A rising “barefoot revolution” is grounded in some solid research, but much more is needed
For several million years, our pre-human ancestors roamed the earth barefoot.
And modern humans — Homo sapiens — mostly went barefoot until relatively recently in human history.
We also slept on the ground and sat or squatted on it. In short, we were closely connected to the earth, or “grounded”.
But, a few thousand years ago, humans started using beds and chairs, and built homes with floors and multiple stories — changes that sharply reduced time spent in direct contact with the ground.
The question is, did that change adversely affect human health? There’s some intriguing evidence that the answer may be “yes”.
What is grounding?
Grounding — also called earthing — simply means connecting your body directly to the earth, by going barefoot and sitting or lying on the ground.
This connects your body to the ground’s natural electrical field, and that appears to change its electrical balance in ways that may benefit our bodies and minds.
Proponents say that when your body comes in direct contact with the ground, free electrons flow into it, purportedly neutralizing positively charged free radicals and reducing inflammation.
This idea smacks of New Age nonsense, but there’s some scientific evidence behind that claim, and some suggesting that grounding may be a beneficial form of “electromedical” therapy.
Unfortunately, there isn't much published evidence on the health effects of grounding, and almost all of it comes from the same few scientists and advocates — including University of California Irvine cell biologist Gaetan Chevalier, Ph.D., and biophysicist James L. Oschman, Ph.D.
Dr. Oschman's claims for “energy medicine” such as qi gong and reiki — made in books such as Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis and Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance — appear to exceed the evidence, and downplay or ignore the placebo effect (Hall H 2005).
Nonetheless, the available research provides enough evidence to warrant deeper scientific investigation of grounding — and your own personal experiments with it.
The science of grounding
Three years ago, Dr. Oschman joined Dr. Chevalier and a researcher from the University of Oregon to review the small amount of available evidence.
They concluded that grounding reduces inflammation-related pain and reduces circulating levels of inflammatory markers, such as white blood cells and cytokines (Oschman JL, et al. 2015).
One of the studies they cited came from Egyptian scientists, who conducted a small, uncontrolled pilot study designed to examine the effects of grounding on pain, sleep, and stress in 12 participants.
After spending six weeks grounded via an electrically grounded mattress pad, levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped significantly in all participants (Ghaly M, Teplitz D 2004).
After two additional weeks, eleven of the 12 participants reported falling asleep more quickly, while all the subjects woke up fewer times during the night. They also reported less morning fatigue, more energy, and decreased pain at night.
The stress-reducing effects of grounding were also seen in a study from Dr. Chevalier at the University of California Irvine, which found that grounding positively affected physiological changes (Chevalier G, et al. 2006).
As Dr. Chevalier wrote, “Highly significant EEG [electroencephalograms], EMG [electromyogram] and BVP [blood volume pulse] results [from grounding] demonstrate that restoring the natural electrical potential of the earth to the human body (earthing) rapidly affects human electrophysiological and physiological parameters.”
Professor Chevalier went on to explain the significance of these findings: “Taken together, the changes … suggest reductions in overall stress levels and tensions, and a shift in autonomic [nervous system] balance upon earthing.”
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates your cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, hormonal, and urinary systems, and balancing effects on the system may be beneficial.
Another small clinical study involving 10 participants was conducted by Drs. Chevalier and Oschman, with famed, nutrition-oriented cardiologist Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D.
They examined grounding’s effect on blood viscosity, which is an indicator of several cardiovascular conditions, including high blood pressure and cholesterol (Chevalier G, et al. 2013).
After just two hours of being grounded, participants enjoyed significantly reduced red blood cell aggregation (clumping).
As Chevalier’s team concluded, “Grounding increases the surface charge on RBCs [red blood cells] and thereby reduces blood viscosity and clumping. Grounding appears to be one of the simplest and yet most profound interventions for helping reduce cardiovascular risk and cardiovascular events.”
Evidence from these studies is intriguing, but clearly needs to be replicated in larger, better controlled investigations.
In the meantime, it can’t hurt to try grounding — or earthing, as it is become more widely known — to deal with pain and mood issues.
There are several ways you can get grounded, to see if it reduces pain, or enhances your health and mood.
The easiest is to simply go barefoot outside and sit or lie on the ground, when and where it’s safe.
Some who’ve tried it say that spending 30-40 minutes a day with your body in direct contact with the ground helps alleviate pain and lift mood.
Grass, sand, dirt, and concrete are conductive surfaces from which your body can draw the Earth’s electrons. Wood and vinyl are not conductive.
You can also use grounding pads, sheets, or other options while sleeping, sitting at your desk, or while watching TV.
If you want to experiment with “grounding” products, they are easy to find on the Internet.
- Anisimov S, et al. On the generation and evolution of aeroelectric structures in the surface layer. J Geophys Res. 1999;104(12):14359–67.
- Chevalier G, et al. Earthing (grounding) the human body reduces blood viscosity-a major factor in cardiovascular disease. J Altern Complement Med. 2013 Feb;19(2):102-10.
- Chevalier G, et al. The effect of Earthing (grounding) on human physiology. Eur Biol Bioelectromagnetics. 2006;2(1):600–21.
- Ghaly M, Teplitz D. The biologic effects of grounding the human body during sleep as measured by cortisol levels and subjective reporting of sleep, pain, and stress. J Altern Complement Med. 2004;10(5):767–76.
- Hall H. A review of Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis. Skeptic Magazine, Vol. 11, Nr. 3, 2005. Accessed at http://quackfiles.blogspot.com/2006/01/review-of-energy-medicine-scientific.html
- Hall H. Barefoot in Sedona: Bogus Claims About Grounding Your Feet to Earth Promote Medical Pseudoscience. Accessed at https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/bogus-claims-grounding-bare-feet-to-earth/
- Oschman JL, et al. The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. J Inflamm Res. 2015;8:83-96.
- Williams E and Heckman S. The local diurnal variation of cloud electrification and the global diurnal variation of negative charge on the Earth. J Geophys Res. 1993;98(3):5221–34.