If I were to quiz you on good sources of antioxidants, you might start rattling off things like blueberries, green tea, dark chocolate and kale, but how about “walking barefoot?” That’s right, in a practice called “grounding,” research is beginning to show possible health benefits of walking barefoot in the grass. Is this just a placebo effect from spending more time outdoors? Or is there something real about connecting with the Earth’s subtle electrical field? Let’s explore.
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Let’s Start with Free Radicals
Alright, we’re starting all the way back in high school science class. The classroom is warm, the teacher is droning on and the whir of a projector is lulling you to sleep. As you may (or may not) remember, humans are made up of atoms. Atoms, in turn, are made up of protons, neutrons (sometimes) and electrons. Protons, which have a positive charge, make up the center of the atom, like the center of our solar system. Electrons, which have a negative charge, orbit the protons, like planets orbiting the sun. Since protons and electrons have opposite charges, they attract to one another, and in equal numbers, happily go about their peaceful orbit.
However, sometimes one of those peaceful electrons can get “knocked out” of orbit, and when that happens the atom is no longer balanced. It scavenges the body looking for another electron to put back into its system, so that it can once again become balanced. (Remember, an atom wants an equal number of protons to electrons.)
These scavenging atoms are called “free radicals” and while they only live for a fraction of a second, can wreak havoc on our DNA. Research shows that free radicals can damage cells leading to chronic inflammation, cancer and other diseases.
What Does Grounding Have to Do With Free Radicals?
So what does this have to do with walking barefoot? The earth’s surface has a negative charge to it, which means it has “extra” electrons. The theory goes that coming into direct contact with the earth can help neutralize free radicals in our bodies, by giving those free radicals the extra electrons they need to become stable again. In short, the earth is our biggest antioxidant, and can give us the benefits of antioxidants—better wellbeing.
Some researchers say that our lifestyles, including wearing heavy-soled shoes, working indoors and commuting preferences have made an impact on our ability to neutralize our bodies via earth-body connections. They say this may be playing a role in our increased levels of chronic illness in Americans.
As one researcher put it, “Modern lifestyle has increasingly separated humans from the primordial flow of Earth’s electrons. For example, since the 1960s, we have increasingly worn insulating rubber or plastic soled shoes, instead of the traditional leather fashioned from hides…Obviously, we no longer sleep on the ground as we did in times past.”
Scientific Research on the Health Benefits of Grounding
There are a few studies that have looked at “grounding,” and its effects on humans. One study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that grounding reduces blood viscosity—a major culprit in cardiovascular disease. As the study author writes, “Grounding appears to be one of the simplest and yet most profound interventions for helping reduce cardiovascular risk and cardiovascular events.” While this is certainly promising, the study was small, including only 10 people, so more research should be done regarding cardiovascular improvements of grounding.
So, besides potential heart-health benefits, what else can grounding do? According to the Journal of Inflammation Research, the effects of spending time in contact with the earth are remarkable, including:
- Improved sleep
- Reduced pain
- Reduced stress
- Increased heart rate variability
- Faster wound healing
- Reduced blood viscosity
As the study puts it, spending time grounding to the earth is literally like re-charging our body’s batteries, contributing to overall reduction in stress responses and inflammation.
While these studies and a handful of others all support the benefits of grounding, critics are quick to say that these studies are too small to make any definitive statements about its use in the medical world. While I agree that more research is needed, I’ll take any excuse to get back outside and spend more time reading in the grass.
How to Try Grounding for Yourself
While there are no official recommendations for how long you should “ground” to the earth each day, some people report feeling better after just 20 minutes of walking in the grass. Here are a few more tips to try it for yourself:
- Feel free to sit on a blanket. Fabric like wool, nylon and cotton are conductive, so they won’t disrupt the charge between you and the ground.
- Can’t find a green space? Concrete is conductive as long as it’s not painted or sealed. Also avoid wood, vinyl, plastic or asphalt as these are insulating materials.
- Go for a swim: Take a dip in rivers, lakes or the ocean for a recharging experience. (Sorry, pools don’t count.)
- Try an Earthing Mat or Sheet (maybe): There is almost no scientific research on the validity of an earthing mat; however, many personal testimonials hype their efficacy. What is it? Basically, it’s a mat that plugs into a grounded outlet, transferring energy from the ground up through to the mat, even if you’re working at a desk 12 floors up.