Think back to your childhood. Imagine the end of the school year is approaching. You are counting down the days until summer, and one of the first things you plan to do is go barefoot—as often as possible.
As adults, we may have outgrown the eager anticipation of summer; we may even spend less time outdoors. But according to Isaac Eliaz, MD, author, researcher and clinical practitioner in the ﬁeld of integrative medicine, we need to get back in touch with the earth.
What we used to call “going barefoot” is now called “earthing.” And it’s actually a movement, rooted in science, that has gained momentum in recent years.
Dr. Eliaz, an integrative medicine pioneer since the early 1980s, is an earthing advocate. He explains that while the term “earthing” may be new, the concept is anything but.
“Interacting with the earth was a way of life for our ancestors,” he says. “Little did we realize that modern life, which has literally separated us from the electrical ﬂow of our earth, could be a large factor in human health and disease.”
But it’s more than just a hippie philosophy. There’s a scientiﬁc explanation for why going barefoot feels good and is good.
THE SHOCKING SCIENCE OF EARTHING: HOW ELECTRONS HEAL
Maybe children intuitively know that going barefoot is good for them. They know it feels good to dig their toes and heels into grass, dirt or sand. In other words, we were meant to touch nature. When we’re divorced from it, we can feel the effects.
Earthing as a movement began about two decades ago,Dr. Eliaz explains, when Clinton Ober, a former cable television salesman, began research into the effects of grounding for humans. He likened it to the grounding wires used in electrical devices to eliminate interference from other electrical currents. He was on to something.
The earthing movement’s goal is to help restore the natural electrical connection humans have had with the earth throughout evolution. (There’s a lot we can learn from the caveman: The paleo diet recently came into vogue, for instance.)
Dr. Eliaz cites Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) in explaining that the human body is healthiest when it becomes an extension of the planet’s gigantic electric system.
“Many researchers have investigated the electro-chemical nature of our physiology, which permeates every system, including neurological, muscular, hormonal and endocrine down to the cellular level,” Dr. Eliaz explains.
“Humans are essentially electrical beings,” he continues. “We are made up of water, minerals and electrons. We produce positive charges that produce oxidative stress on the body. But, according to new research on earthing, when we walk barefoot, free negative electrons from the earth are transferred back to us, acting as antioxidants.”
Dr. Eliaz’s opinion that earthing can have surprising beneﬁts is based on some compelling scientiﬁc studies—although he says more research needs to be done. But what does earthing have to do with pain? Plenty, actually.
“Being in nature has always been one of my primary recommendations as part a daily routine for those seeking to maintain health,” Dr. Eliaz says. But it’s a particularly good prescription for people experiencing illness or pain.
“Pain is a combination of electrical signals that are sent through the body, the underlying state of the nervous system, levels of inﬂammation at the pain site and, in the body in general, poor circulation to the area, along with mental and emotional factors,” Dr. Eliaz says.
According to Dr. Eliaz, research has shown that earthing can potentially offer many beneﬁts, including:
° Reducing inflammation
° Boosting antioxidant effects
° Improving circulation, blood ﬂow & oxygenation
° Reducing stress
° Promoting faster muscle recovery
° Balancing cortisol levels
° Regulating hormones
° Improving sleep
° Lowering blood pressure
All those beneﬁts have the additional beneﬁt of reducing pain. But how much earthing is enough to reduce pain?
“Our ancestors spent most of their time in contact with the earth, so for the best beneﬁts, the more con-tact, the better,” says Dr. Eliaz. But you don’t have to pitch a tent and sleep out under the stars to get beneﬁt. “Studies on grounding varied in exposure time from half an hour to all-night exposure. Beneﬁts were seen in all time intervals.”
It’s not only a certain open-minded segment of the medical ﬁeld that promotes grounding; it’s also sup-ported by a source that’s never too far outside the mainstream: the US government. A2012article published in the National Institutes of Health’s Journal of Environmental and Public Health examined a number of studies that highlight how drawing electrons from the earth improves health.
The article laments our increasing disconnection from the earth: “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.”
And according to Dr. Eliaz, walking in ﬂip-ﬂops doesn’t do the trick. “It’s best to have skin contacting the earth,” he says. “Cotton socks or leather shoes, such as moccasins, can be somewhat conductive due to moisture from either the earth or your feet acting as a conductor, but bare feet are best.”
And it’s not just shoes that are separating us from nature. Dr. Eliaz cites one study that found that chronic pain patients using grounded carbon ﬁber mattresses slept better and didn’t experience as much pain. In an-other study, earthing was found to actually change the electrical activity in the brain.
MORE EARTH, LESS MEDICATION?
A few words of caution: if you decide to get your tootsies in regular contact with the grass and are on medication, ask your health care provider to monitor you. According to Dr. Eliaz, some changes that result from going barefoot may affect your recommended levels of prescription medications. In some cases, patients have needed lower doses of blood thinners, blood pressure meds and thyroid meds because of improvements they’ve seen.
Being outdoors, and more speciﬁcally, in the dirt, also boosts vitamin D—in the form of sunshine—proven to improve mental and emotional health.
In addition to monitoring medication levels, there are basic safety concerns. “Those who go barefoot regularly develop some thickening on the soles of their feet, which reduces sensitivity,” Dr. Eliaz says. “Most of our current living environments are not very amenable to barefooting—with gravel, concrete or potentially harmful objects such as nails.”
Plus, he points out, we are a germophobic culture. “We are just not used to being barefoot, so we can feel oddly vulnerable,” he says. “It’s important to choose a clean, natural environment, which could be the beach, or the grass in your backyard.”
One commonsense precaution: Some environments aren’t safe for earthing. As one example, Dr. Eliaz mentions some temperature zones where parasites in the soil can enter the body through the feet. “In this case, the use of leather soles—such as moccasins—would offer some protection but still allow for some connection.”
Since we don’t all live near a park—or have a grassy back-yard—going barefoot may not be practical. Dr. Eliaz notes it may be especially hard for people with limited mobility. He says some studies show that simulated barefoot con-tact—through bed pads, mats and EKG-and TENS-type electrode patches—may be good alternatives; however, more research is needed to understand the beneﬁts of these new earthing products.
“Although there is nothing that beats being in nature, these products may potentially offer an alternative,” he says. “If you have limited mobility, however, you can still get beneﬁt by sitting and placing your bare feet on the grass, soil or other earth surface.”
In addition, Dr. Eliaz says, “Since water conducts electricity, walking near water, wet grass or on sandy beaches are among the more powerful and effective ways of exchanging earth electrons.”
Science has conﬁrmed what we felt in our souls as children; going barefoot doesn’t just feel good. It may also make you feel better.
PainPathways is the first, only and ultimate pain magazine. First published in spring 2008, PainPathways is the culmination of the vision of Richard L. Rauck, MD, to provide a shared resource for people living with and caring for others in pain. This quarterly resource not only provides in-depth information on current treatments, therapies and research studies but also connects people who live with pain, both personally and professionally.