Earthing, touted by self-proclaimed wellness experts as the “most important health discovery ever“.
“The surprising health benefits of going barefoot” however, are dismissed by skeptics as crackpot territory.
Is it true that “there is some science to back up the health claims” of this “ancient healing practice”? Does the “re-discovered by science” practice of earthing (a.k.a. grounding) really work?
Let’s put on our critical goggles and have a close look.
What exactly is earthing?
The tenets are simple, when you earth a piece of electrical equipment, you connect it to the ground so any excess charge can run off harmlessly.
The theory behind the ‘New Age way’ of earthing is that you can ‘earth’ your body in the same way, allowing excess positively-charged particles to run off into the ground.
In more mystic words, earthing (or grounding) is meant to equalize your energetic frequency with that of Mother Earth.
This is usually done by walking barefoot, touching the earth with your bare hands, or sleeping on a special bedsheet or sitting on a conductive grounding system such as a mat.
According to proponents, earthing essentially means:
“coupling your body to the Earth’s surface energy by walking, sitting or sleeping outside in direct contact with the Earth or using a device that creates the same response while indoors”.
Must be something to it right?
I have to admit, in a way, it sounds plausible yet at the same time it has a whiff of quackery.
Maybe I’m pliable. I’m a sucker for walking barefoot. I run on my bare feet in the woods, stroll the beach without shoes when most people still wear shoes, and take up any occasion to take of my shoes, which is why friends call me ‘the barefoot walker’.
Native peoples often walked barefoot, not because they simply had no shoes but because there are various proven benefits.
Connecting with nature
There’s no doubt about it, spending time in nature is rewarding in various ways. Nature has a therapeutic effect on us.
Taking a walk on the beach, a swim in the ocean, or sit around the campfire enclosed by trees, a rippling stream nearby in nature is rejuvenating and relaxes us. We tend to sleep better and have more energy when out in nature.
The Chinese, the Greeks, and the Romans all believed that it was healthy to spend time outside, and decades of modern scientific research back that up.
Walking barefoot on soft ground is the way humans evolved to move, and according to WebMD, is better for your body than wearing highly-cushioned shoes which change your gait.
But this does not say anything about earthing.
Why on earth do we need grounding?
In ancient times, people were connected to the ground at all times – walking barefoot, working in agriculture, dwelling in huts with mud floors, sleeping on beds of rushes and so on.
Our ancestors’ bodies would naturally have achieved a balanced state, with energy from the earth constantly flowing through them.
- Nowadays, people spend little time outdoors and wear rubber-soled shoes, which insulate them from the Earth’s current.
- TV, computers, electronic gadgets, refined carbohydrates, and chairs are three examples of human inventions which make us temporarily comfortable at the expense of our long-term health.
But none of that is because your TV is pumping positive ions into the air. It’s because humans have evolved in close contact with nature, and 300 years of industrialization can’t undo that.
Two reasons for earthing
So what’s the problem? Two things according to earthing enthusiasts;
- “We have essentially lost our electrical roots”. We’re disconnected from the earth’s electrical rhythms and free electrons. This leads to a build-up of positive ions in the body, which can cause health problems in the long term.
- Present-day man lives in an ocean of electromagnetic waves radiated by mobile phone signals, Wi-Fi, automatic doors etc. This is referred to as “dirty electricity” or “electromagnetic pollution”. Our modern world is said to cause a build-up an excess of positive electrons in the cells of our bodies.
The solution is, obviously that;
- By connecting to the earth, you allow negatively-charged electrons to flow into your body, which returns your body to optimum health.
Purported earthing health benefits
The main claim for earthing is that it fights inflammation by reducing free radicals, which are positively charged.
Knock-on effects are said to include alleviated (chronic) pain, improved sleep, and normalizing circadian rhythms.
Current biomedical research has led to an inflammation hypothesis that is establishing chronic inflammation as the culprit behind almost every modern chronic illness. PubMed.
Other purported health benefits:
- Reduce inflammation by reducing excess positive electrons
- Increase energy
- Lower stress
- Promote calmness
- Enhance disturbed biological rhythms i
- Improve blood flow and pressure
- Relieve muscle tension and headaches
- Lessen menstrual and female hormone symptoms
- Support adrenal health
- Boost the healing process
- Protect the body from EMFs
- Shorten recovery time after athletic activity / from injury
- Reduce or stop snoring
- Eliminate jet lag
It seems like quite a tall order for a bedsheet.
Let’s look at the mechanism behind it.
How does it work?
Earthing or grounding, a.k.a.“reconnecting to the earth’s limitless natural healing energy” has everything to do with negative ions.
Ions are molecules that have gained or lost an electrical charge. They are generated as air molecules break apart due to radiation, sunlight, and moving water and air.
In nature, negative ions are created by crashing water. These are especially abundant on the beach, the ocean surf, forests, mountains, around waterfalls and other streaming water, and after a thunderstorm. As such they may remove excess positive electrons.
“The action of the pounding surf creates negative air ions and we also see it immediately after spring thunderstorms when people report lightened moods,” says ion researcher Michael Terman, PhD, of Columbia University in New York on WebMD.
So, positive ions are bad, negative ions are good, and contact with the earth is beneficial. So far, this all seems to support the idea of grounding.
The facts behind earthing and grounding
When it comes to the science of positive and negative charge, according to many scientists, grounding is one of those fads which uses correct science to support an irrational idea.
What is true is that;
- The Earth itself is negatively charged, with an abundance of free electrons floating through the ground.
- The atmosphere is positively charged, due to ionization by the sun’s rays.
- You cannot protect yourself from the Earth’s electrical field: it’s flowing through the air you breathe.
More ways how positive and negative ions influence us
- There is good evidence that a temporary build-up of positive ions in the local atmosphere will lead to health problems. In nature, this is usually caused by the weather, for example a thunderstorm or extremely hot weather.
- If you work with animals or young children, you’ll have noticed how they get skittish when there’s a storm brewing.
- Crime goes up during a heatwave. Sudden changes in atmospheric ionization, such as stormy weather, are linked to increased mortality rates and influence mood.
What’s more, there is plenty of evidence that negative ions are beneficial to health – exposure to a concentrated source of negative ions has been proven to treat seasonal depression (SAD), and linked tentatively to other health benefits such as improved blood flow.
Generally speaking, negative ions increase the flow of oxygen to the brain; resulting in higher alertness, decreased drowsiness, and more mental energy,” says Pierce J. Howard, PhD, author of The Owners Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind Brain Research and director of research at the Center for Applied Cognitive Sciences in Charlotte, N.C.
Crucial caveat: this does not mean that earthing causes these beneficial effects.
Positively grounded in science? What do the studies say?
There have been some studies associating earthing during sleep with health benefits – in general, reduced levels of pain and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
‘Grounding’ can have a positive effect on mood.
“Subjective reports that walking barefoot on the earth enhances health and provides feelings of well-being can be found in the literature and practices of diverse cultures from around the world.” Source: AmSci
One study reports that
“free or mobile electrons from the earth can resolve chronic inflammation by serving as natural antioxidants”.
Another study found that test subjects reported improved sleep and reduced stress and pain and reported:
“grounding the human body during sleep reduced night-time levels of cortisol and enhances the circadian rhythm”.
Earthing the human body influences human physiologic processes.
“Earthing (Grounding) the Human Body Reduces Blood Viscosity—a Major Factor in Cardiovascular Disease” PubMed
This study did use a control group;
“It is apparent that the Grounded group had a more pleasant experience, felt more positive, less negative, and more relaxed than the control group,”
However, how trustworthy are these studies?
Claiming that earthing was used by ancient civilizations and is supported by prominent medical professionals (without naming them), as well by NASA astronauts may sound significant but does not proof anything.
Some scientists get especially infuriated by the idea of earthing because it takes solid research and distorts it into a money-making idea. There are some other red flags.
Evidence in the form of PubMed studies is shaky to say the least. Sadly, the studies have been so poorly designed as to be almost worthless
- It should be noted that some of the studies were sponsored by a company that sells earthing products (EarthFx Inc.)
- Many of these studies were not quantitative studies, lacked a control group or any attempt to blind researchers to the experimental conditions.
- The Journal of Environmental and Public Health is a peer-reviewed, open access journal which means it’s published free on the Internet. What does not help is that scientific papers link to websites of companies in the earthing business.
- Studies were usually conducted by people who were already fervent believers in earthing. If you look at the write-ups, the statistics sound impressive and the graphs look striking; but the investigations used methodology so biased it would get them kicked out of a high-school science fair.
Grounded in science?
So yes, the shocking health benefits of earthing are grounded in science. But currently, it’s merely pseudo-science.
“It’s too early to tell for sure, but that’s not to say there is not some sound science behind the concept”. experts told WebMD.
Negative ion therapy for asthma and allergies
When he first heard of negative-ion generators 20 years ago, Harold Nelson, MD, professor of medicine at National Jewish Medical Center in Denver, was thrilled. He purchased one to study its effects among asthma and allergy patients.
His enthusiasm was tempered soon after. The findings were “not terribly encouraging. We couldn’t demonstrate anything,” he tells WebMD. “I was disappointed. I had high expectations and they did not pan out “.
Earthing and free radicals
Positive ions are released by electronic devices and certain weather conditions, and build up inside the body. These positively-charged particles, known as free radicals, occur naturally but have been linked to health problems such as cancer.
An often-repeated claim is that earthing will zap the free radicals in the body, preventing a whole host of health complaints.
According to medical professionals this claim is so ridiculous that it needs to be broken into two parts to deal with.
- It’s true that free radicals are linked to cancer, but the relationship is not a simple one of cause and effect as this National Cancer Institute fact sheet shows. The relationship between free radicals and inflammation is still not totally understood, but as medical science currently stands, claiming that free radicals cause inflammation is like claiming that sunburn causes hot weather.
- Secondly, stray electrons do not stop free radicals. To stop a free radical, you need anti-oxidants: they enter your body through healthy eating, not by soaking into your skin from a magical bedsheet.
The quick and easy way of grounding yourself
If you want to ground yourself, there’s an easy way to do it: touch a piece of metal. If you feel a jolt of static shock, congratulations: that’s the sensation of excess positive charge rushing out of your body.
No static shock? You were already in perfect balance. Look forward to an excellent night’s sleep tonight, and awaking with no aches or pains tomorrow.
Something else to think about, earthing proponents claim that sand and concrete are conductive surfaces allowing you to ground whereas wood and asphalt don’t work. Not a particularly strong grasp of electrical theory.
Earthing mats do work…
Technically, grounding products do work – but not in the way that they claim.
Any piece of conductive material against your bare skin will allow static electricity (a build-up of positive charge) to leach away from your body.
The wiring in a grounding sheet will serve that purpose; but so would touching a hand against your steel bedframe or aluminium reading light. Instead of buying a special sheet, you can just turn a metal doorknob.
Electricians – the healthiest people in the world
If you’re still in doubt about whether earthing works, think of this.
People who work with sensitive electrical equipment often wear earthing bracelets (antistatic wraps) while they work, wiring them directly into the ground so there’s no risk that a build-up of static electricity will damage the equipment.
If earthing really had health benefits, then electrical engineers would be the healthiest people on the planet.
How come there are so many people swearing by it?
Fearmongering, taking advantage of people who might be open to persuasion because they are worn down by chronic pain, or have been driven to desperation by persistent insomnia is despicable.
Despite this, there’s a plethora of raving reviews.
Users report earthing helped eliminate pain after effortlesly trying all kinds of remedies for decades. Reviewers were able to bring their blood pressure to normal levels without medication, sleep better, increase energy, combat fatigue and so on.
Is this the good ol’ placebo effect at play? Does science overlook something? If it works for people then that’s great. Clinical evidence or not.
Here’s an interesting anecdote I found on the Bulletproof Forum
I let a colleague try my earthing mat. She has been having problems working in her office – persistent cough, active sinuses etc. The air quality has been tested along with a variety of other tests and no cause could be found. I noticed there’s a lot of electrical equipment in the office and on the other side of the wall behind her desk. After two hours of using the mat in the office she rang to say that she hadn’t coughed once since she’d started using it and that the physiologist she was working with noticed that not only was she not coughing but she also had greater focus and attention. It appears that EMF was causing her ‘allergies’ in the office. They’ve both now ordered mats.
The equipment: earthing pads, mats, patches, sheets and more
Earthing can be done in two ways:
- by having direct physical contact with the earth (for example, walking barefoot on grass or swimming in the ocean),
- or by using earthing mats.
Experts tend to encourage the use of earthing mats over spending time outside, claiming that it’s impossible to spend enough time in connection with nature while still leading a modern lifestyle.
A cynic might point out that earthing mats start at $70, whereas a barefoot walk through the park is free but still, you’ve got to make the time.
These mats are woven through with metallic thread, with a long wire spike which you touch to the ground. The spike supposedly conducts the earth’s negative energy into the thread, which in turn passes the energy into your body.
There are large sheets which cover a whole bed, or small mats for you to sit on while driving or using the computer. Some mats plug into a wall socket rather than having a wire which touches the floor, so your energy can flow into the electrical grid.
Did we debunk earthing? Did we show that the theory of the Earth’s surface electrons as an untapped health resource, the Earth as a “global treatment table”, is a hoax?
Is there definitive proof that these products do absolutely nothing? I wouldn’t say so.
Does the whole think reek like pseudo-scientific garbage? Does my dog shit meter go off? You bet’cha.
Ideas like crystal healing or chakra alignment on the far end of the spectrum, have no scientific basis at all. They are akin to religious belief, and wearing a healing rune around your neck is no more dangerous than going to Lourdes on pilgrimage (although my aunt broke her ankle in Lourdes).
According to skeptics, earthing exists in that maddening middle zone, where it sounds like science but isn’t. To me the to grounding attributed health benefits seem to fall in the same category as the scaremongering that so persistently sticks to microwave ovens.
By using words like ‘electron’ and bandying about terms like ‘the Earth’s electrical field’, proponents of grounding make themselves seem like experts, to sell $200 bedsheets to people who are ill-informed or otherwise vulnerable to daft ideas.
At the other end of the scale, trends like Bikram yoga or (variations on the) Paleo diet really can make people healthier: the benefits might have been exaggerated by the media, but there are sound medical reasons why these things work.
Does it work? Do we get energy from touching the earth? You can only find out by trying it yourself. People seem to benefit from it despite the fact that modern science does not support the health claims. Is modern science all-knowing?
No, not by far. Still, the theory of equalizing your energetic frequency with that of the earth seems pretty far-fetched to me.
It’s a fact that many of us spend large parts of our day indoors behind screens while we spend less and less time in nature.
There’s no doubt about it. Being in nature has powerful benefits. So powerful that even pictures of landscapes can soothe. Research at the Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden found that patients seeing large nature photographs were less anxious and needed fewer doses of strong pain medicine than control groups.
I seriously doubt if grounding or earthing is the way to go.
But who can tell for sure? Perhaps the mystical ions do have a positive effect on our well-being.
How to keep both feet on the ground
Scientific proof is very limited but then again, there’s so much present-day science doesn’t know. If I’d suffer from chronic pain and had tried other remedies to no avail I might give an earthing mat a shot.
You won’t see me use an earthing mat on the floor while sitting behind my computer. I do have some recommendations that have a more solid scientific backing.
Getting closer to nature – effectively
- When behind a computer, I recommend wearing Blueblocker glasses to prevent the blue light from the screen messing up your Circadian rhythm. You’ll sleep better.
- For now, I’ll postpone ordering grounding bedsheets, I’ll stick with my wake-up light for more energetic (dark winter) mornings.
- To sleep better or alleviate back problems you may want to try sleeping in a hammock at night.
- To reduce static static shocks upon touching things, breathing problems and even nosebleeds in the home, I’ll just use a humidifier since static electricity is caused by too dry air. The ideal level of humidity in the home is around 40-50%.
- Another valuable health-boosting addition to the home can be a home water filters. These filter out things like calcium, leaving your water with a cleaner taste but also potential toxins. If you live in a hard-water area, you can have a whole-house water fitted, which will protect your pipes and washing machine from limescale.
- Sound machines: if you live next to a busy road or noisy neighbors, it can be almost impossible to filter out the sound when you need to sleep or concentrate. A sound machine makes white noise, which helps to counteract sounds coming in from outside. Unlike playing music, the sound is unobtrusive and won’t distract you.
The bottom line
There are plenty of sensible ways you can improve your health by connecting to a more natural way of life. In this case, the most obvious tips are the most effective: eat more fruits and vegetables; exercise outdoors; and spend time with friends and family rather than just connecting online.
What do you think of earthing?
- Treatment of seasonal affective disorder with a high-output negative ionizer http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9395604
- Link between free radicals and inflammation Oxygen Free Radicals and the Systemic Inflammatory Response http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1080/15216540410001701642/pdf
- Earthing (Grounding) the Human Body Reduces Blood Viscosity—a Major Factor in Cardiovascular Disease http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3576907/
- Images: Indiamos, Firstcovers, Pixabay, and Shutterstock