15 SECOND SUMMARY: Himalayan sea salt is a coarse pink salt that is believed to afford a wide range of health benefits.
There is no science at all behind these claims. Himalayan sea salt is a great example of why bloggers need to be careful when posting information relating to health in order to make sure that they follow the Hippocratic Oath of ‘Doing No Harm’.
The Patient Who Mistook Himalayan Sea Salt For BP Lowering Medication
I keep a beautiful pink Himalayan sea salt lamp on my desk at work. I love the way the light diffuses through the salt, spreading a nice orange-pink glow. It also vaguely reminds me of vacation time by the sea.
Last week, I found myself in an awkward situation because of the lamp. A patient noticed the lamp and misinterpreted the fact that I had a lamp on my desk as evidence that I was a raving fan of Himalayan sea salt. She then began to wax lyrical about Himalayan sea salt.
This lady uses pink Himalayan sea salt on a daily basis for a long list of cures. She cooks with it and says that the meat is very tender and tasty. She drops Himalayan sea salt crystals into her bath for detoxification. She also takes Himalayan sea salt on a daily basis to boost her metabolism and strengthen her bones.
Worryingly, since she discovered Himalayan sea salt, she had stopped taking her blood pressure tablets because she had read that Himalayan sea salt is very effective at lowering blood pressure. I was not aware of any research, but my first impression was that it seemed counterintuitive to me that a salt-based compound would lower blood pressure.
I found myself feeling very uncomfortable. Yes, I have a cute Himalayan sea salt lamp, but that does not mean anything more than that. As Freud said, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and I would say that "sometimes a Himalayan sea salt lamp is just a sea salt lamp."
Having said that, I have to admit that I am careful not to have other things in the clinic room that might be misinterpreted by a patient. As an example, I don't write with branded freebie pens from drug companies. Equally, I don't keep any unhealthy food, but to be honest, I don't eat or drink unhealthy things, so this is not a big deal. Maybe I need to retire the lamp now to a less public place!
The lady had interpreted an online blog as saying that taking Himalayan sea salt would lower her blood pressure. She had stopped her BP tablets and was adding extra Himalayan sea salt to her diet. Prior to finding the blog on sea salt, she had been taking her medications, and her BP was controlled. Not surprisingly, her BP was not controlled on this visit.
I told her that I had no idea about the science behind Himalayan sea salt and that she needed to restart her regular BP medications and stop taking sea salt. I promised to remain open-minded, do a little research into Himalayan sea salt, and let her know what I found out.
What's Actually IN Himalayan Salt?
Some blogs have referred to the spectral analysis of Himalayan salt and the famous claim about it containing 84 trace minerals and elements. The problem is that the spectral analysis was done in-house by a distributor of the salt and, as such, is not a reliable source of information for us.
Claims about the health benefits (or toxicity) of HSS components must be tempered unless someone comes up with a credible spectral analysis of it.
Does Himalayan sea salt reduce BP?
I looked in every academic resource I could think of and found no reports of Himalayan sea salt lowering blood pressure. I could not even find a single case report of an anti-hypertensive effect of Himalayan sea salt. I contacted nutrition mastermind groups that I am part of but came up with nothing. Experts that I spoke to said, ‘It is not even biologically plausible that Himalayan sea salt would lower blood pressure. Salt raises BP’
Bottom Line: There is no evidence that Himalayan sea salt lowers blood pressure, and it is biologically implausible that it would have an anti-hypertensive effect.
Does Himalayan sea salt strengthen bones?
There is nothing to be found in the scientific literature to support the use of Himalayan sea salt for strengthening bones. I cast a wide net and looked for individual reports of people who found it helpful.
All I found were random blogs that listed bone support as one of the many benefits of Himalayan sea salt, but the claims were not referenced.
Bottom Line: The role of Himalayan sea salt in bone density seems to be an urban (or bloggers) myth!
Does Himalayan sea salt improve circulation?
Again, I couldn’t find anything credible about Himalayan sea salt as a way to boost circulation. Many people with circulation issues have high BP too, so we need to be super careful about making unfounded claims regarding this condition.
Bottom Line: The role of Himalayan sea salt in improving circulation seems to be another urban (or bloggers) myth!
Does Himalayan sea salt reduce acid reflux?
There are 20,000 online posts for studies relating to the treatment of acid reflux. Guess how many mention Himalayan sea salt? None!
Bottom Line: Not one of the 20,000 studies on treating acid reflux mentions Himalayan sea salt!
Is Himalayan sea salt healthier than table salt?
There are two interesting posts online by practising MDs who have felt the need to write about the risks of Himalayan sea salt. The two posts are almost identical in content. They say that Himalayan sea salt is believed to be healthier than commercial sea salt.[1-2]
However, on closer analysis, we can see that the key issue in terms of salt health is the sodium content. The sodium content is identical between Himalayan sea salt and commercial salt. This is exactly where my patient ran into trouble.
Assuming that ‘natural’ is healthier does not always work out. What matters is the amount of salt. Sure, go for Himalayan sea salt if you like the color or coarse texture, but you still need to take it in moderation.
Bottom Line: Himalayan sea salt has the same sodium content as commercial salt and needs to be taken in moderation, if at all.
What About Himalayan Salt Lamps?
The lamps consist of a large hollowed out piece of Himalayan sea salt with a light bulb inside.
Having a pink Himalayan sea salt lamp is almost a status symbol that says "the owner of this lamp is eco-friendly and green." But do they do anything else?
Himalayan sea salt lamps are promoted for their health effects. The promotional blurb that goes with the lamp goes as follows:
The salt in the lamp attracts water and dust from the air. The heat from the lamp then warms up the salt, which allows evaporation of the water but keeps the dust and other microparticles attached to the salt. The lamp is believed to attract cations from the air and release anions.
It is really hard to believe that there is any biological plausibility behind any of this. At best, it sounds like new-age mumbo-jumbo to me, where you take anything negative and transmute it "back into the light". At worst, it sounds like a huge one-way dust magnet sitting in your room.
In any case, all of this is supposed to be good for our health, especially for asthmatics.
But is there any proof?
Are They Good For Asthma?
Put simply: There is not a shred of evidence that Himalayan salt lamps can help people with asthma. Nothing, nada.
I did come across something that sounded a little similar in the medical literature, so I checked that out in order to be really open-minded.
Speleotherapy is a treatment for asthma that is used mostly in Eastern Europe. Speleotherapy involves spending time in a subterranean environment. This can either be for a short visit or for a longer stay, as there are even wards in some of the speleotherapy caves in Europe. It is believed that the mixture of salt, radiation, humidity, air pressure, or the underground environment somehow helps asthma.
A group of UK based researchers did a really extensive review of speleotherapy (Beamion).They even contacted speleotherapy centers to try to get a comprehensive understanding of this treatment. They published their findings as part of a Cochrane review and concluded that there was no scientific basis for speleotherapy either.
A small pilot study that is about to be published does show some benefit for salt chamber or halotherapy for children with mild asthma (Bar-Yoseph). Just to be clear, this study used haloegenerators to emulate the conditions of salt chambers. With great respect to the Himalayan sea salt lamp, I have to say that we cannot extrapolate the pilot results from haologenerators to a hunk of Himalayan sea salt lit by a 100 watt bulb.
Are Himalayan Salt Lamps Safe?
This is a very reasonable question. Is it safe to have a piece of wet salt so close to an electric source? Is it safe and hygienic to have a trap for dust and microparticles sitting on a desk?
2019 Update on Himalayan Sea Salt
I initially wrote this article two years ago. The world of medical research changes and updates at an alarming rate (especially if you are a doctor who is trying to stay abreast of the latest research). There have been no new clinical studies relating to Himalayan sea salt in the intervening time.
The Randomised Control Trial
Medicine only recommends treatments that are proven to work and that have an acceptable safety profile. The gold standard for any intervention to be accepted into medical care is a randomized controlled trial. Here is how a randomized control trial works:
People who have a particular medical condition are enrolled in a study. They are fully informed about the study and give their permission to participate in it. Patients are then randomly allocated into two groups. The idea behind the randomization is to make sure that there is no bias that could affect the results of the study.
One half of the patients usually gets the intervention of interest, and the other half gets a placebo or dummy treatment. Neither the doctor nor the patients know which patients get active treatment or placebo. The patients are followed up, and the outcomes of the two groups are compared. If the treatment group does better than the placebo group then the treatment is deemed to be effective.
The treatment is rejected if the treatment group does worse or does the same as the placebo group.
There are no randomized controlled trials looking at Himalayan sea salt for BP which means that we cannot and should not recommend it to people.
The Blogger’s Responsibility
The internet has completely changed the way people get their health information. It is terrible to see patients like this lady doing badly because they believe some misinformation that is posted online. We all need to be really responsible for any information that we post online. We even need to be responsible when re-tweeting , re-pinning or sharing on Facebook.
Not only should the information be accurate, it also needs to be unambiguous. It needs to be clear to people across a wide range of literacy and educational backgrounds. It needs to be updated as new information emerges. We also should post disclaimers saying that the health information posted online should not replace regular medical advice.
I checked out the blog that this lady had read and found it confusing myself. I wonder if the blogger meant that sea salt was better than table salt for BP control as opposed to recommending taking sea salt as a medicine but it was not clear. Like many health related blogs I found no disclaimer which just adds insult to injury. Even bloggers should be held accountable to the Hippocratic principle of ‘Above all else, do no harm’.
Luckily my patient is doing fine and my little Himalayan sea salt lamp is back in my home.
Conclusion: There are no studies on Himalayan sea salt which means that we cannot and should not recommend it. We need to be really careful when discussing any treatment to make sure that we separate out folk cures from bona fide evidence based interventions. The internet has given us a new generation of Dr. Bloggers who should take this privilege and responsibility seriously.