The term ‘earthing’ may not be well known to everyone, but it means connecting with the earth by walking barefooted. It’s also known as ‘grounding’. This is common in the tropics. In fact, in some tropical countries it is common for locals to walk barefooted as they go about their daily chores. And tourists do it regularly on beaches in the tropics.
For those of us who live in the tropics following a more western lifestyle, there are two trains of thought about going barefooted. One is that there are health benefits walking without shoes, sandals or flip-flops, and the other is that there are health dangers going barefooted. So let’s take a look at the arguments for and against earthing.
Health Benefits of Earthing
Those following ‘alternative’ lifestyles often claim that earthing has proven health benefits from improving the immune system and antioxidant levels, relieving stress and muscle pain, through to curing sleeping problems and rheumatoid arthritis. Throw in a few other benefits like enhancing energy levels and preventing PMS, and you may wonder why everyone is not earthing every day of the year.
Up until about 15 years ago, that was because like many ‘alternative’ remedies they hadn’t been demonstrated to work through properly peer-reviewed medical studies. The claims that were made were based on the anecdotal experiences of a few alternative health practitioners. Most conventional medical doctors would say they are getting those health benefits simply because they are exercising more.
Naturopaths on the other hand would argue strongly that there is a scientific basis to earthing because the earth has a slight negative charge, so when people walk around barefooted, there is a subtle exchange of electrons that benefits the biological functions of the body because the free radicals in the body that cause inflammation are positively charged.
Many naturopathic health resorts would promote earthing and clients frequently spoke of the benefits that they experienced, but sceptics continued to argue that those benefits were achieved simply because the guests were eating and sleeping well in a relaxed environment and benefiting from a whole range of ‘back to nature’ experiences like spas and massages.
However, in more recent years a number of controlled studies have been undertaken with patients who had difficulty sleeping or experienced chronic pain. These weren’t studies that looked at the benefits of walking barefoot, but studies that examined the effect of patients sleeping on conductive mattresses that were ‘earthed’ so that the same exchange of electrons could happen as occur when walking barefoot.
The results have been a surprise to the sceptics because they have shown that there are real benefits to sleeping arrangements that enable electrons to be transferred from the ground to the body, with dramatic improvements in sleeping patterns and significant reductions in chronic pain. Whilst the results came from experiments with conductive sleeping mats, it can be assumed that many of these benefits could be achieved by walking barefoot because there is no issue with the scientifically proven fact that electrons from antioxidant molecules can help to neutralize the free radicals that are associated with inflammation in the body.
A landmark study in 2012 which was published in the US Journal of Environmental and Public Health concluded:
“Emerging evidence shows that contact with the Earth—whether being outside barefoot or indoors connected to grounded conductive systems—may be a simple, natural, and yet profoundly effective environmental strategy against chronic stress, ANS dysfunction, inflammation, pain, poor sleep, disturbed HRV, hypercoagulable blood, and many common health disorders, including cardiovascular disease.”
Since then many other studies have been carried out producing results that support those conclusions and both naturopaths and many conventional medical practitioners are promoting earthing along with exercising, eating healthy foods and getting plenty of sunshine and clean air as being ways to avoid chronic illnesses.
We are fortunate that living in the tropics we have access to all of those things all the year round, especially if we live near a beach where it is comfortable to walk barefooted on the warm sand.
Aside from the ‘electrical’ benefits of earthing, podiatrists also say that walking barefoot has health benefits. The foot muscles are not constrained by the fit or shape of a shoe so the walking posture is more natural, as is the connection to ankle and leg muscles. An improvement in balance might be experienced as well, as well as improvements in blood circulation.
In some cases, feet become deformed through wearing ill-fitting shoes, so walking barefoot provides relief and promotes improvement in foot mechanics. All of this helps to promote stronger leg muscles which in turn helps to provide better support for the back.
Health Dangers of Earthing
The most obvious danger of earthing is walking on broken glass or other sharp items on the ground. This risk can be minimized by walking only on firm sand on the beach. Walking as the tide is receding just above the waterline is the safest place to walk barefoot – provided you keep an eye out for any sharp objects that may be buried in the sand.
The other is picking up nasty organisms from the ground, especially hookworm larvae that have been left behind from dog feces, or other parasites. That is why it’s not advisable to walk barefoot on grass or on beaches where there are dogs around. Walking on wet sand as the tide is receding minimizes the danger of picking up parasites through the feet.
Aside from parasites, there is also a possibility of picking up bacterial and fungal infections – although this usually happens more in showers and locker rooms than on a sandy beach in the sun. Walking on firm sand in shallow water or in the surf considerably minimizes the risk of bacterial or fungal infections. However, after walking on the beach, wash the feet in salt water, clean them with alcohol wipes, and use an anti-fungal spray to be sure.
Although podiatrists speak of the benefits of walking barefoot, they also caution that persons who are not used to walking barefoot may be more prone to some muscle injuries because they lose the support that their shoe normally provides to the foot. Therefore, those who are new to barefoot walking should take it easy and limit the length of their walks on the beach until such time as their feet become used to walking barefoot.
Header image: Alonso Reyes