Three or four times a week, 73-year-old Betty Davis pulls out a good book and settles into a comfy chair in a small room where the walls are covered in Dead Sea salt, the floor is buried in several inches of salt and a generator blows tiny salt particles through the air.
The Knoxville resident spends 45 minutes in the room each session, breathing deeply to get the salt into her lungs. She pays $99 a month for unlimited access to the room, with a year's commitment.
After spending 30 years living with a chronic cough from bronchial asthma -- it's money well-spent, she said.
"It's been unbelievable," she said. "Some days I don't even cough at all. And I usually coughed all the time."
This sort of Dead Sea salt therapy is making its debut in the Chattanooga area this week. Dan and Lynnette Trundle, co-owners of the Shear Miracles Studio in East Ridge, opened the area's first Salt Chalet on Tuesday.
The Trundles decided to open the franchised location at their studio after a good friend with lung problems died in September.
"It made me think, we can't help him any longer, but we can help other people," Lynnette Trundle said. "They can come into the room and breathe better and feel better."
The first Salt Chalet location opened in 2009 in California by owner David Mashiah. Since then, 12 franchised locations spread throughout the United States. Each franchise costs $25,000 to $32,000 to start, depending on the size of the salt room and accessories, Mashiah said. Franchisees can opt to rent the room for $550 a month.
Lynnette Trundle shipped in 2,000 pounds of salt straight from the Dead Sea to her 120 square foot room in the studio at 1796 Mack Smith Road. Two lawn-chair sized recliners fit comfortably in the room, which is lit by slowly changing colored lights.
"When you first start coming in you'll start coughing a little bit, your nose will start running," she said. "When we're working in here, my lungs will feel heavy at first -- what it's doing is cleaning them out."
The health benefits of Dead Sea salt are well-established, said Cathy Rogers, a naturopathic physician who helped found the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
"There's no question about that," she said. "The advantage of these kinds of Dead Sea salts is that they aren't just plain sodium chloride. There are all these other minerals in there. Part of its healing effect has to do with taking minerals into your body."
Still, she said she's not sure that sitting in a room and inhaling the salts would be as beneficial as bathing in Dead Sea water or breathing the steam of the salt. At the very least, it would take repeated visits, she said.
"You really need to go for 10 to 20 hours for it to be effective," she said.
Jeff Benabio, an M.D. and dermatologist based in San Diego, said he wouldn't recommend visiting a salt therapy room.
"I suggest that the evidence for any significant health benefits is lacking," he said. "I would personally not advise my patients to spend the money expecting health improvement."
Patricia Farris, an M.D. and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University in New Orleans, said there's not much hard evidence to support the therapeutic effects of Dead Sea salts.
"It's mostly anecdotal, from what we know about the composition of sea salts and what we know from patients who for many years have gone to the oceans," she said.
Mashiah said such anecdotal, word-of-mouth customer testimonials alone have been enough to grow the customer base at his original location to 150 people who come to the Salt Chalet at least twice every week.
He added that the business model behind the Salt Chalet franchises is strong because the room is not labor intensive and the salt is fairly cheap -- one 50 pound bag costs about $100 and will last for at least three months.
"With a salt chalet, it's a room with a machine," he said. "And the machine does 99 percent of the work. The lady at the front desk can operate the machine with just the push of a button."
Trundle will provide Wi-Fi, electrical outlets, reading lights and cup holders in her room. She's charging $99 a month for unlimited visits, and that includes a monthly massage.