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earthing (grounding)

...reducing free radicals is not a panacea. Free radicals are part of normal physiology and are used not only as part of the necessary function of the immune system but in many regulatory systems. Suppressing free radicals may therefore cause more harm than good. --Steven Novella, M.D.*

According to the Earthing Institute, earthing is "connecting to the Earth’s natural, negative surface charge by being barefoot outside or in bare skin contact with conductive systems indoors while you sleep, relax, or work." Advocates claim that earthing has many health benefits because going barefoot allows the feet to pick up free electrons that then allegedly course through the human body, detoxifying, cleansing, balancing, harmonizing, and, no doubt, boosting the immune system.

Fact: The Earth carries a negative electric charge of roughly 500 thousand Coulombs.* Fact: The atmosphere around the Earth has an almost equal amount of positive charge.**

I suppose "atmosphering" will be the next health fad: connecting to the Earth's natural, positive, atmospheric charge by going naked outside and letting your bare skin contact the near atmosphere while you sleep, relax, or work.

If there are any health benefits to earthing and atmosphering, they may cancel each other out. One might have to wear protective body armor to block the positive ions in the near atmosphere or shoes to block the negative ions emanating from the Earth.

Anyway, what is the benefit of going barefoot besides the obvious comfort and freedom of not wearing shoes? According to earthing enthusiasts at the Earthing Institute: "Connection with the Earth restores a lost electrical signal to the body that seems to stabilize the complicated circuitry of our essentially-electrical body. Our built-in self-regulating and self-healing mechanisms become more effective. There are head-to-toe improvements. Better blood flow. Less pain and inflammation. More energy. Deeper sleep."

The evidence? "The research indicates that Earthing transfers negatively charged free electrons into the body that are present in a virtually limitless and continuously renewed supply on the surface of the Earth.  The existence of this unseen electron 'reservoir' has been established by science. Maintaining contact with the ground allows your body to naturally receive and become charged with these electrons. When thus 'grounded,' any electron deficiencies and free radical excesses in the body are corrected.  A natural electrical state is restored." The italicized sentences are marked because these folks made them up. You will search in vain, on their site and elsewhere in the work of real scientists, for evidence (a) that going barefoot charges your body with electrons, (b) that there is such a thing as "electron deficiency," or (c) that the body is restored to a "natural electrical state" by going barefoot.

I'm not sure whether wearing socks without shoes nullifies the benefit of going shoeless. I guess it depends on what type of material the socks are made of. Of course, if you've been relying on magnets in your shoes to enhance your healthy lifestyle, you will miss out on the benefits of earthing unless you alternate or go barefoot on the left side and wear your magnetic shoe on the right.

Unfortunately, going barefoot in my town can be hazardous to your health. I love the feel of my bare feet touching the cool, wet grass in the morning on a summer day, but I would not advise going barefoot on my lawn or through the grass in the parks of my town. We in Davis, California, are known for our love of bicycles, but what many people don't know about us is that we love to walk dogs and have them defecate in the park and on other people's lawns. Most of the defecating-dog owners pick up their animal's waste with some sort of plastic bag in hand, but the residuals of those deposits remain for the unsuspecting bare foot to trod upon and bring into the house with the usual agricultural, industrial, and automobile waste that covers our planet like an invisible shroud. I won't even mention the broken glass and other debris littered throughout the town awaiting the next barefooted runner's unsuspecting soles. Defecating cats, on the other hand, require constant vigilance and a shovel-at-hand at all times. However, it would not surprise me to find some earthing-loving wag advising us to cut our children's feet and let them walk barefoot in the park to help boost the immune system with animal electrons the "natural" way.

I was surprised to find that even Andrew Weil is skeptical of the claims of the earthing enthusiasts. "We'll need additional studies of better design and with more participants," says Weil, "before we can know whether it is really possible to derive health benefits from earthing."*** True. I had to laugh, however, at his warning: "Be aware that there's a substantial commercial aspect to earthing. One website that I visited sells a range of equipment, including earthing beds said to do what 'no other mattress on the planet can…(reconnect) you to the Earth's gentle, natural healing energy while you sleep.'" I laughed because Weil has a vast range of supplements, creams, and other questionable "health" products for sale on his website.

The earthing bed idea seems to have originated with Clint Ober, described as a retired cable TV pioneer.

Ober rigged up a crude conductive system for the bed, using metallic duct tape connected by wire to a ground rod he planted in the soil outside.  He then lay down [sic] on his “invention” was [sic] thus in contact with the Earth’s energy, simulating being barefoot outdoors.  To his surprise, he found that such contact prompted sleep and significantly reduced his own chronic pain.  He stopped taking painkillers in order to sleep. Wanting to share his “discovery,” he rigged up the beds of his friends in a similar manner.  And they, too, reported the same amazing effect.  Less pain. Better sleep.

Ober even conducted what he considered to be a scientific experiment to test the benefits of his earthing bed.

In 2000, he organized a group experiment to test whether Earthing, as he called it, could really help people sleep better and reduce their pain. Assisted by a nurse, he identified 60 male and female volunteers with chronic sleep and pain issues. He then went to each of their homes and set up a conductive Earthing pad on their bed. He connected the pads with a wire to a ground rod placed in the Earth outside their bedroom windows that would facilitate carrying the energy from the Earth to the bed pad. However, in half of the set-ups, he inserted a spacer to block the conduction of energy. This would allow a comparison of two groups – those actually grounded, that is, receiving the Earth’s energy, and those who were “sham grounded.” The participants in the experiment did not know whether they were actually being grounded or not.

I have to agree with Weil on this one: before we jump on the bandwagon and order our earthing beds, sheets, and beauty pillows we need better designed studies with more participants than those that Ober, two Polish doctors, and a few others have done. We need double-blinded, randomized studies with and without tinfoil hats and with and without EMF protective jewelry. Actually, we don't. I wouldn't waste any time or money investigating this nonsense any further, but don't trust me, I said the same thing about using shark cartilage to prevent cancer. And I should disclose that I spent much of my wayward youth barefoot, surfing and bumming on the beach, and they were the healthiest days of my life. And we shouldn't forget how healthy and long-lived our barefoot ancestors were in the days before they became farmers and shepherds. And look at how healthy all those barefooted animals are! Our dogs and cats are full of extra electrons. We need only rub them to benefit from their natural earthing! (I know what you're thinking. How rude of me to mock these people. You're right. I shouldn't make fun of them. I'll stop the snark.)

If, however, you are one of those lucky people who is able to throw away your sleeping pills and pain medicine after buying a magic pillow for $200, then, I say, more power to you. Do it if you can afford it. If it helps you sleep better, then by all means wrap a copper wire around your big toe, run it out your bedroom window and attach it to a metal stake in the ground. I wish you well.

See also the placebo effect.

further reading

Another advocate of earthing is Stephen Sinatra, M.D. His views on electropollution and earthing are discussed in my entry on vibrational medicine.

"Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work" by Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D.

“Earthing” Is a Bunch of Crap by Chad Orzel on May 28, 2014


Earthing by Steven Novella

"Barefoot in Sedona: Bogus Claims About Grounding Your Feet to Earth Promote Medical Pseudoscience" by Harriet Hall, M.D. Skeptic magazine (vol. 17 no. 4, 2012).

Ashcroft, Frances. 2012. The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body. Norton.

Bausell, R. Barker. 2007. Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Oxford University Press.

McCoy, Bob. Quack! : Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (Santa Monica Press, 2000).

Park, Bob. (2001). Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. Oxford University Press.

Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (N. Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

Reality Check: The Energy Fields of Life by Victor Stenger

Stenger, Victor J. "Quantum Quackery," Skeptical Inquirer. January/February 1997.

Alternative Medicine and the Laws of Physics by Robert L. Park


"Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth's Surface Electrons" by Gaétan Chevalier, Stephen T. Sinatra, James L. Oschman, Karol Sokal, and Pawel Sokal in Journal of Environmental and Public Health Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 291541. note: This journal is peer reviewed, but it is open access and authors pay to have their work published.

Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever? by Clinton Ober, Stephen T. Sinatra, and Martin Zucker. [new] Sinatra calls his website the HeartMD Institute, presumably because he was trained as a cardiologist. One of his many unsubstantiated claims is that there is a magical healing energy emanating from somewhere beneath our feet that can cure diabetes. Sinatra defines earthing as "connecting with the earth’s primordial, healing energy to help reduce inflammation and ultimately improve health by promoting electron balance in the body." What is the evidence that a primordial healing energy exists? It is the same evidence that shows that going barefoot in the grass promotes electron balance. Namely, nothing.

There is no medical treatment for "electron imbalance," but there is a treatment for electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes--such as potassium, sodium, and calcium--ionize in the blood and other bodily fluids. That is, they carry positive or negative charges and are essential to proper cell function in muscles and nerves. Electrolytes do not come from some magical healing energy in the earth, unless you consider the minerals that end up in the plants and animals we eat to be a form of magical healing energy.

One sure sign that earthing is nonsense is the fact that is has been promoted by the pathetic osteopath Joe Mercola. Here is what Mercola says about earthing:

For thousands of years, Eastern civilizations have used forms of energy medicine to unblock and regulate energy channels in the body. For example, acupuncture has a long history of success in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The West has been slow to embrace energy medicine, holding a more biochemical view of the human body, as opposed to "the body electric."

Hold a stethoscope to your body and you'll hear a lot of electrical chatter. Your nervous system communicates using electricity (i.e., movement of electrons), receiving and transmitting electrical signals throughout your body. Most of your biological processes are electrical.

There are too many misconceptions in these few sentences from Mercola to cover them all, but a few shouldn't go unmentioned. Energy medicine in the East has nothing to do with electricity. Acupuncture has a long history of satisfied customers, but it has not had anything like the success of western medicine in healing and preventing disease. Science-based medicine in the West has not accepted energy medicine or such notions as chi, prana, orgone, etc. Mercola shows his ignorance when he pits biochemistry against "the body electric." Biochemistry is rooted in the notion that the basic chemical processes that occur in cells such as nerve or muscles cells are essentially electrical processes.

If you want accurate, up-to-date, information on electricity in the body, read Frances Ashcroft's The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body. You will also learn in Ashcroft's book how scientific knowledge of electricity in the human body really did help children with diabetes. As I note in my review of her book: "Her most productive work involved figuring out that some of those electrical processes involve proteins in cell walls that control the flow of ions that regulate insulin secretion. Thanks to work she did in the early 1980s, most children born with one form of diabetes can control it using an oral medication that affects those ion channels instead of having to spend the rest of their lives dependent on insulin injections."[/new]

Last updated 19-Oct-2014

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