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Earthing: The Silliest Health Scam Ever?

By Duff McDuffee on August 31st, 2016

Earthing is the theory that humans are lacking in an essential nutrient: electrons. But luckily the Earth has lots of extra electrons we can borrow (so nice of her). But shoes are insulating and prevent the free flow of electrons, so we have to stand or walk barefoot on the Earth to get them. Or we can buy special pads and sheets ranging from $60 – $210 — sold by the author of the theory — that plug into the neutral or ground plug in an electrical outlet, supposedly allowing for the free transfer of such electrons.

This is silliness.

First, let’s talk about grounding. In electrical wiring, the ground or neutral plug just connects to the Earth. In case of unwanted extra electricity in an appliance, the current will flow back towards the electrical panel, tripping the circuit breaker and thus shutting off the flow of electricity. The appliance also must be connected to the ground to complete the electrical circuit. Alternatively, the current can flow in the opposite direction. Essentially the Earth functions as either an infinite source or a bottomless pit for extra electricity.

The grounding plug was originally for safety so that you don’t accidentally die when going to open your refrigerator, but also works now to regulate electrical “noise” from our many electronic devices, helping to prevent frying their delicate circuits. In Europe, “grounding” is called “earthing” — they are two words for the same thing.

Electromagnetism Metaphors in Spirituality and Psychology

“Grounding” is also a metaphor, often used in spiritual and psychological communities, as in “I’ve been feeling really ungrounded lately.” It’s part of the constellation of electricity and magnetism metaphors such as “wow, you have such great energy” or expressions like “like attracts like” (the opposite of actual magnetism, interestingly). In this psychospiritual context, being grounded means “to be in a resourceful state” while “ungrounded” is to be in an unresourceful state. It’s an electrical engineering metaphor in an Earth-worshipping pagan mythology, where goddess Mother Earth is the source of all that is good and healing.

This mythology is not necessarily a problem, any more so than the metaphor of Father God creating the Earth in 7 days. Things only become a problem when we confuse metaphor with science.

We are Already Grounded (Electrically)

Let’s talk about bed sheets. Virtually all beds are already grounded. According to one electrical engineer, you’d have to take great pains to insulate (“un-ground”) a bed such as “suspending the bed frame on plastic furniture pads, and keeping those insulating pads squeaky clean.” Just attaching a wire from the bed frame to the middle outlet pin would be sufficient to “make the electrical potential of the bed occupant identical to the surrounding earth”, since “Mattresses and bed sheets are not perfect insulators.”


Shoes are Not Good Insulators

In fact, we are so grounded (yes, even in shoes inside of buildings) that the famous Van De Graaff Generator — raising kids hair in children’s science museums around the world — won’t work unless you are standing on an insulated platform. (Here one is sold with a plastic footstool.) If you are not standing on an insulated platform, you cannot build up an electric charge because it will simply disperse…into the Earth. Shoes are just not very good insulators, as it turns out, so no need to take them off or buy special grounding shoes to get the “benefits” of grounding. Even if typical shoes were perfect insulators, simply touching doorknobs, sitting, washing your hands, or lying on the floor would lead to any needed energy transfer…at extremely fast speeds.

In a paper entitled The Earth’s Electric Surface Potential, the director of the Earthing institute Gaétan Chevalier begins by saying this:

“For billions of years life has evolved on the earth. Only recently has man begun to wear shoes; and even more recently has man developed rubber and plastics (insulating materials) that are used to make shoes which insulate man completely from the earth.”

Again, if shoes completely insulated people from the Earth, than you wouldn’t have to stand on a plastic footstool to build up a charge from a Van De Graaff Generator. In fact, in some electrical professions, you have to buy special footwear with an EH (Electrical Hazard) rating to work safely with electricity. This is precisely because standard work boots and other footwear are not good insulators.

Distanced from Divinity

Chevalier goes on:

“Today, a large portion of the population lives or works in high rise buildings. These circumstances put even more distance between man and the surface of the earth.”

Now we are seeing the confusion of literal vs. metaphor. Distance from the Earth = Distance from God(dess). We ought to be close to Goddess Earth, grounded. We have become ungrounded, distant from divinity, building castles in the sky, the tower of Babel. Separation is the fundamental problem, separation from God(dess), leading to our sinful ungrounded activity. Civilization is inherently problematic and we must return to nature, get down to earth, touch the soil.

Earthing Theory is Ungrounded

The Earthing theory is that free radicals, lacking an unpaired valence electron, need those electrons from the Earth to balance out. But this isn’t how chemistry or electromagnetism works at all. A free radical is highly chemically reactive due to its unpaired electron, but having free radicals in your body does not make your entire body positively electrically charged, nor does it mean that getting more electrons in your body reverses free radical damage as anti-oxidants do. Again, if this was the case, holding on to a Van De Graaff Generator would be the latest cure for chronic disease (in fact, it’s even more complicated than that because the body acts as a Faraday Cage, allowing current to pass on the outside and never get inside, which also means walking barefoot or lying on a mat wouldn’t help).

If getting more electrons was the solution to free radicals, then all free radicals would be equally transformed by the extra electrons. This would be highly problematic, as free radicals also play an important, positive role in the immune system.

The Earthing Institute claims that this won’t happen with Earthing, because “[useful free radicals] are not readily neutralized by electrons from the earth because they are delivered to a precise location at a very high concentration, and their electron-grabbing activity is precisely focused on damaged cells and pathogens that may have crossed the skin.”

So these free radicals that are used by our macrophages are somehow “focused” on damaged cells and pathogens. How exactly? How can a chemical “focus” on picking up some electrons and not others? Many such mysterious claims are made on the Earthing Institute website without any “grounding” in actual evidence or even plausible mechanism.

Earthing Institute materials also claim that free radicals play a direct role in inflammatory diseases, that inflammation is caused by lack of electrons. As the NeuroLogica blog put it: “Every link in the earthing chain of argument is therefore wrong. It is little more than free associating with sciencey terms (i.e., making shit up).”

Earthing Science is Sketchy as Heck

Earthing founders claim it is scientific, that practitioners of barefoot dirt walking experience better sleep, less stress (reduced sympathetic nervous system activity), reduced cortisol, recalibration of normal cortisol rhythms, reduced inflammation, and a higher metabolic rate. But all of these things could simply be from being outside, not otherwise working or doing anything stressful.

There is already scientific evidence that being outside, especially in a less urban environment (the woods, the mountains, etc.) reduces stress, and stress is related to many diseases. To actually test Earthing specifically, you’d have to have a control group that went on a hike (with rubber soled shoes) vs. an Earthing group that went on the same hike barefoot. But then it could just be stimulation to the feet, so you’d have to control for that in another study, and so on.

The Earthing mats on the other hand should be very easy to double-blind: simply leave some mats unplugged (and which are unplugged are unknown to both the experimenters and the volunteers, hence double-blind). Even better would be to triple-blind, so that neither the experimenters nor the participants know whether they are sitting on a mat at all. The Earthing Institute has 20 posted studies on its website, some of which claim to be double-blinded. But these studies are rife with problems.

First off, most of these studies have small sample sizes, a major problem in generalizing to larger populations. At best they are pilot studies that should spur further research but not be conclusive.

Next, all the publications are in open access journals such as DovePress and the oddly vague “Scientific Research Publishing” or in controversial alternative medicine journals such as The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine or Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine. Open access journals are notorious for have little to no publishing standards at all, basically publishing anything as long as the submitter of the paper pays a fee. Scientific Research Publishing specifically is on Jeffrey Beall’s list of Predatory Publishers. (DovePress was also on the list but appears to no longer be.) Scientific Research Publishing has had many controversies, including publishing work already published elsewhere unbeknownst to the article’s authors, listing academics as on their board without their knowledge or permission, and even accepting a Mathematics paper that was created by a random text generator.

Many of these journal articles from the Earthing Institute claim that lying or sitting on their grounded mats or sheets are equivalent to walking barefoot in nature, but none of the studies linked from the Research page on their website have attempted to prove this. So even if the pads are effective, generalizing to barefoot grounding is not based in any evidence. In fact, even if the pads are effective, there is no evidence of any transfer of electrons taking place at all. As one blogger wrote of a televised video demonstration, the volt meter was zero because it was connected to the pad:

“This is a total sham demonstration; if you look at the setup, the other wire of the volt meter is hooked up to the grounding pad. This would be like putting both wires of a volt meter on the same side of a battery – of course it is going to read zero.”

Other bloggers like the NeuroLogica blog have critiqued the methodology, but I don’t know enough to evaluate whether the methods used in these studies were valid or not. That is supposed to be the point of the peer-review process in legit academic journals.

We also have no idea how many studies were conducted that had null results, which can lead to publication bias. All the studies have been done by people sympathetic to the idea of Earthing, or with financial interests. The studies should be confirmed by independent researchers with larger sample sizes. Just as we should also be skeptical of drug trials conducted by the company which seeks to profit from the sale of the drug, The Earthing Institute has financial and ideological biases — they are trying to prove the case for their expensive mats and sheets, as well as lend backing for a literal interpretation of their Gaia Earth Mother mythology, confusing literal electromagnetism with metaphorical “groundedness.”

Save Us Mama Earth

As explained on the page What is Earthing from the Earthing Institute, “Modern living has increasingly separated us from Mother Earth’s great natural endowment of health-nurturing energy.”

Here is an example of such confusion of literal (science) and metaphorical (mythology) from an article entitled Assume a spherical cow: The role of free or mobile electrons in bodywork, energetic and movement therapies:

“The ‘‘ungrounded’’ patient with a substantial amount of pain and inflammation could be a person who has become depleted of mobile or free electrons. As their pockets of inflammation are reduced during a hands-on therapy session, they could be drawing free electrons from their therapist who is in electrical contact with them. This could explain the ‘‘depleted’’ feeling that bodyworkers sometimes experience as a consequence of working on chronic patients. In essence, the therapist has donated his or her electrons to the patient during the session. To counter this problem, most therapeutic schools teach the importance of rinsing the hands in cold water after a treatment. Since the water system is in contact with the earth, it is likely that, among other things, hand rinsing restores electrons to the therapist’s body. Hence, the phenomenon of earthing adds depth to the usual definition and understanding of the term ‘‘ungrounded’’ as used in the bodywork, energetic, and movement therapy professions. In many cases, the term may refer, in part, to the extent to which an individual has become electrically disconnected from the earth.

Let’s unpack this for a minute. First off, there is no evidence that electrons are being transferred from therapist to patient — this is a hypothesis, but zero evidence is presented for this hypothesis. Evidence would consist of some sort of measure that would indicate electrons being transferred. If I said you were tired after working with a difficult massage client because you were depleted of uranium or Vitamin C which transferred to the client during the session, you would be rational to ask me how I could possibly know such a thing. Of course the therapist would also have to be standing on a plastic footstool and thus is actually insulated from the Earth in order to be “depleted” of electrons, and the massage table itself would have to be insulated, and somehow your body would have to resist absorbing those extra electrons when you touched. The rinsing of hands after massage is primarily for hygienic reasons, often after just touching the patient’s feet. Furthermore, if washing your hands is sufficiently grounding, then there is no need to go for barefoot nature walks or purchase expensive grounding pads. None of this makes any sense at all.

Embodied Cognition and Metaphorical Constructs

…except it does make sense metaphorically. A field called “embodied cognition” can provide us with some insight. Hand-washing is about cleanliness, and cleanliness is next to Godliness, because clean vs. dirty is metaphorically linked deep in our nervous systems to good vs. evil aka morality. Health vs. illness is also linked deep in our brains to clean vs. dirty as well as good vs. evil, hence the constant obsession amongst alternative health practitioners with “toxins” which can be understood as wanting to be clean and pure, free from sinful modern civilization.

Washing of the hands can be a ritual that feels like moral purification as well as washing away the bad juju from that difficult client one was just working with (it’s also just good physical hygiene). No transfer of electrons or chi or any other magical substance is necessary to explain this experience, only our weird, wacky human psychology and our evolutionary history. You can “wash your hands” of an experience quite literally by using a little soap and water. (Unless of course you are Lady Macbeth, in which case you will need something a little stronger.)

If these pads work for an individual, it may very well be because the user “feels connected to the Earth” through a series of metaphorical constructs:

  • mood is electricity (“energy”)
  • healthy people have more energy/electricity, whereas unhealthy people lack energy/have negative moods
  • the Earth is an idealized mother
  • mothers give life and nourishment
  • “grounded”/”down to earth” is good
  • connected is good, disconnected is bad
  • natural is good, unnatural is bad

…and so on.

Walking barefoot outside may be beneficial because it implies several things:

  • you are not currently stuck in an office
  • in fact you are not working at all
  • and we generally only take off our shoes outside on vacation
  • or if we are children

These associations are very powerful, just as putting on a white lab coat when called a doctor’s coat changes how we think and feel, and how most people would refuse to wear Hitler’s sweater, despite the fact that it’s just a bunch of yarn.

Or it could even be just pure chance. Back pain for instance, one of the things claimed to be healed by Earthing, often goes away without any intervention after a period lasting 1-2 years. But if you have been trying many interventions over those years, the last thing you tried could be seen to be the “miracle cure.”

Taking Metaphors Literally

Ironically, the electron hypothesis of “Earthing” is completely ungrounded. A more down-to-earth explanation is that of psychological placebo effect, based in electromagnetic pagan goddess-worship metaphors. That and just taking a nice break outdoors to “kick off your shoes” and relax. I don’t have any problem with installing positive placebo effects, but this belief may also install the negative placebo effect to “feel bad whenever wearing shoes or not sitting on a special mat.” Worse yet, ideas like this may also make sensitive (highly suggestible?) people feel worse about living in society, rather than more adaptable and resourceful in dealing with aspects of civilization such as working in an office.

The way to understand grounding mats are as magickal religious objects in techno-pagan goddess worship.

If you want to feel more connected with the Earth and have a more Zen spirituality (sans religious accoutrements), you can simply go for a walk outside, barefoot or not. You can even do visualization exercises where you imagine being connected with the Earth. I’ve found these to be quite lovely, and in fact have done both exercises where you drop your “negative energy” into the Earth (Reggie Ray has a good one), and ones where you do the opposite — getting “positive energy” from the Earth. Both seem to work, because neither has anything to do with electromagnetism, only psychology. I have a 5 minute version that I’ve found very useful involving visualizing dropping your “energy” down farther and farther into the Earth until it reaches the center. You can even do this in a Faraday cage or in an airplane and feel completely “grounded”!

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