The Healing Powers of Walking Barefoot: Hippy Bull**** or Health Breakthrough?

The basic idea of “earthing” or “grounding” is that by making direct physical contact with the earth’s surface we absorb gazillions of electrons that help our bodies function. According to believers, the systems in our bodies are in fact designed to be in constant contact with the earth’s frequency and by wearing plastic shoes and walking on synthetic flooring we’re throwing all of our natural mechanisms way out of alignment.

As a person who is generally sceptical of all things New Age, when I first heard about “earthing” I instantly thought “Yep, that’s some classic hippie bullshit.”

Yet when one of my most intelligent friends said she’d researched the subject and was positive (geddit) that walking around barefoot does indeed have health benefits, I decided to investigate.

The claims: “Earthing” reduces inflammation, improves immune response, helps wounds heal, improves sleep & helps blood flow.

Several scientific studies have touted the health benefits of “earthing”.

The reported health benefits include:

Reduced inflammation: study published in the Journal of Inflammation Research has found that, “electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth (grounding or earthing)” produces measurable differences in the concentrations of white blood cells, cytokines (small proteins that are important in cell signalling) and other molecules involved in inflammatory response. Participants reported reduced pain, redness, heat and swelling as well as improved functionality in inflamed areas.

Better sleep: Another study, this time in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that grounding during sleep “reduces night-time levels of cortisol and resynchronizes cortisol hormone secretion more in alignment with the natural 24-hour circadian rhythm profile”. Subjects also said stress and pain were also reduced or even eliminated.

Improved blood flow: A study which used thermal imaging to explore blood flow after grounding found, “even one-hour contact with the surface of the earth appears to promote a significant increase in blood flow regulation to the head and torso that may enhance skin tissue repair, health, and vitality, and optimize facial appearance.” This improved circulation could improve overall health, according to the scientists involved.

Blood-thinning: Another study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary medicine found that earthing has a significant effect on reducing blood viscosity – a potential predictor for cardiac events like hypertension which affect a huge amount of the population.

The catches: There’s “science” and then there’s science.

At first glance, the findings of these studies seem compelling.

In fact, many reputable publications have jumped on the earthing bandwagon, using these papers as proof that the seemingly intuitive and very accessible health practice works.

Dig a little deeper, however, and things begin to unravel:

The studies have major conflicts of interest: Unfortunately, literally every single one of these studies were either funded or conducted by a company called EarthFX Inc who, surprise surprise, sell earthing products. These included earthing pads and sheets that are up to $275 a pop! In fact, G Chevalier and JL Oschman – the scientists who conducted most of the studies – have shares in the company! Talk about a vested interested! And while this was disclosed in every research paper, sadly not many writers have bothered to read the studies in full, instead taking their merit at face value.

Expensive “earthing” equipment, not walking barefoot, is what was tested: While earthing is marketed as a simple, healthy activity that anyone can do, the studies don’t actually focus on walking around barefoot. Instead, EarthFX Inc provides researchers with the aforementioned expensive grounding equipment. The tests then usually involve “sleeping on a conductive mattress pad that is connected via a wire to a rod that is placed into the Earth. Electrons and microcurrents from the Earth instantaneously flow up the rod and wire and onto the mattress pad.”

Sample sizes are way too small: These studies are pilot studies, which means the number of participants involved is too small to be scientifically significant. For example, the inflammation study had only eight participants (four of whom were controls), and the sleep study focussed on the “subjective reporting” of only 12 participants. The largest study I could find involved 60 people, but it only went for a month, so the results should still only be taken with a grain of salt.

The verdict: Do what makes you happy (unless it’s sharing unsubstantiated claims)!

When it comes to actual scientific verification of earthing fan’s claims the verdict is still well and truly out. That is, the supposed benefits of earthing haven’t really been proven but they haven’t been disproven either.

So, when you feel like going for a wilderness wander sans shoes, we say go for it! After all, it’s free, it’s good to be outdoors, and it’s not hurting anyone.

But the next time you are tempted to share, retweet or like a health article, please, please, please do your research first. Otherwise, you might be giving free advertising to a company that probably doesn’t deserve it!

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