Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Jul

Earthing: Another Reason to Go Barefoot?

I’ve written before about the benefits of going barefoot. Anatomically speaking, it’s the best thing you can do for your feet. Lately, however, I’ve been wading through a theory that suggests we have more to gain from ditching footwear than a more natural gait. In a book called Earthing, authors Clinton Ober, Martin Zucker and Dr. Stephen T. Sinatra put forth a bold proposal that body-to-earth contact has the power to directly impact our health. At the heart of their theory is a central physics-based relationship. Since the advent of shoes, houses, flooring, and elevated beds, we’ve lost our contact with the earth and its inherent electrical field. In discarding (or minimizing) this physical connection, we’re forgoing natural healing benefits that previously played a significant role in our physiological functioning. The body, when grounded in the earth, returns to its natural electrical homeostasis as part of the living electrical matrix. It’s an intriguing theory with, as yet, little attention. Is attention warranted though? Is it really the “most important health discovery ever,” as the authors suggest?

Chronic inflammation, that bane of modern existence, is set and kept in motion by free radicals, the well-meaning soldiers in an immune function run amok. (The body, of course, is responding the only way it knows how faced with the novel conditions of chronic stress, pollution, obesity, and other modern instigators. Anyone want a review?) As the authors explain, free radicals are inherently positively charged. They’re on the hunt for an additional electron, and they’ll scavenge whatever they come across to get it – usually (and hopefully) alien bacteria/virus invaders, which their ravaging disable. In the case of chronic physical/mental stress and its immune dysfunction, they target the only thing around, which is healthy tissue. Antioxidants, of course, serve the same role as these supposed free electrons. They offer up electrons to functionally neutralize free radicals and keep inflammation in check. Earthing (also called grounding) in this way acts as a “vitamin G” for our proposed “electron deficiency.”

Although I get the free radical part, the explanation of how this exchange gets set in motion feels scant. The book in numerous places includes reference to the “negatively charged” earth and its ample supply of free electrons. As a result of this negative charge, the ground itself is presumably the best source for these free electrons. When we’re “grounded” in the earth (e.g. barefoot/bare skin contact on unbuffered earth/conductive natural material or in barefoot/bare skin contact with a mechanically grounded device like a conductive pad or bed sheet), our bodies – as natural circuits – naturally absorb the earth’s plentiful free electrons and use them to feed the out of control free radicals. As the authors explain, “our conductive bodies naturally equalize with the earth.”

Call me picky, but I wish the authors spent more time filling in and substantiating these physics related claims. In some cases, there appear to be a number of convenient simplifications to the argument. Although the book makes it sound like the earth is a big ball of striking negative charge, the actual charge of the earth’s surface, for example, isn’t substantially “negative.” It instead hovers remarkably close to neutral and actually fluctuates in a dynamic relationship with the earth’s atmosphere. Generally, yes, it tends to hold a very slightly negative charge and the atmosphere a positive charge. (This relationship exists in a kind of continual exchange, with thunderstorms offering a dramatic shift and exchange of relative charge.) They comment that the physics part of the theory is “common sense,” but I’ll admit I’m not fully sold on the intuitiveness yet. Of course, I’m only a layperson here. Any physics experts out there care to chime in?

Furthermore, the authors assign seemingly random values to things like the voltage difference between a person’s head and feet. The value is likely a product of some probability distribution but has no merit as an absolute value, although this is never mentioned. (Even with a particular height, the actual voltage difference depends on a number of factors like humidity levels, wind velocity, etc.) They claim a specific voltage is inherent to living on a particular floor in an apartment building, and so on. Again, these might seem like minor points, but simplifications bother me, particularly when the persons giving them don’t acknowledge them as such.

But then there’s the biology. The book cites a variety of patient observations and clinical studies. A large part of the book contains anecdotal descriptions of people helped by earthing, which (while intriguing) can’t be counted as objective support. Thermography images (PDF) of patients’ with a variety of ailments and injuries show – after a half an hour of grounding (with no other intervention) – surprising reductions in inflammation where other medications and therapies have had little impact. Microscopic images comparing blood samples after less than an hour of grounding in several subjects suggest a dramatic improvement in viscosity.

One double-blind, controlled clinical trial demonstrated earthing’s impact on a number of biomarkers. Subjects who slept grounded showed statistically significant decreases in serum sodium, potassium, magnesium, iron, total protein, albumin concentrations, inorganic phosporus. Free T4 and TSH increased while free T3 decreased. (PDF) In another study, participants were given exercises that induced muscular pain. Those who were grounded showed altered immune activity and reported lesser pain levels than those who were ungrounded. (PDF)

Another controlled study suggested that sleeping grounded can impact cortisol levels and sleep quality. Subjects who slept grounded with conductive mattress pads showed lower night-time cortisol levels as well as an overall “resynchronization” of cortisol secretion “more in alignment with the natural 24-hour circadian rhythm profile.” (PDF) Subjects who were grounded during sleep also reported better sleep and less physical pain and emotional stress. You can check out links to other earthing related studies here.

Clearly, something is happening here. The results are pretty suggestive of some significant phenomenon. As for my part, I’m hopeful but still cautious about the authors’ general theory and the compelling (albeit modest) collection of research that supports earthing’s impact. The concept admittedly appeals to the evolutionary bent in me, but I’m always on the lookout for the snags of naturalistic fallacy.

When I first heard of the concept, I was on the verge of dismissing it out of hand, but a friend convinced me to read the book. I thought it was going to be another artfully construed, new agey round of BS. I finished the book a little disappointed at the vague physics summary and a few infomercial style sections but nonetheless intrigued by the concept and some of the study results.

The research and scholarly discussion on earthing isn’t overwhelming. The vast majority of studies aren’t substantial in size, and few bear the gold standard of randomized, controlled, and double-blind methodology. The inclusion of so many personal stories – with their apparent suggestion that earthing has conferred benefit to virtually every ailment and injury known to humankind (and don’t forget the section on pets!) doesn’t do the authors’ argument any favors. (And I still can’t let go of the thin, unsubstantiated physics explanation.)

Nonetheless, I’ve been spending even more time outside barefoot. I’ve taken to sitting on the beach or grass more often while reading or talking with my kids. I look for the grass, gravel, dirt, sand, or concrete the authors suggest for conductivity.

As of yet, I haven’t picked up any of the equipment, but I’m not ruling it out. I’ll admit part of me is curious. I don’t have any truly chronic pain (although the knee I injured a couple of years ago does get a little irritated now and then) or disease that would offer me the chance to  follow any dramatic observations. The most I could hope for is a more restful night’s sleep and (barring a battery of blood tests, thermography and other images) the benefit of unseen stabilization of my body’s electrical state. Hmmmm…

We’ll see what the coming months bring. For now, it’s one more excuse to go barefoot and enjoy being outside with the sand or grass between my toes. Seriously, who doesn’t love that? It’s all the justification I need really.

Anyone out there familiar with the earthing concept? If you’ve read the book or tried the practices/products suggested by the Earthing authors, I’d be interested in hearing your take. Thanks for reading today, everyone. I’ll look forward to enjoying your thoughts. Have a great week.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I read about earthing or grounding and was skeptical to say the least! So during my sons soccer game I removed my shoes for the whole game, it felt good! I noticed a big difference when I stood up at the end of the game and didn’t have the normal stiffness or pain that I usually have!
    So I got curious! I wasn’t spending that kind of money on something that hokey! So what did I do, what I normally do, made an improvised grounding bed mat out of aluminum window screen! WOW! That was the first time in twenty years that I got out of bed without any of the normal pains and I could stand up straight. The window screen wasn’t a big hit with the wife, so I found some foil bubble wrap in the loading dock. I took it home and made a bed pad that I have been using for a couple of weeks. I have never slept better in my life!
    Since that time I went online and purchased some fabric with the metal thread in it and is used for this purpose. Tonight I will see if the fabric is worth buy to make my own bedsheet or bag! I am sold on this! So are my coworkers, I am making them all mats!

    Glen L wrote on September 18th, 2013
    • It sounds like you went though the same sequence of experiments as myself to realize that earthing really does improve your sleep. These benefits inspired me to help spread how to make your own earthing sheet to test it for yourself. I made a YouTube channel called GroundedSymbiosis where I have two different earthing sheet how to videos with test results as well.

      Mike wrote on October 28th, 2013
      • Thanks Mike, I will look it up. I like to get my bare feet on the ground but now that it’s turning cold here in the Pacific Northwest I’m not inclined to go out and sit much. Brrrrrr.

        2Rae wrote on October 28th, 2013
        • Sure thing 2Rae, I think I may have a solution to your cold feet. Stay tuned to my channel for the release of some new winter earthing footwear options! I don’t know if you”l be able to sit around in these though, you may have to keep it moving:)

          Mike wrote on November 6th, 2013
  2. I just heard about this today and watched a video about it due to the urging of my wife. Do I believe it? I don’t know yet, but I’m going to try it and see. I will say this though, it’s not rocket science to see how far as a society we’ve tried to distance ourselves from the natural world. Are we meant to wear shoes? Are we meant to drive cars? are we meant to eat wheat and corn? Are we meant to eat and drink the milk of another species once we are weaned? Are we meant to sit at desks starring at a computer screen or stand on concrete floors 10 hours a day, five days a week? Are we meant to eat domestically grown grain fed meat and genetically modified fruits and vegetables? Personally I think that only an idiot would answer yes to any of those questions. I think that grounding most likely goes hand in hand with going back to a more primal existence, following a diet and exercise regimen that closely mirrors our evolution. We are animals, predatory animals at that. We are part of nature, we belong in nature, and I think going barefoot can only bring us closer to our natural state.

    Postman wrote on October 26th, 2013
  3. I think it deserves more attention. Not to dismiss it because there are no academics studying it. The native inuits and hunter-gatherers have much better health and nutrition to us westerners and not a scientific bit of proof amongst any of them…yet they are nutritionally superior. Don’t use the words ‘nonsense’ unless you have at least tried it personally and tried to make sense of it with your academic qualifications. Do some work on it. If proved to be nonsense (and it is provable), I will change my views on it.

    Zach Raybould wrote on October 29th, 2013
  4. Another well-balanced viewpoint, especially for the PhD in Physics guy here who keeps crying “nonsense”.

    http://georgewashington2.blogspot.com/2011/04/electrons-and-antioxidants-key-to-good.html

    I have only a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and even I can say that the premise isn’t unreasonable at all.

    Also, there are ground currents which may act as cues to normalize our circadian rhythms along with light.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geomagnetically_induced_current

    One more thing I want to add is that you don’t need the Earth to be negatively charged for the electron flow hypothesis to be valid.

    In any circuit current flows from a point of higher potential to lower potential. Hence, if one terminal is at say 10 volts and another at say 5 volts, current will still flow from the first terminal to the second terminal ie. there will be electron flow from the second terminal to the first one. What we call electric current is actually the reverse flow of electrons from the relatively lower to the relatively higher potential. Key word, RELATIVE. This is Electricity 101.

    A metaphor, if you will : even if you live at a height of 1000m, as long as the water source is higher that you, water will flow to you, just like current does.

    So, you don’t need the Earth to be negatively charged for theoretical electron flow to occur, you just need it to be LESS positive that YOU.

    Now see this,

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AuneIaI1vKg

    What just happened right when he touched the grounding pad was the induced emf on his body neutralised ie. Free electrons did flow from the ground to his body. No electrical or electronics engineer would dispute that. And at the very least, grounding immediately negates the effects of the emfs in your immediate surroundings on your body.

    We also know that even in the absence of any external emf field, our body generates low amplitude emf itself. We know it because that’s what all doctors use all the time. (EKGs, EEGs).

    Taking those three things together we just saw for ourselves that our body does conduct electricity (else his voltage would not have dropped when he touched the grounding pad), free electrons do flow (from the same demonstration and basic tenets of electrical conduction) and the Earth has constantly varying geomagnetic currents which may (or may not) act as circadian cues just like light, hence validating the Schumann resonance premise too.

    Please don’t get taken in by the armchair intellectualism of the “experts” when you can prove or disprove something to yourself.

    I wonder how much time and money the PhD in Physics here spent on his doctorate, and regurgitating information he has read in textbooks, according to which grounding is “nonsense”, when he could have tested out the hypothesis with half an hour and a $30 multimeter.

    Love,
    Foggy dude

    Ps: Notice I didn’t say anything about my personal experience with grounding, only the science. Though it *has* helped me tremendously.

    Foggy dude wrote on November 6th, 2013
    • Dear Foggy dude:

      I appreciate your attempt at coming up with a suggestion for possible mechanism.

      I am also sure, that as a EE, you are aware that nothing can truly be “grounded” unless it is connected to a pipe or other metal object buried a significant distance into the ground. Someone walking around on the grass or on carpet or a hardwood surface is not grounded; they are walking on a semiconductive surface that may or may not be caring a free charge. If there is a potential difference between the person’s feet and the surface, then — as you noted — current will flow.

      However, current will only flow until equilibrium is achieved, which happens in a fraction of a second. After that, it is impossible for any ions to flow one way or another — into or out of a person’s body. This, of course, is why if you are in your car and a fallen high-voltage wire electrifies your vehicle, you are perfectly safe: you take on the same potential, with a minimal amount of current flowing. However, if you touch the ground, then you are no longer in equilibrium with the wire and a tremendous amount of current will now flow, causing serious injury.

      To get current to flow through your body from the earth, you would need for your head to be in contact with something that’s at a different potential from the earth. This is what happens when you stand in the middle of a field during a thunderstorm and get struck by lightning.

      Agree with you on your three points (bodies are conductive — at least semi-conductive, electrons can flow to create equilibrium, and the earth has changing magnetic fields). Admittedly, I do not what what the Schumann resonance is. If you supply a link, I’ll take a look.

      Now:

      1) Don’t go around making personal attacks. It makes you look stupid, naive, and like you’re merely a troll.

      2) Anything on Youtube can be faked. Such a video hardly constitutes evidenced.

      3) Beware the placebo effect.

      Cordially,

      The Physics PhD who still says that “earthing” is bogus.

      Sean Cordry wrote on November 7th, 2013
  5. I have a scientific background (M.S. in Organic Chemistry and an M.S. in Nutrition) but more of a holistic approach to health and wellness.

    With the scientific background, I’m not sure why so many people are so insistent on having scientific data back up anything and everything. From what I’ve noticed, the majority of peer reviewed data is mostly to get out the professor’s name (or company’s name) and earn grant money or sell a product.

    As far as I’m concerned, we, as humans, know so little about the universe we live in – and I’m sure any physicist worth his or her salt would agree with that. So why do we always need scientific proof? Especially proof about stuff that we know so little about. I mean, if we can’t explain why particles and waves act they way they do (Double Slit Experiment: http://bit.ly/NqLvUf – SFW), do we really think we can prove the existence or non-existence of earthing/grounding?

    But for those of you that want to try and discredit grounding, play around on Jack Kruse’s website. Smartest guy I know with all the scientific and biological proof you need.

    Nathan Brammeier wrote on February 9th, 2014
    • Nathan, well put. Science is great…. to a point. We will never really have full scientific understanding of any aspect of this grand universe.

      Why speculate and say something works or doesn’t work without testing it for ourselves?!

      Anyway, I personally have been using earthing techniques with some good success in several areas (deeper sleep, faster injury recovery times, more energetic, happier, and that’s just off the top).

      I wouldn’t bother saying it works or doesn’t work without looking into it myself.

      After all, everyone in this comment section could say it works wonderfully, but if I don’t try it myself, it is useless to me.

      …and much more useless is to talk about it and post comments saying it works or doesn’t work without trying it.

      So anyway, I enjoyed reading the comments on this page but the ones I did read were a little close minded ALBEIT, I DIDN’T READ ALL THE COMMENTS cuz there’s so many :)

      check out the earthingforum http://earthingforum.com/ for more discussion on earthing. Everyone there seems to have already tried it so you might get a unique perspective.

      Cheers!

      Coz wrote on March 3rd, 2014
  6. Even though I agree we’ll have to wait for better science on this one, I have always felt a need to have my shoes off in my garden despite warnings from friends and relatives. I’ll wear shoes when I have to use a spade or garden fork, but mostly I just know what makes me feel good.

    Shelley T wrote on April 22nd, 2014
  7. This all makes a lot of sense to me intuitively and scientifically. My understanding of the physics, Mark, is that the earth is indeed mostly neutral. However, because it is so massive, it easily “absorbs” the positive charge/ “provides” negative charge without any change to the earth. In the same way as if you add a drop of hot water to a swimming pool, the pool will assimilate it with no appreciable change in temperature.
    My experiences in nature back up the value of returning to our roots, however ascertaining the exact mechanisms from subjective experience is hard.
    Overall, this theory meets my approval.
    Apologies if this explanation has already been posted in the comments.

    Dave wrote on April 22nd, 2014
  8. I’ve had 5 back surgeries, several traumatic accidents, etc. I went barefoot about a month ago and noticed I now unconsciously stand and walk with bent knees and thighs at the hip. I attribute my new found posture when standing and walking to my back gaining about a 25% improvement from pain almost immediately. I have also found that when I put shoes on for church, my feet instantly start aching and my back goes out. As I am not pounding my back, and my feet are not straining, my inflammatory process has subsided clearly due to bio-mechanical reasons.

    I’m going to try earthing, but I’m skeptical. The “positive” charged voltage, is really only Tesla electrons, which bombard us 24/7 and, due to our electrolytic nature, we are an antenna for such. A voltmeter measures electrons, not protons (which are positively charged). Electricity is made of electrons, and this allegedly “positive” charge is really a reading of the availability of negatively charged electrons. I live next to high tension lines, and I get more electrons than most. If I held a fluorescent light stick near the wires, it would glow with negatively charged electrons.

    According to the quack theory, I should be the healthiest guy in the world, as I am overloaded with electrons.

    That’s my problem with suppositions by the money changers, aka the Earthing promoters.

    However, achieving homeostasis with the earth’s charge may be the ticket. Their theory is bass ackwards. We have more voltage, or availability of negatively charged electrons, than the little patch of earth we are grounding to. Perhaps reaching equilibrium with the earth’s voltage may be the issue, and it’s disappointing to see snake oil salesmen purposely obfuscate this basic electrical issue.

    Hope this grounding experiment works, but I’m keeping eyes wide open.

    God bless y’all, and damn the torpedoes.

    Bilbo wrote on May 12th, 2014
  9. I’m curious about fungi, viruses, and bacteria. I didn’t see any mention of that; did I overlook it?

    Kerridwen wrote on July 11th, 2014
  10. All these immediate naysayers remind me of the old American Medical Association hating on Chiropractic, denying it. After all, if the almighty AMA couldn’t explain the phenomenon associated with a specific, individualized chiropractic adjustment (namely improving communication between all the structures and all the functions of the body via the nervous system) then it couldn’t possibly exist. Science is just now only finally beginning to see how incredibly ingenious Dr. Palmer really was!

    Blayne wrote on October 26th, 2014
  11. I’m on board with spending more time barefoot and bare chested outside, feeling the earth on my skin, breathing fresh air, rubbing my back against nature. I’m not on board with spending hundreds of dollars on products that claim to “ground” me or “connect” me to the earth. I have a feeling connecting more electrical devices in my home would just exacerbate the issue. I’ll continue to enjoy as much uninterrupted, bare connection to nature as my otherwise busy life will allow.

    Jason wrote on January 25th, 2016

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