesda Salt Cave with her daughters this past December. Photo by Deb Lindsey.


The receptionist at the Bethesda Salt Cave, who was wearing a T-shirt that read, “Everybody Kneads a Massage,” knelt down to my daughters’ eye level and gently explained the rules: no yelling, no climbing, and no throwing or eating the salt.

It was a frigid Tuesday this past December. My 2-year-old, Genevieve, had an ear infection, and my 5-year-old, Cecile, had a runny nose that was making her whiny and clingy. Recycled cabin air on a return trip from London had left me with a scratchy throat, dry skin and jet lag. I’d scrambled to think of someplace the three of us could go where the girls could expel some energy and I could, well, not. I’d been planning to write about the Bethesda Salt Cave and this seemed like a good time to try it out. So I piled the kids into the car in the hopes that we could inhale our way to a better evening.

Halotherapy, as salt therapy is called (“halo” is Greek for salt), mimics the microclimate of salt mines in Eastern Europe. The mines were first sought out for their healing purposes in the mid-1800s, when Polish doctors observed that salt miners were healthier than their metal and coal cohorts. (No surprise, perhaps, that the majority of the 29 studies that come up in a quick search for “halotherapy” on PubMed were conducted in Eastern Europe.) Proponents of halotherapy say salt inhalation is particularly effective in clearing mucus and alleviating respiratory inflammation, with other therapeutic properties to boot.

I’m a yoga-practicing, kale-eating, kombucha-drinking millennial mother with what I’d like to think is an open mind. But generally, I’m not easily lured by “alternative” therapies to treat illness. (Heck, if you’d quizzed me a year ago on what a chakra is, I likely would have guessed that it’s a seasoning, not a point of spiritual energy in the body.) Maybe this is because my father is an internist, my mother was a nurse, and I have two siblings studying medicine.

But what harm could a salt cave do? Worst case, I rationalized, the trip would be an adventure, a break from our usual predinner dance. Best case, it would remedy our range of respiratory ailments, and maybe even become our place to go on particularly moody or stuffed-up afternoons.

So under the gaze of a stone Buddha head atop a corner file cabinet, my daughters and I changed into fresh pairs of socks (another rule) before the receptionist walked us down a darkened hallway leading to the cave.