Updated: Nov 25
Grounding (or earthing) entails maintaining skin contact with the earth or with some kind of grounding system. The measurable benefits of grounding have been well-researched in recent years, leading to dozens of peer-reviewed studies across multiple disciplines. These studies together have led to a new frontier in the study and treatment of inflammatory issues, something that has become increasingly problematic and stubborn to relieve in our modern society.
How We Become Grounded
Walking barefoot is the most basic and natural form of grounding for humans, but because we wear shoes so often, which insulate and disconnect us from the earth's electrical charge, we have lost this earth-granted benefit. We used to be grounded during sleep, while walking, and essentially every moment of every day, when humans lived in a natural environment.
There are plenty of good reasons to avoid walking barefoot or sleeping in the dirt in many places and contexts. If you've lived your whole life in shoes, restoring the function of your foot is a prerequisite to being able to safely do more complex activities while barefoot. Now there are many systems that can be used to maintain a grounded connection to the earth while sleeping indoors, walking outside, and even working at the computer. These systems include grounded footwear, sheets, mats, and other devices that can be physically connected to the earth, and using conductive material, maintain our connection to the earth remotely.
How Grounding Affects Health
Grounding ameliorates the characteristic signs of inflammation, including heat, redness, pain, swelling, and physiological dysfunction. Wound healing is something that has been thoroughly studied, showing a pattern of dramatic decreases in pain and inflammatory markers are experienced after just 30 minutes of grounding. Wounds are reported to heal much faster and more completely, and even studies elderly patients with open wounds that have been non-healing for months report healing after 2 weeks of daily grounding. In cases of healthy younger individuals with open wound injuries, grounding treatment expedites the healing process and greatly reduces inflammation and discomfort during the healing process.
Other studies involve observing the changes in heat patterns through medical infrared imaging that portray inflammatory symptoms in the body. Just 4 nights of sleeping with a grounding mat shows a significant improvement in the thermal imaging that depicts the distribution of heat in the body. In cases with chronic pain for decade-old injuries for which conventional medicine has provided minimal benefit, sleeping with a grounding mat yielded dramatic improvements in a matter of weeks, and by 12 weeks patients report relief of pain and symptoms by over 90%, allowing them to return to activities that were previously impossible.
The Hypothesis of Grounding
There are several hypotheses as to why this intervention is so effective. The main hypothesis, is that connecting to the earth's surface enables free electrons from the earth to circulate through the body and have natural antioxidant effects. When we are injured, our bodies respond by creating an inflammatory barricade around the injury which can cause damage to healthy surrounding tissue. By connecting our bodies to the earth's surface, mobile electrons create an antioxidant environment around the injury repair field, resolving the excessive oxidation of the injury and surrounding tissues.
It's easy to assume that we know everything there is to know about the body and its processes, but how our immune system functions and treats illnesses and injuries is still a mystery. Exploring the effect of the Earth's free electrons in this process has the potential to greatly shed light on how the immune systems functions in terms of health and disease, and may be one of the missing links in healthcare.
Other Benefits to Grounding
Grounding has been shown to improve sleep, regulate our day-night cortisol (circadian) rhythm, reduce stress, reduce pain and tension, and regulate the autonomic nervous system by shifting us from sympathetic nerve dominance (freeze, fight, or flight response), to parasympathetic mode (rest, heal, & digest). It also has been shown to improve blood circulation by balancing blood viscosity. Balancing blood viscosity means making sure your blood is the right thickness. This makes your heart rate more responsive in how it adapts to increases in activity and breathing, as well as speeding up the healing of wounds, as previously discussed.
Medical infrared imaging has shown us that inflammation subsides after about 30 minutes of grounding. Metabolic activity also increases during this amount of time. As the result of aging involves the damage caused by accumulating oxidation in the body, the antioxidant effect of free electrons during grounding can also have an anti-aging effect.
Studies have even shown an effect on the development of tumors in the body.
The Effect of Grounding on Sleep
One study involved a dozen people who had a hard time sleeping due to pain, and presenting an imbalance in their cortisol levels. This study involved the subjects sleeping grounded for 8 weeks. To sleep grounded, they used sheets with conductive thread in their beds connected to carbon or silver wires that were planted into the earth outside. The subjects' cortisol levels were normalized with this intervention and most of them reported a dramatic improvement in their sleep, pain, and stress levels.
This is not only an improvement of physical health, but mental health in the form of reduced anxiety, depression, and irritability. Prolonged chronic stress has been shown to result in a failure to downregulate inflammatory responses. This increases the probability of developing certain chronic illnesses. By grounding, the effect of chronic stress on your mental state and the quality of your sleep can be greatly relieved.
Effects of Pain & Immune Response
One easily measurable experiment that can be replicated by anyone involves observing the recovery time of "Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness" (DOMS), which is the tension and discomfort felt after hours or days following an unfamiliar and challenging exercise.
You may have experienced the after-effects of training "legs day", or going on a long hike, and then the next day feeling like you've been hit by a truck. This feeling is what is described as DOMS, and is caused by the short-term damage to muscles during the eccentric portion of an exercise. When you lift a weight, that is the concentric part of an exercise, and when you lower the weight back down, that's the eccentric part of the exercise.
Tearing of the muscles during this eccentric phase is a trauma, but rebuilding these tissues is an unavoidable part of the process of getting stronger and developing more resilient muscles. Grounding reduces any pain, heat, swelling, and discomfort experienced as a result of this, and increases the recovery process, so you don't have to wait 5 days before you can walk normally again, or stand up out of a chair without groaning like an old man.
In one study, a group of people were subjected to a specific exercise to create the symptoms of DOMS, some of them were sleeping on grounding mats and using grounding systems throughout the day, and some of the subjects were using grounding mats and sheets that were not actually grounded, as controls to compare to the grounded results. Those who were not grounded experienced an increase of white blood cells and other inflammatory markers to the afflicted area as a response to the inflammation cascade following the injury. Those who were grounded were shown to have lower levels of white blood cells, and less sensitivity and soreness. They also differed from the ungrounded subjects in most metrics taken, by about 10%.
Lower levels of neutrophils and lymphocytes in grounded subjects suggest that healing happens more rapidly. Neutrophils function to remove damaged tissues from an injured area, but often also damage healthy tissues surrounding the area when they stick around too long. Grounding seems to help expedite this process and allow the neutrophils and lymphocytes to do their job more quickly, reducing the collateral damage. Grounding has been shown to produce measurable changes in the concentrations in molecules involved in the inflammatory response. This includes white blood cells and cytokines, which are proteins that send signals to help regulate inflammation at a cellular level.
Why Grounding Works
The working hypothesis is that the Earth's mobile electrons act as natural antioxidants capable of getting through the inflammation barricade. At the site of injury, they neutralize oxidants and protect healthy tissue from damage. This facilitates a faster and more efficient healing process. Another hypothesis is that the inflammation barricade is actually caused by the lack of being grounded after an injury. In either hypothesis, the inflammatory barricade prevents new cells from entering and repairing the injury. This can result in an unresolved pocket of inflammation that can eventually spread to effect other tissues and organs in the body. Free electrons from contact with the earth's surface permeate the inflammatory barricade and act as antioxidants to balance out the inflammatory response.
There are now many studies that suggest that grounding the human body has a profound balancing effect on our inflammatory response to injury and illness. Autoimmune and inflammatory disorders play a central role in a vast number of problems common in present-times that are largely unresponsive to modern medical treatment. A lack of grounding in our society may be one of the clues as to why these kinds of issues are so prevalent and stubborn to treat reliably.
Anatomy of Grounding
When the skin is in contact with the earth, the theory suggests that the surface of the skin becomes covered with these free electrons, which permeate and enter the body. Mucus membranes of the respiratory and digestive tract are continuous with the surface of our skin, and can also provide a path for these electrons to enter the body. The meridians used in Acupuncture, are known to be low resistance pathways for electrical currents, and connect directly to the internal organs. These channels may also provide a path of entry for the earth's free electrons. There is a recognized system in the body known as the living matrix, which acts as a semiconductor that connects the entire body electrically. This may be one pathway through which the Earth's free electrons can neutralize the effects of oxidative stress.
The living matrix is the largest and only system that touches every other system in the body. It includes not only the connective tissues, but also include the cytoskeletons of cells, allowing the semi-conduction of electrons to permeate even the inside of cells. In general, all hydrated proteins can function as semiconductors, allowing for the transfer of electrons throughout the body. The main hypothesis of how grounding facilitates healing, involves this body-wide living matrix that facilitates the spread of free electrons to every cells acting as our primary system of antioxidant defense.
The Issue at Hand
Electrically conductive contact between the surface of the earth and the human body has been shown to effect inflammation, immune responses, and wound healing. These results are reflected in both chronic and acute cases, and in both treatment and prevention. Grounding improves sleep quality, and reduces irritability, anxiety, and depression, showing both mental and physical health benefits.
It's evident that the body heals very differently when grounded. Healing happens faster and more completely. Additionally, the cardinal signs of inflammation are reduced or completely relieved when grounded. Classical textbooks have referred to the "inflammation barricade" as a part of our healing process, but perhaps it is more of a consequence of being ungrounded during the healing process.
The free electrons from grounding that act as antioxidants in our bodies empower the immune system to balance the inflammatory response to injury or illness. Modern living has suddenly and inadvertently removed us from the most potent and accessible source of antioxidants, the earth. This may be part of the reason why there are so many illnesses in our modern time that do not respond to medical treatment, and manifest as inflammatory disorders. Just by being part of modern society, you may very well be missing this vital element of maintaining your health, and nothing short of a modification to your lifestyle can supplement it.
What To Do About It
There are several products that allow us to practice grounding indoors, such as grounding mats, which are created with conductive materials, with a copper wire that can be stuck in the ground outdoors to create an electrical connection to the earth. These kinds of products allow us to sleep grounded, work at our desk grounded, and benefit from grounding when the weather is not permissive for long periods of grounding, such as in winter. If the weather is nice, we can always sit outside in the grass or on earth and make sure some skin is touching the ground. Gardening barefoot or exercising barefoot outdoors is also an excellent way to ground yourself naturally.
Source: The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, 2015
James L Oschman of Nature’s Own Research Association, Gaétan Chevalier of the Developmental and Cell Biology Department, University of California at Irvine, and Richard Brown of the Human Physiology Department, University of Oregon