Clay Juracsik doesn't believe in medication. He prefers natural remedies and uses antibiotics as a last resort. So three years ago when his daughter, then seven, developed asthma, he and his wife realized they had a problem. They researched inhalers and discovered that they stunt children's grown and weakened their bones. Clearly, they needed another solution.
And thus they discovered salt rooms.
After one hour-long treatment, their daughter was able to breathe easier. Unfortunately, the nearest salt room was in Chicago. But last summer, after Clay lost his job in social services, the Juracsiks decided to build their own salt room in St. Louis. The St. Louis Salt Room opened in a storefront in downtown Maplewood last December.
Now that his daughter has had regular treatments, says Clay Juracsik, "her asthma cleared up."
All that stuff in Victorian novels about tuberculosis patients recuperating at the seaside, it turns out, isn't just romantic bunk after all. Salt really does have an amazing curative effect on the respiratory system.
Salt therapy has been popular in Eastern Europe ever since the mid-1800s when a Polish doctor discovered that workers in the Wieliczka salt mine had a lower rate of respiratory problems. Soon after, the Wieliczka salt mine became a spa where people would lie on cots for eight hours a day breathing in the salt air. It was more effective than the sea because of the higher concentration of salt in the air.
About twenty years ago, Russian doctors and engineers improved on the idea by inventing the halogenerator.
"The machine crushes pure salt, and the turbine blows it around," Juracsik explains. "You breathe it deep into your lungs. The negative ions make you feel relaxed."
Pump that extra air into a room lined with salt and then length of a salt treatment suddenly shrinks from eight hours to one. That is doable.
Halogenerators, however, are still extremely rare, especially in the U.S. (Juracsik imported his from Estonia.) The St. Louis Salt Room was only the seventh salt room to open in this country, though Juracsik says there are now fifteen.
Juracsik has lined the walls and floor of his salt room with Dead Sea salt (he uses an epoxy to get it to stick to the wall) and lit it with salt lamps made from bricks of pink Himalayan salt; he's filled the halogenerator with American pharmaceutical salt. Three reclining chairs sit in the middle of the room and soft New Agey music plays in the background to cover the sound of the halogenerator. It is indeed a relaxing environment. Although Juracsik has provided a bookcase of reading material for his clients, most prefer to doze.
Treatment at the Salt Room costs $35 a session, or $250 for 20. It did a brisk business during the spring allergy season -- Juracsik pulls out a full appointment book listing "hundreds of clients" to prove it -- though it's slowed down in the summer.
"The Russians say salt treatments last six to twelve months," Juracsik says.
Medical literature has been mostly silent on the subject of salt therapy; nearly all the papers that have been written on it are in Russian. In the U.S., doctors are skeptical.
"Doctors have done no research," says Juracsik, taking a deep breath to calm himself down. "They're motivated to push medicines. The only critics of salt therapy are doctors. People have come in here in terrible shape and have completely turned around. Doctors have seen the results, but we've never had an MD refer anyone to us."
Juracsik himself is equally suspicious of conventional medicine. "Medicine is a business," he says. "It needs repeat customers. People take medicine, and it makes them sick, so they need more medicine. If the best remedy is a natural treatment, your doctor won't tell you."