All About Grounding
Today we're going to spin the giant wheel used by New Agers to come up with new holistic therapies. We watch it go around and around...it slows...and comes to a stop at "touch your bare feet to Mother Earth and be healed". Really? Barefoot people are free of disease? Well, believe it or not, that is a real claim made by true believers. They call it grounding, or earthing. The claim is that being electrically grounded to Mother Earth, thus allowing a free flow of electrons between your body and the ground, is the true key to health. As expected, opportunistic entrepreneurs have responded with a dizzying array of products you can spend money on to help you and your pets stay electrically grounded. So let's kick off our shoes and look into this popular therapy — into the science, and also into the data — to see if earthing truly is a medical miracle, or if that giant New Age wheel of fortune is still just as random and goofy as ever.
The history of belief in earthing is quite recent, and has a dubious origin. In the 1990s, Clinton Ober was a retired believer in the meritless idea that everyday radio signals such as WiFi are dangerous. Upon reading some research that found no such effect could be produced in animals, Ober somehow concluded that the reason must be that animals don't wear shoes. Their feet are in direct contact with Mother Earth, and this must be what protects them from disease. On the strength of this notion alone, Earthing was born.
Before going much further, we have to talk about the elephant in the room, which is that earthing has red flags all over it; warning signs we'll have to get past in order to have a fair discussion. Internet searches show that it's promoted only by well-known cranks (like Dr. Oz, Joe Mercola, David Avocado Wolfe, and Gwyneth Paltrow), and/or by websites selling grounding products. Its only mentions in the science or medical literature are in unreviewed pay-to-publish journals and journals devoted to alternative medicine. Your medical doctor does not recommend earthing for anything. Its proponents blame all of this on the Big Pharma conspiracy: mainstream medicine suppresses earthing because they don't want everyone to learn that they can heal themselves for free. In short, everything you find when researching earthing is consistent with a therapy that has no effect at all, and no science supporting it. But this is Skeptoid, so we will set aside the red flags, and give the science claims their fair chance.
We'll start with the published literature. There are only a few such articles, and they're all written by the same people: one or more of Oschman, Sinatra, Chevalier, and Sokal; a couple of them have another author or two. They've all only published on this topic, only in alt-med journals or pay-to-publish journals, and all of their abstracts conclude with having found positive results. Not surprisingly, all of the authors of the articles I found are listed as the Board of Advisors for a website called The Earthing Institute, a collection of articles and testimonials promoting earthing as a treatment for pain, inflammation, and a host of other vague conditions. One thing I'll say to their credit is that they do include this disclaimer:
...although that directly contradicts the entire content of their website, which consists almost entirely of nothing but such representations...
If not them, then I wonder who is responsible for the information on their website?
But we digress. Back to their published research. From one of their articles:
It might use sciencey-sounding words and seem impressive, but unfortunately, virtually nothing in this paragraph makes sense. Quite a few doctors and biochemists have commented on this paper — links to a few are in the references below. In short, the authors are leveraging the pop-culture belief that inflammation is caused by free radicals, which can be stopped by antioxidants. While there is a shred of truth to some of this, it is oversimplified to the point of being completely wrong. Inflammation has many causes. Free radicals perform many functions in the body, including important ones. Antioxidants moderate only some of these, and in ways generally resilient against supplementation or other things pop nutrition gurus recommend in the misguided quest of overriding our body's natural functions.
But then the earthing pitchmen take this a step further, claiming that adding electrons to your body attacks free radicals just like antioxidants do. This is stupid on stilts. Grounding your body gives it a neutral electric charge, removing any extra electrons, so the whole concept is fatally flawed right out of the gate.
Nevertheless, the sciencey-sounding language has been persuasive enough that whole industries exist selling products promising to ground you to Mother Earth. Do any Internet search for earthing mat to get started. They sell wristbands, blankets, bedsheets, mousepads, even skin patches. All of these are sold with the promise that they will ground you electrically to Mother Earth, and cure your insomnia, pain, fatigue, inflammation, headaches, just about anything you can imagine. Pitchman Joe Mercola even makes the ludicrous claim that Europeans are already well aware of this, and habitually spend a few hours every day (!!) walking barefoot in specific parks set aside for earthing. Really? Any Europeans you know?
(In the interest of accuracy, we should point out that the Earth as a whole is electrically neutral — the solar winds constantly neutralize any positive or negative charge. But the Earth's charge is not homogenous. The atmosphere is generally positively charged, and the surface is generally negatively charged (with local variances). The main cause of this is rain bringing ions down to the surface. The surface is constantly radiating this negative charge back up into the sky, at an average rate of about 1 watt per square kilometer. So when earthing believers say the ground is rich with glorious healing electrons, strictly speaking they're correct, but that charge is very, very, very small, about a billionth of the 100 watts your body generates just sitting there. For all practical purposes, the ground is neutral.)
There is a final nail in the coffin of earthing. The entire reason for its practice claimed by its advocates — that your shoes keep you electrically insulated from Mother Earth — is false. This is why people sometimes get electrocuted: there's a conductive path from you to the ground. It's why you have to step up onto an insulated platform to make your hair fly when you touch a Van De Graaff generator in a museum. It's why people who work with high voltage have to buy special non-conductive shoes that have an "EH" rating. It's why lightning sometimes selects an unfortunate person as a conductive pathway to the ground. Normal shoes are only so-so insulators. All day, every day, almost all of us are grounded already.
This is equally true when we're lying in bed. Yes, it's likely that the feet of some beds are perfect electrical insulators, but that would be the rare exception. Bedsheets, mattresses, blankets and bed frames all have some amount of conductivity. Some textiles, in fact, are pretty good conductors — especially those made of natural fibers like cotton, wool, or silk, and even more so when the relative humidity is higher.
If this seems improbable to you — that bedsheets and mattresses and socks and running shoe soles are electrically conductive — compare them to dirt, gravel, or concrete that an earthing enthusiast walks on in his bare feet. That's certainly not highly conductive. But it doesn't have to be; all of these things only have to be conductive enough for you to be grounded. A perfect electrical insulator has infinite resistance; no electrons get through at all. But almost all materials have some conductivity, even if it's very small. Since there is always some connection between your body and the ground all day long — even through layers of fabric and carpet and shoe soles and building materials and what not — no matter how incredibly small that conductivity might be, it's still more than enough to maintain a similar charge between your body and the ground beneath you.
Scruff your feet along the carpet to build up enough charge to shock your friend with a touch, or rub a balloon on his shirt to stick it to the side of your head; but then don't do those things. Stand there a minute. The charge quickly wears off, within anywhere from a fraction of a second to a minute or two. It wears off because you're grounded.
Thus the entire premise of the earthing product pitchmen is false. You are already grounded and in electrical equilibrium with the ground, whether you buy their silly earthing products or not. Save your money.
That so many true believers in earthing continue to manufacture and sell these products seems surprising, at first glance. In my experience, it's not likely that most of these people are being consciously deceptive. Usually, true believers are just that: true, but honest, believers. They have read some amount of research — probably that by Oschman, Sinatra, Chevalier, and Sokal — and embraced whatever has confirmed their preferred belief. It may seem astonishing that they remain ignorant of widely available basics of electrical theory — a field central to their profession — but that's just how human beings work. We're happy knowing enough to get through our business; we usually don't bother learning more than we need. There are things I don't know about podcasting, even though I've been doing it full time for a decade.
So once again, we find that red flags are worth listening to. Grounding, earthing, whatever you want to call it, is nothing more than the latest in a long series of spin-the-wheel-and-make-up-an-alternative-therapy fads. Its only therapeutic effect is what doctors call a Wallet Extraction. So keep that wallet safe, and if you feel like, by all means take off your shoes at the beach or the park. It can be quite relaxing. And though you won't be any more grounded than you were a moment before and no electrons are likely to flow, you might well feel the stress flow away. And that's actually real science.
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