Earthing, or what is sometimes called “grounding”, is the idea that humans can benefit from being in electrical contact with the ground. The idea takes various forms, but most are based on the idea that contact with the ground causes free electrons to rush into the body to maintain a adequate supply to optimize various bodily processes such as immune system function, endocrine system function, etc. Earthing is often used as a rationale for walking barefoot or in special shoes and sleeping on specialized beds.
So… Should We Believe It?
The idea borrows scientific explanations of electricity to explain why it is beneficial to health. Analogies to grounding of electrical systems are used as a rationale for humans to have regular contact with the ground. Is it plausible?
While I like to remain open-minded about pretty much anything and everything, this idea has some serious red flags.
Red flag #1: The people promoting the idea are selling products (shoes, beds, books, etc.). No explanation needed here.
Red Flag #2: This has all the makings of a pseudoscience. “Research” conducted by the people selling products, no peer-reviewed blinded research in legitimate publications, and the use of scientific terminology out of context. The “research” that has been conducted has not been replicated by skeptics. In short, earthing doesn’t use science to verify the concepts, it uses science to give the impression of legitimacy. As a general rule of thumb, anything that talks about antioxidants, energy fields, and free radicals and makes wild health claims that are not verifiable can be tossed in the “pseudoscience” recycling bin.
Red Flag #3: Proponents offer two contradictory messages. The two main flavors of Earthing are contradictory. One states your body receives electrons from the earth, the other states your body becomes “grounded” by contact with earth (which transfers energy from the body to the ground). Which one is it? Logically, the ground will always have a lower voltage than your body, which would cause you to lose electrons to the earth (assuming our skin was a good conductor).
Red Flag #4: Logic. I’m not an electrical engineer, but I’m pretty sure my middle school physical science education can debunk the ideas of earthing. First, electrons are electrons. Earth electrons are no different that the electrons on my coffee cup, pet cat, or toilet. If “free” electrons travel from one source to another, that will occur when we contact pretty much anything. Furthermore, the direction of the electron transfer will always go to the ground, not our body (point made above). Second, earthing proponents claim the human body is a conductor. It’s more of an insulator. Human skin is a terrible conductor… this is why we don’t get shocked when touching batteries. Third, electricity travels at the speed of light. The instant I touch anything that’s touching the earth (like my computer keyboard), there would be an immediate equalization of any electrical fields. There would be no need to spend extended times in direct contact with the earth.
Red Flag #5: Dubious marketing. The basic idea of earthing is free. Walking barefoot or sleeping on the ground costs nothing. Earthing hypes this up. This allows the proponents to state “Hey, we have nothing to gain. You can get all these benefits for free!” Of course, they then sell a litany of products to help augment what is available for free. It’s a common persuasion tactic used to disarm our inherent skepticism.
Red Flag #6: The proponents are not good scientists. Good scientists point out potential flaws in their theories. Good scientists call on others to replicate their research. Good scientists offer possible alternative explanations. They recognize that all theories are junk until others replicate the experiments and derive similar results. The proponents of earthing do none of this. The earthing proponents use their questionable research to make huge logical jumps with absolutely no critical analysis. In short, they act more like salespeople than scientists.
What’s Really Going On
There are two likely explanations of the positive benefits that are attributed to earthing:
1. Walking around barefoot creates sensory input we rarely experience. When people begin walking around without shoes, the positive mood changes are simply a function of the new skin-on-ground tactile signals being sent to our brain. Stressful day at work? That new sensation makes us forget our bad day. It may even release dopamine in the brain, which improves mood. Occam’s Razor, anyone?
2. The placebo effect is powerful. If you think a condition will have a consequence, there’s a pretty good chance you will experience that consequence. If people believe earthing products have a positive impact on health or well-being, a certain percentage of the population will actually experience that benefit. This is why controlled, blind experimentation is so important… it rules out the placebo effect. The concept of earthing has not been tested in a controlled manner, so it is impossible to rule out the placebo effect.
Earthing is a questionable concept for quite a few reasons. My recommendation- don’t believe it. It ranks right up there with “magnets improving your golf swing” and “this watch will protect your body from harmful magnetic fields.”
If you DO choose to buy into the idea, walk around barefoot and don’t drop large sums of cash on the products that make wild health claims. The motives of the proponents should be seriously questioned.
Like anything else that seems like an “out there” idea, we shouldn’t completely disregard the idea of earthing. Unfortunately the present-day proponents certainly do more to harm the potential scientific legitimacy of the idea than help it. The use of junk science and scientific lingo only weakens their potential theory.
[Late addition- my friend and fellow BRS/SBL member Longboard gave me this link; it explains the pseudoscience angle a little better: http://ahcuah.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/eye-on-ions/]
What are your thoughts? Do you buy what these folks are selling? Do you think this hurts the legitimacy of barefootedness? Share your thoughts in the comments!