Barefoot In Sedona: Bogus Claims About Grounding Your Feet to Earth Promote Medical Pseudoscience

There is a website that reveals “The world’s most dangerous invention.” Care to speculate what that invention might be? I might have guessed nuclear weapons. Others have incriminated guns, cigarettes, genetic engineering, religion, The Web, The Large Hadron Collider, and automobiles. But this website was not talking about any of those, but about a far more destructive invention. Would you believe…shoes?

Watch out for those malicious moccasins, horrific high heels, fiendish flip-flops, beastly boots, and sinister slippers! They’re all out to get you. Not just shoes. Anything that comes between us and the bare earth: houses, clothes, tent floors, pavements, doormats, cars, skis, and so on.

It’s called “grounding” or “earthing”— the idea that maintaining health requires direct contact with the earth. Shoes are the most destructive invention ever, we are told, because they allegedly cause inflammation and autoimmune diseases, circadian rhythm disruptions, hormonal disorders, cortisol disorders, heart rate variability problems, arthritis, herpes, hepatitis, insomnia, chronic pain, exhaustion, stress, anxiety, premature aging…pretty much anything that might ail you. A one-cause-of-all-disease explanation invokes inflammation as the culprit. Grounding is supposedly the best defense against inflammation and aging; it represents a whole new treatment paradigm. Among many other benefits, grounding also “promotes calmness in the body by cooling down the nervous system,” thins the blood, eliminates jet lag, and protects the body against potentially health-disturbing environmental electromagnetic fields.

A book expounds these concepts: “Earthing: The most important health discovery ever!” by Clinton Ober, Stephen Sinatra MD, and Martin Zucker, with a foreword by James Oschman Ph.D. Who are these people? Ober, the inventor of earthing, is a layman from the cable TV industry. Of course. Dr. Sinatra is a cardiologist who encouraged Ober, who specializes in so-called “integrative medicine” (which integrates superstition with science) and is a “certified bioenergetic psychotherapist.” Naturally. Zucker is a writer. Oschman is a notorious proponent of energy medicine who believes there is a scientific basis for it; most reputable scientists disagree.

The book starts with Ober’s story. He had a midlife crisis, gave up his material possessions, and travelled around looking for a new mission in life. His quest reached fruition in Sedona, AZ, a notorious mecca for New Age woo. There he had an intuitive epiphany while sitting on a park bench, watching tourists. He noticed that they were all wearing shoes! It occurred to him that they had lost contact with the ground and needed to be grounded. He grounded himself, slept better, tried it on friends, and then tried to do research. He couldn’t get scientists to cooperate, so he got volunteers from beauty salons to try his grounded bed pads. He did some experiments (mostly uncontrolled and unpublished), persuaded Dr. Sinatra and others to jump on his bandwagon, and sparked a whole movement and an industry of grounding products.

The book goes on to explain how shoes cause inflammation and autoimmune diseases and are the most destructive invention in human history. Shoes block you from receiving a constant supply of the free electrons that shield and nourish the entire earth. Grounding protects you from electromagnetic fields (EMF). Walking barefoot or jumping into the ocean will remove the static buildup and immerse you in electrons. You can also ground yourself with grounding wires: your own EMF will be dispersed and free electrons will come up the wire, thereby giving you free antioxidants. Effects occur in minutes; chronic pain resolves in hours. 20 volts of electricity from electronic devices is reduced to near zero. The Earth is the biggest electron generator and static sink ever. None of the book’s authors is a physicist— it shows.

On a “groundology” website, Dr. Stephen Sinatra explains:

  1. The Earth is a reservoir of free electrons. Without a connection to this reservoir, our cells are unable to balance harmful positive charges. He includes pictures from live cell microscopy to illustrate how positive charge makes blood cells clump.
  2. We are bombarded by electromagnetic radiation from modern technology, inducing voltages that disrupt subtle electrical communications in our body. Grounding reduces these induced voltages.
  3. It may be that our connection with the earth carries information, helping align us with the greater network of intelligence of our planet.

What’s wrong with this? Almost everything. Our cells don’t need an infusion of electrons. Live cell microscopy is a bogus test: his pictures can’t show that there are positive charges, and the blood cell clumping is only an artifact. Anyway, clumping blood cells have nothing to do with the alleged health effects. There is no evidence that EMF disrupts communications in our body or that grounding protects us from any hypothetical ill effects of using cell phones and other technology. And the third point about aligning with an intelligence network is wild imagination not supported by anything in science or reality.

Arguments in support of earthing are either demonstrably false or so vague as to be meaningless and untestable

Some quotations in praise of Earthing serve to highlight its unscientific approach:

  • “People have lost touch with the Earth. From a biblical perspective, people who lose touch with the Earth lose touch with God. Earthing reconnects us to the plan, to other, and, in a sense, to God.”
  • “Earthing connects us to Nature and Nature is the ultimate source of health and healing.”
  • “The feedback from patients is now so strong that I know predictably, as a doctor, this will change a person’s life.”
  • “Earthing is a return to the healing power of Nature. Scientifically based and intuitively correct, here’s a simple but powerful way to restore your health on all levels.”

Several negative reviews of the book have commented that it sounds like an infomercial, consists of anecdotes, and contains no science except for some junk science. But of course there are plenty of positive reviews comparing it to the greatest discovery since penicillin, proclaiming “it worked for me.”

Earthing proponents offer a mixture of speculation, superstition, pseudoscience and testimonials. Their explanations are confused: they tell you talking on your cell phone outdoors and standing on grass will dissipate the static charge, hopelessly confusing static electricity with electromagnetic fields. On the one hand, they say ground contact will remove your static electricity, and on the other hand they say you will absorb electricity from the Earth. (So which is it? Is electricity going in or out?) They also have some “real scientific studies” to bolster their beliefs, but these are unconvincing.

The studies were not published in mainstream journals. They involved small numbers of subjects and usually failed to use any controls; almost all were funded by people with a vested interest in selling grounding products, and the same few names (Chevalier, Sokal, Sinatra, Ochsman) keep recurring in the published literature: it’s all the work of a few inbred true believers.

An article in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health reviewed the health implications of earthing. It was written by the researchers themselves. It carries this disclosure: “Chevalier, S. T. Sinatra, and J. L. Oschman are independent contractors for Earth L. Inc., the company sponsoring earthing research, and own a small percentage of shares in the company.”

Dr. Steven Novella, a prominent skeptic of alternative medicine claims, notes: “The studies are typical of the kind of worthless studies designed to generate false positives—the kind of ‘in house’ studies that companies sometimes use so that they can claim their products are ‘clinically proven.’ Reading through the individual studies you can see that they are all small pilot or preliminary studies with atrocious methodology. They are little more than documenting placebo effects, subjective findings, and anomaly hunting.”

The antioxidant/inflammation connection is unconvincing. Do free radicals cause inflammation? No, it’s probably more accurate to say inflammation causes free radicals. And to neutralize free radicals you need antioxidant molecules, not free electrons.

Of course, going barefoot can be dangerous and uncomfortable (cold feet, stepping on broken glass, becoming infected with hookworms, etc.). So instead you can buy their specially designed products: earthing sheets, earthing recovery bags, grounding mats, personal grounding kits, grounding patches, accessories, grounded shoes, an earthing bed, even products for pets. Herein lies the business end of the alternative medical claims.

Arguments in support of earthing are either demonstrably false or so vague as to be meaningless and untestable:

  • The primordial nature energy emanating from the Earth is the ultimate anti-inflammatory and the ultimate antiaging medicine.
  • The Earth’s surface is alive with subtly pulsating frequencies.
  • Earth’s electrical energy maintains the order of our own bodily frequencies just as a conductor controls the coherence and cadence of an orchestra.
  • There are comparisons to a light-bulb with a loose connection that flickers, to Qi and prana.
  • The Greeks knew about it: Antaeus was invincible as long as his feet remained in contact with the Earth, and Hercules defeated him by lifting him off the ground.
  • Native Americans honored the connection to the Earth.
  • Electrons are like a nutrient: Vitamin G for ground.
  • Wild animals never get sick.

They warn “any individual taking medication to thin the blood, regulate blood sugar, control blood pressure, or to supplement thyroid activity should consult with their doctor before beginning to ground themselves, and then monitor the medication once they start grounding. An adjustment in medication may be necessary.”

Failures are easily explained away. If you don’t feel any difference from sleeping grounded, it’s because you’re not sick; but you still need to do it for prevention and anti-aging. If you slept better for a while but the effect faded, it’s because “Sleep is so subjective, and the quality is often related to life’s stresses. No matter how grounded somebody is, stressful situations can readily impact sleep. Drinking a lot of caffeine or alcohol in the evening could also interfere with sleep.”

This is all just too silly! Shoes are not dangerous. We don’t need more electrons; we need more critical thinking.

This article was originally published as a SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.