V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Inside the salt cave

Vivian Song for the Toronto Star

The microclimate of a salt cave, believed to ease respiratory problems, has been recreated at the Speleocentre. Children Antonio Gretsyuk, 2, Max Naidenova, 4, and Aex Frolov, 11 play with the salt.

Published in The Toronto Star May, 2010.

It’s a balmy 24C inside the artificial, man-made salt cave.

Half a dozen asthma sufferers ranging in age from 2 to 59, are either reclining comfortably on patio lounge chairs engaging in small chit chat, watching the BBC DVD Planet Earth, or happily shovelling piles of rock salt into a plastic pail.

The walls of the Speleocenter Harmony (speleo means cave in Greek) are covered in a thick, crystalline coat of salt and the floor is likewise carpeted in crunchy rock salt. A fine saline mist is circulating throughout the room which is meant to clear mucus accumulation in airways.

The warmth and humidity, reclining chairs, and salt air could all be reminiscent of a day at the beach were it not for the fact that the users of the Speleocenter (www.speleocenter.ca/address.php) are here to treat an illness that has plagued their lives.

As a professional dancer, Karina Kay, 21, lived in perpetual denial that she had asthma. But as the condition worsened, forcing her to stop dancing every five minutes and use her puffer, Kay sought a natural method of treatment out of desperation.

“I’ve always been into alternative therapy as I don’t like conventional medicine,” she said. “Now I can dance without using my puffer so I’m happy. I don’t know physically how it all works, but the fact that I can dance with no trouble is the best thing in the world.”

It’s a common refrain that certified respiratory educator Diane Feldman hears from callers when manning the Ontario Lung Association’s asthma hotline: The search for a natural alternative. But just because a product is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe, she said. Her overarching answer is to stick to conventional medicine.

“There’s not enough research to say that alternative medicine can act as substitutes to conventional medicine,” she said. “Don’t give up traditional medicine.”

And if you do decide to seek alternative therapy, said Dr. Alan Kaplan, the chair of the Family Physician Airways Group of Canada, ``make sure you tell your doctor.’’

“People are more reluctant to take chances with the heart, but because this is an episodic disease, people tend to reach for alternative medicines,” said Kaplan.

Meanwhile, the most common alternative therapy sought among asthma sufferers can also be one of the most dangerous.

“Some herbal medicines can actually trigger asthma,” he said.

Other alternative therapies like chiropractic treatments, hypnosis, yoga and acupuncture have likewise not been proven to control asthma.

In addition to the reliever puffer which acts immediately to treat shortness of breath, asthma sufferers should also be using a second puffer, a controller, which helps reduce swelling in the airway passages when taken regularly. Feldman likens the controller to an oral cholesterol pill that’s also taken daily: Both help manage the underlying problem.

“But alternative treatments are like the reliever puffer,” she said. “It treats the immediate symptoms but not the underlying problem.”

Inside a nondescript office building near Downsview Airport, Speleocenter owner Alexander Usatenko has recreated the microclimate of salt mines commonly used in Eastern European countries to strengthen the immune system and treat ailments like asthma and sleeping disorders. To mimic cavernous conditions in a ground-level room, Usatenko uses the ventilation system to disperse a dry, saline aerosol mist into the room, which is supposed to help clear the body’s passageways. A 2006 clinical study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that inhaling saline improved the lung function in people with cystic fibrosis by increasing mucus clearance.

But Usatenko, who’s originally from Ukraine, points out he never advises patients to stop taking their medication. The Speleocenter is meant to be complementary to conventional therapy in a spa-like atmosphere.

“I’m not a doctor,” he said. “This isn’t a medical clinic — no one’s manipulating the patients. It’s just a spa where people breathe in clean air.” A one-hour session at the clinic costs $40.

Kaplan, too, said he sees no harm in the treatment, and only reiterates the importance of using it as complementary therapy to physician-prescribed medications.

Speleotherapy users like Kay and Alyona Ross, 59, extol the virtues of an ancient European tradition they say has enabled them to manage their asthma. Ross is the grandmother and guardian of a happy, pint-sized tot, Antonio Gretsyuk, 2, who has found an endless supply of things to do with the salt by his feet, flinging pebbles at his new friend, Max Naidenova, 4, or filling and emptying a plastic pail with salt, in between fits of giggles.

All have asthma, including grandma, who also used to be a pediatrician back home in the Ukraine. But Kaplan stresses the importance of treating the condition seriously.

“It’s important to remember that asthma is still a potentially fatal disease,” he said. “While the number of people who die of asthma is decreasing, it would be a shame if someone died because they thought they could get away with a natural alternative. Please, don’t do it in place of conventional medicine.”

If you have questions on alternative therapies or any other concern related to asthma, allergies, air quality, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or smoking, the Ontario Lung Association has a toll-free hotline manned by certified respiratory educators like Diane Feldman.

Consumers can call 1-888-344-LUNG (5864) and get the information they need to make educated decisions.

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