Updated: Jul 14
Have you ever heard of grounding, or Earthing? This is a process by which the human body, after coming in direct skin to earth contact with the ground, reconnects electrically to the Earth through exchanges of electricity, or electrons.
This is different from grounding that is used during mental health therapy. It is said that by coming in direct contact with the ground, the exchange of electrons would rebalance electrical charges and help lower inflammation in the body. If this sounds a little too sci-fi for you, then you're human and I too, was a skeptic before I read the science. I recognize that documentaries are created for entertainment and will often glamourize any positive findings, so I wanted to review the scientific data on this subject in order to give you my personal opinion, which is founded in skepticism and science.
I'll start by saying that my goal isn't to debunk grounding, but rather to translate the available science in everyday terms anyone can interpret. Personally, I think there is some merit to grounding, but if you’re looking for absolute and irrefutable proof of its benefits, you’re not gonna find it here, or anywhere, at least for now…
Advocates will claim it's the next cure for cancer, and the those who promote grounding are more likely to sell products to ground with. I've read about cases where 1 week of grounding led to complete resolution of chronic health problems, pain, insomnia and all things alike. Knowing that anecdotes are the weakest forms of science, I remain highly skeptic about anything being a silver bullet. Other claims are more reasonable, like reductions in pain and improvement in certain long standing symptoms. But anyone claiming that our absence of grounding is the sole cause of everything from cancer to inflammation doesn't have a great grasp on the science. When something sounds cool and sciency, and aligns with a person's general perception and values, it tends to create more of a wow-factor. Does grounding fall in this category? An important factor to consider before reading further is that 95% of studies are conducted by authors that would stand to benefit financially from the widespread adoption of grounding.
The explanations surrounding how grounding could help reduce some medical conditions and/or improve quality of life is a very convincing one and does deserve our time. I'll start by using nutrition as an example to paint a similar picture. Paleolithic anthropologists have determined that humans have likely evolved eating a plant-predominant diet. For hundreds of thousands of years, even millions, our bodies have evolved and changed in order to preserve homeostasis with the world around us. No wonder the advent of ultra-processed foods a mere 2-3 generations ago coincides perfectly with the exponential increase in obesity and chronic disease rates. Do you know what also coincides with these medical conditions? Our propensity to stay indoors, sheltered from nature and the chemicals we used to inhale from trees and plants, as well as grounding, which seemed to decrease rapidly after we invented one of our greatest, yet simplest tools to live a higher quality life, or so we thought... the rubber sole shoe. Yes, not too long ago, everyone started wearing rubber soles on their shoes, which effectively shields, or insulates us from the electrically charged ground we used to walk on. We also started sleeping in beds that are isolated from the electrically charged ground, disconnecting us from the Earth's electrical rhythms and free electrons. But what has that to do with health and disease?
When we eat, we break down chemical energy stored in the bonds that link carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. We measure this potential energy as calories, or joules. This energy is then transformed into electrical energy. That's how our body communicates with the outside world. Chemical energy is transformed into electrical nerve impulses that is then reconverted into chemical energy in muscles. This translates into movement in order to search for food, shelter and to reproduce. Our bodies are like batteries and we can actually measure our voltage, as well as how it changes in response to many stimuli, including grounding.
If you remember your high school or university physics courses, you might recall how electricity seeks ground. In fact, grounding provides a safe “path of least resistance” for stray voltage to follow. Grounding directs stray voltage into the ground where it discharges safely instead of building up in places where it will be dangerous. Electricity will always move towards the lowest potential and the difference between electrical potential between two sources is measured through voltage. We ground electrical wires, electrical appliances and medical tools. When I use my electrocautery tool, I must make sure to touch the patient and the ground simultaneously, so that excess electrical charges can flow through my body to seek ground. If my nurse would walk in the room and put her hands on the patient, the electricity that flows from my cautery tool would jump from the patient and to her hand, effectively shocking her in order to seek ground.
The Balloon Experiment
I think everyone has seen these experiments, where you rub a balloon on your sweater, or you hair and create static electricity. Then you use these evil powers to shock your unsuspecting friend. You can do this by rubbing your feet on carpet and then zapping your friend! When two objects, like your hair and the balloon rub together, one loses some of its electrons to the other. This makes one object positively charged and the other object negatively charged. When you touch another person or an object, you can suddenly discharge the static as an electrical shock. Similarly, when you rub a balloon on your head it causes opposite static charges to build up both on your hair and the balloon. Static electricity is created when positive and negative charges aren’t balanced. When an object (or person) has extra electrons, it has a negative charge. Things with opposite charges are always attracted to each other, so positive charges seek negative ones and negative ones seek positives. Your body, through all of its electrical and chemical processes, tends to produce free radicals and unbalanced electrical charges. Something as simple as grounding could help get rid of accumulated static or unbalanced electrical charges, by seeking ground and finding balance with the Earth. The claim is that the negatively charged Earth will neutralize free radicals and balance our electrical charge, practically acting as an antioxidant.
Even with all of this new knowledge about the flow and balance of electricity, claiming that balancing electrical charges will prevent cancer or chronic disease is still a very bold claim. There are rarely any absolutes in science, so let's take a look at what the research says.
Firstly, the science on grounding, when comparing it to our usual RCT's, meta-analysis or systematic reviews, is pretty scarce. We can find small studies on small numbers of participants, that are rarely controlled against placebo. Even considering the low quality science and anecdotes, some interesting findings can be discussed. Measuring voltage before and during grounding does show interesting findings, like obvious drops in voltage measured in the body, but the measured amounts are so small it's difficult to assume that the drop in 0.5 to 1 volts due to grounding would be significant clinically.
Most of the existing research is geared towards measuring benefits for inflammation, cardiovascular disease, muscle damage and recovery, chronic pain, and impacts on mood. One must also consider that measuring metabolic parameters doesn't always translate into improvements of hard endpoints, like quality of life, morbidity or mortality. For example, if a study determines that a particular intervention lowers an inflammatory marker, like CRP for example, by 10%, then although impressive, this might not mean anything clinically. If your CRP level was 2.0, then a 10% drop might bring it to 1.8. This is unlikely to change anything in your life. Although interesting from a scientific point of view, if you're not living better or longer, one could argue that this finding is worthless, while others will argue that this should encourage us to develop further experiments. Whatever your take on this, take these findings with a grain of salt, but also keep in mind that most studies are not suggesting that you disrupt your daily routine in order to practice grounding, but that you take seconds, even minutes out of your day to practice a totally safe, super practical, possibly effective and side effect free technique that could improve your quality of life, and maybe even have greater benefits that we've yet to discover.
You can definitely review the studies listed in the references section, or you can simply take my word for it by reading this section where I'll summarize their findings.
One of the studies found that blood tests done on 10 participants, which is a super small sample size, showed reduced red blood cell clumping. Although this is an interesting finding, it would quite a stretch to suggest that this would result in cardiovascular protection, like the authors suggest. Even if it were to be true, it's impossible to jump to that conclusion based on this single study's findings. Decreasing blood pressure, simply by believing that grounding works, would be a relevant placebo effect that could also decrease voltage differences between groups receiving grounding versus those without. Most of these studies do not have control groups and significant placebo effects are likely. Another study measured creatine kinase, white blood cell count, and pain levels before and after grounding by randomly dividing 32 young men in 2 groups and found that these parameters were reduced in participants using grounding. This does suggest healing advantages in those using grounding, but again fails to prove causality because of many other confounding variables and the small sample size, short study length as well as the absence of more precise measuring modalities like modern imaging techniques and muscle biopsies. Other studies show similar results when looking at pain and mood, but rely on subjective self-reporting with small sample sizes.
One thing that is very certain about grounding is that it's easy, cheap, safe, practical and under-researched. There might be some value to it and the research does seem to show promising evidence of its benefits. Yet, the absence of control groups and the possible impact of placebo could very well impact results. And when there were statistical significances between the grounded versus ungrounded groups, the significance of these on a clinical level has yet to be determined. More studies are needed, but that shouldn't keep you from considering adding it to your daily routine.
How To Stay Grounded
Simply walking on the ground barefoot, or having direct contact between your skin and the ground is the simplest form of grounding. Wading in bodies of water do the same thing and help discharge excess electrons. Others will advocate for more complex forms of grounding if accessing nature isn't as readily available for you. One of these ingenious methods involves connecting a metal rod to the ground, then running a wire from the rod to your house in order to connect your body to the wire through contact with your skin. If this seems a little too intense for you, you can even purchase grounding equipment online. These include grounding mats, grounding sheets or blanket, grounding socks and grounding bands and patches.
Stepping Over Dollars To Pick Up Pennies
If you’ve ever heard the saying ''stepping over dollars to pick up pennies'' or ''Not seeing the forest for the trees'', it describes an idiom highly applicable to practices like grounding. What I mean is that grounding does seem to have its merits in terms of positive lifestyle choices, but not at the expense of the other lifestyle choices that could have significantly greater impacts on your health. If you’re eating a highly processed diet, smoking and not exercising, then maybe grounding shouldn’t be your first priority. Green smoothies are awesome, but having one every month in the context of the standard western diet is unlikely to improve health outcomes. A 15 minute walk every month is unlikely to decrease mortality in someone who smokes. It's what you do most of the time that matters in the overall picture. Some would argue that healthy foods or meals don't exist, only healthy dietary patterns. What I'm trying to say is that it's what you do most of the time, meaning 80-90% of the time that will determine your health trajectory. Eating the occasional comfort food is unlikely to make you unhealthy, in context of an overall dietary pattern, much in the same way that grounding is unlikely to have miraculous properties in the context of an unhealthy and pro-inflammatory lifestyle. That being said, it's a cheap and easy way of maybe lowering inflammation, improving healing and who knows, maybe even improving mood. I'd give it a try if I were you. But be weary of bold and unproven claims. Be cognizant that most of those who practice grounding are more likely to be those who are already making better lifestyle choices, who are eating well and less likely to smoke. I'm an advocate of grounding, and I'm eager to see if new research continues to support its use. But before I try to convince my patients that grounding is something to consider, I prioritize and invest my energy in working on the main lifestyle pillars: proper nutrition, regular exercise, stress management, restorative sleep, avoidance of risky substances like alcohol and smoking, as well as building strong social relationships and purpose.
Who Even Cares
Now, if you’re looking for proof beyond any doubt that grounding will cure all of your ailments, I’m sorry but the research isn’t there yet. There does seem to be solid evidence that grounding does change your body’s voltage, but by such a minuscule amount that it remains obscure if it’s even clinically relevant. That being said, many people swear by it, and that’s where it gets tricky. The mind is a powerful thing, and when something is in that gray zone, where it seems like it’s working, but there could be a strong placebo effect, that’s usually when predators selling books and gadgets appear. Don‘t get me wrong, most people promoting grounding, like me, simply have your best interest at heart, but not everyone. But let’s say, worst case scenario, that grounding “hypothetically” doesn’t even work in changing voltage significantly or that even if it does, it’s not clinically meaningful, then the worst it could do is be safe and effective in increasing one’s spirituality, mindfulness, connection with your own body, mind and planet, all things that are predictors of a solid foundation for mental health. If grounding helps you connect spiritually with yourself and your planet, then should we even care about the science? Ok, if you’re pawning your prized possessions to afford a luxurious grounding mat and a costly monthly grounding subscription, then you’re doing it wrong. But if you have access to something as simple as removing your shoes and touching the earth with your bare skin, why not. If you’re taking time to be grounded, you’ve just made time for yourself, you’ve just taken a step towards self-care, you’ve just turned down the volume in your mind, and you’ve just prioritized your health and wellness. I don’t see anything bad coming out of that. Who cares about the voltage changes. Kick off your shoes, take a deep breath and stay grounded.
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