Does standing with your feet in the dirt really have benefits for your mental and physical health?
Grounding, also known as earthing, is a therapeutic technique based on the belief that, by allowing our skin to come into direct contact with the earth (be it dirt, rock, the sea or river water), we are literally ‘grounding’ ourselves – electrically reconnecting with the earth by soaking up its negative charge, to help us rebalance.
We can probably all recall a time we spent in nature that left us feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and relaxed. But how much of this sense of positive wellbeing comes from our physical connection to the earth?
Does grounding really work? And what does science have to say on the matter?
What is grounding?
Grounding (or earthing) is the practice of physically connecting with the earth for the benefit of your health and wellbeing. So, how do proponents believe it works?
‘The Earth is electrically conductive and carries a mildly negative charge,’ says Fiongal Greenlaw, founder of The Wellness Foundry. ‘Therefore, direct contact with the Earth evens out the positive charge that builds up in the human body, neutralising the internal bioelectrical environment. These electrons also offset creative oxygen – free radicals – involved in the body’s immune and inflammatory responses. If we don’t have regular contact with nature and the ground – which is becoming increasingly more difficult in the modern world, due to rubber-soled shoes and urban living – our health becomes affected due to this build-up of positive electrical charge.’
Grounding is the practice of physically connecting with the earth for the benefit of your health.
Signs you are not ‘grounded’
Think you might be in need of a little grounding? According to Greenlaw, some of the signs that indicate you may need to spend more time connected to the natural world include:
- Being easily distracted
- Feeling ‘spaced out’
- Regularly overthinking, ruminatingor get stuck in your head
- Engaging in personal dramas
- Experiencing anxiety and perpetual worrying
- A constant need and desire for material things and possessions
- Being easily deceived
- Being obsessed with personal image
How to try grounding for yourself
‘Grounding or earthing is really simple,’ says Antonia Harman, emotional trauma expert and healer. ‘The easiest way to do it is to simply walk barefoot on the earth, for example at the beach or on grass. If the surface is wet, all the better, as water is a great conductor. It’s more effective on a natural surface, so AstroTurf, concrete or paving won’t have the same benefits.’
But what if you don’t fancy walking barefoot?
‘If walking bare foot isn’t an option for you, leather moccasins work,’ says Harman. ‘Unfortunately, moccasins are pretty expensive and not an option for vegans. But there are other options.’
Types of grounding
As we’ve already explored, walking barefoot on the earth is the easiest (and cheapest!) way to ground yourself. Greenlaw suggests this simple barefoot walking meditation as a means of connecting emotionally with the earth, too:
‘Try walking slowly, being mindful of each step you take,’ he says. ‘Feel the ground beneath you. For maximum effect, do this in a park or forest, amongst the trees, or one round of walking around your local park will work wonders.’
Taking a dip
Many proponents of grounding advocate immersing yourself (safely) in water as a means of connecting with the earth. And what could be more refreshing than a cool dip in a river, lake or the sea? The sea is apparently wonderful for this, because of the addition of salt.
Can’t get to the great outdoors for a dip? No problem!
‘Salt is an incredibly grounding material, as it is literally of the earth,’ says Greenlaw. ‘So bathing with salt – something like Himalayan or Epsom – works well.’
Trying a grounding product
If regular time outdoors is unavailable to you, or spending a decent amount of time with your feet in the flowerbeds doesn’t feel practical, then you could invest in a grounding product. These items, which include mats and bedsheets, connect to the earth usually via a wall plug, meaning you can get all the benefits of earthing, indoors.
‘Grounding mats can be plugged into the “earth” part of an electrical outlet,’ explains Harman. ‘This is connected to the earth, so you don’t electrocute yourself. These rectangular mats can then be placed on the floor at your desk – you simply put your bare feet on them and they ground you as you work.
‘Grounding sheets, blankets and pillow cases work in much the same way as the mats. They are convenient ways to ground from inside your home, while sleeping. There are more products besides, depending on what you’re looking for, including yoga mats, wrist bands and socks.’
Does grounding really work?
‘Grounding is currently an under-researched topic and there are very few scientific studies on the benefits,’ says Greenlaw. ‘However, the most recent scientific research has explored grounding for inflammation, long-lasting pain, muscle repair, cardiovascular disease and emotional health. The central theory from one review study, by Oschman J, Chevalier G and Brown R published the Journal of Inflammation research in 2015, found grounding affects the the central connector between living cells, known as the living matrix. Chronic inflammation, wound repair and autoimmune diseases were vastly improved by the electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth.’
And Harman agrees that, while further research needs to be done in this area, some small-scale studies out there suggest benefits.
The theory is that the earth is loaded with free electrons. When we connect to it, these have antioxidant effects.
‘The theory is that the earth is loaded with free electrons,’ she says. ‘When we connect to it, these free electrons spread over the whole body and have antioxidant effects. They may even create an antioxidant microenvironment around an injury repair field, allowing wounds to heal faster. This has been seen especially in open wounds which refuse to heal.’
It is, however, important to note that in the above study, two out of three of the independent contractors who conducted it own a small percentage of shares in an earthing company.
Benefits of grounding
‘There are a number of alleged benefits of grounding,’ reveals Harman. She says these include:
- Reduction of inflammation
- Weight loss
- Faster recovery from injuries/wounds
- Enhanced mood and general wellbeing
- Improved sleep quality
- Reduced pain
- Lower stress levels
- Reduction of DOMS(delayed onset muscle soreness) after physical exercise
Of course, while there are some studies to back these benefits up, many of these are small scale.
‘All in all, I think grounding warrants further investigation,’ says Harman. ‘But if the health benefits are indeed accurate, there could be significant improvements to your health and wellbeing.’
Risks of grounding
While grounding is a simple and natural process, there are a few precautions you should take.
‘There is a potential risk of drawing current from other sources [if using indoor grounding products],’ warns Harman, ‘so just be aware of other [ungrounded] electrical devices in the vicinity.’
And of course, if you’re walking barefoot outside, watch your step!
‘Moccasins and grounding straps will help you avoid cut feet and stubbed toes.’ suggests Harman.
Practical benefits of walking barefoot
Even if you are skeptical about the benefits of grounding in terms of electrical charges, there is definitely another, more practical and tangible benefit of ditching your shoes and walking barefoot regularly.
‘From a physiological point of view, one of the benefits of walking barefoot is that it can help to restore our “natural” walking pattern, for example, our gait,’ explains podiatrist Tracey Byrne, founder of Holistic Health. ‘This can lead to improvements in balance and proprioception (awareness of body position and movement), which can help with pain relief. We can all relate to that feeling of relief when we take our shoes off from a long commute – and having a break from ill-fitting and uncomfortable shoes can help to prevent foot pain, bunions, hammertoes or other foot deformities.’
Byrne suggests the following tips to reap the benefits of being barefoot:
Don’t just walk: move your feet!
‘Those with the healthiest and most supple feet are those who habitually go barefoot – and exercise them as well – and not just as an afterthought,’ reveals Byrne. ‘Studies show that those who regularly stretch and mobilise their feet have better flexibility and mobility, stronger feet, fewer deformities and less complaints than those who don’t. Additional benefits include greater flexor strength, better ability to spread the toes and less deformed toes. Specific stretching and foot exercises help to develop the muscles and ligaments of the lower limbs and naturally strengthen the arches of the foot, as well as improving awareness of where we are in relation to the space around us, or so called “proprioception”.’
‘To avoid injury, you might want to start by walking barefoot indoors or on safer outside surfaces, such as your garden path or decking,’ suggests Byrne. ‘Start with short 15- to 20-minute sessions of walking barefoot, to allow your feet and ankles time to adapt to the new environment. You could also try an activity that is already performed barefoot, such as yoga, Pilates or martial arts. More strenuous activities, such as barefoot running, shouldn’t be attempted until your feet have built up strength and resistance to outdoor surfaces.’
‘If you do take up barefoot walking or grounding regularly, the chances are that your feet will at the very least become dirty, and at the worst, you may be at risk of sustaining a minor injury from the terrain or sharp objects,’ says Byrne. ‘So, you need to make sure you look after your feet, including nail health, as well as caring for the skin. Post-walk, make sure your feet are clean and dry using a gentle soap. This will help to prevent athletes’ foot and any fungal nail infections. Make sure to cut toenails straight across when soft once per week – never round off the corners, as this can cause in-growing toenails. If you do get a cut or graze, make sure you treat it with an antiseptic cream and cover with a plaster, to avoid infection.’