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Earthing: Another Reason to Go Barefoot?

I’ve written before about the benefits of going barefoot [7]. 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 [8], 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 [9], houses, flooring, and elevated beds [10], 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 [11], 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 [12], pollution [13], obesity, and other modern instigators [14]. 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 [15], 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 [16] descriptions of people helped by earthing, which (while intriguing) can’t be counted as objective support. Thermography images (PDF [17]) 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 [18]) 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 [19])

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 [20]) 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 [21].

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 [22].

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 [23] 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 [24] and (barring a battery of blood tests [25], 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 [26] 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.