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What’s the Deal with “Earthing?”

Posted by on May 8, 2012 | 31 Comments

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.

Conclusion

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!

 

 

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31 Comments

  1. Kate Kift
    May 8, 2012

    So I have tried this or something similar to do with this called BIE. To be fair the only reasons I tried it was because my allergies were getting dangerous (and so restrictive that I was almost unable to eat anything) and my husbands extended health covered it. If we weren’t getting this for free, then I wouldn’t have bothered.

    I have to admit that I entered the process as a complete skeptic. I went to the sessions with a sense of curiosity — nothing more.

    it is also hard to say if it worked, because it was used in conjunction with other therapies. If I was being very precise about it, I would have done the therapies all separately. Given the whole nature of my allergies there are so many variables outside of my control I could never have performed an exact trial anyway.

    So, I have to admit that after the sessions I am still not entirely convinced. There wasn’t enough information to understand the theories behind it — which is always a bad sign. If you can’t explain it to a layman in a way that makes sense and seems logical then I am a little hesitant.

    However, saying that, there were certain events that happened in the testing/treatment that seem to indicate there was something happening and I am unable to give an alternative explanation.

    For example – part of the testing involved you holding your left/ring finger to your thumb (making a circle) and you had to hold your fingers together with all your strength. You then placed vials of various allergens to your wrist and the naturopath would attempt to pull your fingers apart. If he was able to, it showed some internal reaction. If he couldn’t, you were fine.

    Sounds dubious, huh?

    I had a whole list of allergens I knew I reacted to via a skinprick test. So there were so known allergens.

    There were hundreds of vials (which were numbered) and we performed the above test with them without knowing what the allergens where.

    There were some vials which he could pull apart my fingers — it was impossible for me to stop him. I didn’t know what the allergens were and we were going through the tests so quickly it would be hard (but not impossible) for him to know what he was providing me.

    When we checked the numbers on the list, the vials I had a “reaction” to were the ones on my skin-prick list, but very few others.

    Obviously every magician can do slight of hand tricks ;) It would be an impressive trick.

    Still skeptical, but it was a bizarre enough event that I am not entirely dismissive. Who knows? Science and clinical trials will tell. ;)

  2. Tess
    May 8, 2012

    It has always sounded REALLY hokey to me, and I was surprised to see Dr Mercola promoting it recently. He does sometimes make claims for things I’m dubious about, like EFT, but EFT has at least some similarity to the ideas behind acupuncture (which I really believe does work even though researchers don’t seem to understand why).

    Earthing just seems nonsensical. But since I’m happy to go barefoot anyway, I figure I don’t have anything to lose for being an earthing disbeliever.

    • Ahcuah
      May 9, 2012

      Why would you be surprised that Mercola promoted it? He’s a well-known quack.

      And even Dr. Oz is headed down that path (has to keep coming with new stuff for his show). His wife does Reiki, which is nothing more than faith healing. Chinese faith healing.

      • Bare Lee
        May 9, 2012

        Yah, I was going to say, Dr. Mercola? He just likes scaring people as far as I can tell.

        Hey Ahcuah have you ever heard of Ken Wilbur? He’s a real piece of work if you’re looking to indulge your connoisseurship of quackery. He has a theory of everything all worked out with a pretty quadratic chart. You might enjoy the (meta)physics.

  3. Steve
    May 8, 2012

    I’ve heard of “being grounded” in a yoga context. Does anyone know what that’s supposed to mean?

  4. Leenie
    May 8, 2012

    You should try it and then draw your conclusions. OR stay in your altered state until you realize there is something to this. I have been earthing for over a decade and can testify it is NOT a placebo effect. Of course there will always be people to condemn anything they do not understand. Please speak with knowledge before you judge.

    • Jason
      May 8, 2012

      Well, i have been barefoot for about seven years now, so I think I qualify as a person that’s “tried it.” ;-)

      Seriously, though, the point of the post is to start a discussion on the legitimacy of the practice. The supporting research is highly questionable, the science doesn’t make sense to people that study the topics (physics, microbiology, macrobiology, electricity, etc.), and the anecdotal evidence can be explained with more plausible explanations. The idea doesn’t seem to make sense from an evolutionary perspective or even a logical perspective.

      Every piece of evidence I can find that supports the idea references sources that are making money selling earthing products.

      Is there a knowledge base that CAN support the idea of earthing? Is there a body of evidence that derives from someone NOT profiting from earthing?

    • Jason
      May 8, 2012

      Also, note I didn’t completely disregard the idea. I’m just asking for supporting evidence. ;-)

  5. MIranda
    May 8, 2012

    Thank you for your efforts to debunk this. I agree with those who say it risks reducing the credibility of plausible scientific claims of the barefoot running “movement.” Earthing is nothing more than pseudoscience and the placebo effect.

  6. Brian G
    May 8, 2012

    Craig Payne, in the now-closed Barefoot Running Debate forum in Podiatry Arena often wrote “If the barefoot running community want to be taken seriously they have to stop misusing, misquoting, misrepresenting and misunderstanding the research.”

    A buyer’s review on Amazon by Neil Gunton, http://www.amazon.com/review/R2PLRHJ3TWU8JI/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0984382208&nodeID=283155&store=books, presents a good explanation on why this pseudo-scientific hogwash like grounding can further impact the credibility of the benefits of going barefoot and/or running with better form. It’s a shame.

    • Jason
      May 8, 2012

      Brian- couldn’t agree more. The folks at the Podiatry Arena tend to annoy us, but most bring up some good points. I’d include that statement as such.

  7. David Goulette
    May 8, 2012

    Jason, I have a related psychology question. I have heard that people often buy on impulse and then after the purchace, they seek to justify their purchace to ease their anxiety about the choice. And then people will latch on to a product similar to a new convert to a religion. Tunnel vision. They want to believe they did the right thing. I don’t know the psychology here. Would love to get your take on this. I am interested in the part of your post here about the way people market psuedo-science.

    • Jason
      May 8, 2012

      David- yes, we tend to rationalize all our behaviors and decisions. An extreme example would be a serial killer that believes they’re doing a good thing by killing a larger number of people.

      In psychology terms, the concept is often known as the “commitment/consistency” rule of persuasion. Get people to make a commitment to something (product, cause, etc.) and they will then filter things in a way that makes their behaviors consistent with that action.

      From a practical standpoint, it tends to make people into “true believers.” They disregard critical information. That’s the reason I occasionally write posts to encourage people to be skeptical about barefoot running.

      • David Goulette
        May 8, 2012

        Your healthy skepticism (even in the things you believe in) is a big reason why I like your blog. You are authentic that way.

        • Bare Lee
          May 8, 2012

          Hear, hear David, I agree; this is the best blog on the ‘net (said by a guy who’s looked at less than a dozen blogs).

  8. David Goulette
    May 8, 2012

    You are so right on with this post. This issue gets me a bit frustrated. This grounding issue is is the perfect example where a POSSIBLE conjecture is passed off as PLAUSIBLE. And then once people start selling products based on the idea, advertising with words like “studies show that….” start to convince people. No need for actual science at that point. I have caught myself believing things that in retrospect I realized I was sucked in by good marketing. Most all of us have been duped somewhere along the line.

    • Bare Lee
      May 8, 2012

      I got duped when I ordered ‘sea monkeys’ from the back of a comic book as a kid. Since then I’ve known that all marketing is BS.

      “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

      – Gomer Pyle / Anonymous

      • Jeff Gallup
        May 8, 2012

        Yeah… I was pissed when the Sea monkeys didn’t have little crowns on their heads and tridents…

        • Jason
          May 8, 2012

          It’s important to apply skepticism to ideas like grounding, but also important to apply it to the things we agree with (like barefoot running.) ;-)

        • Bare Lee
          May 8, 2012

          Now whenever some advertiser starts making exaggerated claims, or outright lies, or tries to distract me from their products faults or inadequacies with a little cleavage, I just remember those illusionary crowns and tridents and it galvanizes me to resist their chicanery and mischief. I’ve been vaccinated by sea monkeys.

  9. Bare Lee
    May 8, 2012

    Potential areas of future research:

    If I’m grounded will I have a better figure?

    Can we be properly grounded with just two prongs? Don’t we need a third leg to ground correctly? Are naked men more grounded?

    Is any concept involving Latinate vocabulary science?

    Are pseudo-science product lines an effective tax on those who failed to show interest in school?

    Should we begin taking in groundhogs for post-pet purification applications around the house?

    • Jason
      May 8, 2012

      “Are naked men more grounded?”

      I actually laughed out loud at this. :-)

      • Bare Lee
        May 8, 2012

        Glad to reciprocate!

  10. John White
    May 8, 2012

    Thanks for this entry, Jason. ‘Grounding’ felt like psuedoscience aimed at the unwary. Glad you’re publicly calling it out!

  11. Jeff Gallup
    May 8, 2012

    I love Michael Sandler’s book on barefoot running, but it’s this one particular point that I had difficulty buying into. He talks about this connecting and grounding to the earth. Mentally I kind of skipped over those sections and took in the rest of the info that made logical sense to me.

    Granted, I don’t disagree that it feels great to go barefoot.. nothing more stress relieving that walking barefoot on a beach… but I attribute that to more of a mental state, and not some kind of crazy conductive action between my feet and the earth :-)

    • David Goulette
      May 8, 2012

      I am with you on this. I was tuned off by some of the fantastic claims in Sandler’s book as well. I’m glad I am not the only one who thought this. It’s too bad really, because about 25% of the book is good.

  12. Chuck
    May 8, 2012

    Maybe everyone’s worried about static electricity. Those shocks are really annoying and my life would be a lot better if those weren’t part of it.

    Flag #3 may be ok. Not free of flaws, but better than you explain. Electrons have a negative charge and travel from negative to positive. So they would travel from the earth to you if they could. This would technically “ground” you. I don’t know if that would be transferring energy from you to the ground, but it would lower your charge.

    • @Barefootron
      May 9, 2012

      Wow, I never even thought about that Chuck. I have never noticed a static electricity shock while being barefoot.

  13. @Barefootron
    May 8, 2012

    All I know is I wouldn’t want to be earthed (grounded) during an electrical storm!

    • klanger
      May 9, 2012

      In Luna Sandals or any other rubber huaraches you should be fine. I know that it is not their advertising slogan, but it fits great here “Like barefoot, only better” :-)

      • @Barefootron
        May 9, 2012

        I have a pair of Invisible Shoes and Unshoes rubber huaraches. I’m waiting for Luna Sandals to have a big sale on their Luna Catamounts!