Take this reflection with a grain of earth as I’m venturing into a territory that feels a bit New Agey and could be primarily placebo effect. But then again, the placebo effect is powerful in its own right (as I’ll discuss below), and the behavior, itself, clearly has a myriad of other benefits, so why not explore it?
I’m talking about the practice known as earthing or grounding. This simple act of walking barefoot, or alternatively putting yourself (hands, seat, or your whole body by laying down) in direct contact with the ground, supposedly helps synchronize your electrical current with the planet and in the process helps reduce inflammation.
I’m not sure about that—though I’ve now read several studies on the topic and have increasingly tripped over mainstream references to the practice, starting with a sidebar in Katy Bowman’s Move Your DNA, a book which I found very helpful. It was that account that made me start exploring the topic, reading a few studies, and then picking up the book, Earthing.
Because of Bowman, I decided that I would walk barefoot in the woods more often—as I’ve seen many in the primitive skills community do for years (though foolishly never asked them why they do that*). The benefits of walking barefoot outdoors (I will not attempt to explore other ways to ‘earth’) are logical and myriad:
- First and foremost, walking barefoot outdoors will get you, well, outdoors. If this practice is what it takes to get you out of your house or office building and into your yard or into nature each day, breathing fresh air (and phytonicides), then that right there is worth it.
- Walking barefoot helps reclaim foot movement. Shoes, as Bowman notes, constrict the feet, preventing all the little bones from moving properly, the muscles from developing properly, and using your legs as they were meant to be. Walking barefoot—which is difficult for me, not just because of tender feet but because my ligaments, tendons, and muscle lengths have been shaped by a lifetime in shoes—is starting to help correct the decades of incorrect posture and weak muscle development. (Note: start with just a little time out of your shoes or you might hurt yourself.)
- For those who suffer from corns or other discomforts, walking barefoot may reshape your foot, and toughen the surrounding skin (over time), reducing the severity of these problems.
- People pay a lot for foot massages (or reflexology treatments). Getting your feet out of your shoes and walking on dirt paths, through dried leaves and pine needles, over hidden acorns and pebbles (yes, this hurts), offers an intense massage, and stimulation of a highly enervated part of your body that is typically ignored in its confinement in footwear.
- We hike too fast, zooming through the forest, scaring away its inhabitants, and missing out on the greensong. Walking barefoot slows you down—way down—as you find the right places to put your feet. At that pace you’ll see the beautiful rock formation down the hill or hear the woodpecker high in the tree that you otherwise would have missed.
- Barefoot walking also gives you additional information about your surroundings. The bottom of your feet are like palms. Placing them on the ground unshod helps you further understand where you are—is the land dry, moist, clay, loam? And that information is useful, consciously and unconsciously, as you explore and immerse yourself in your environment.
- Along with slowing us down and connecting us with our surroundings, by removing your socks and shoes, you not only literally reconnect with Gaia but psychologically you do too. It’s a powerful reminder that we are part of Gaia and not separate.
- Barefoot walking helps us with thermoregulation. This I had never heard before, but a quick exploration shows that the foot actually evolved to facilitate that. Blood flow in the feet can increase 6 times normal flow rates (and can decrease 15 times below normal flow in the cold–which is below oxygen requirements of the tissue so be careful in the extreme cold if you walk barefoot). Along with having little hair on and little muscle in your feet, the arteries and veins connect before they meet in the capillaries, what is called “arteriovenous anastomoses.” All of these design features increase the foot’s ability to cool the body efficiently (hence why so many people stick their feet out of the covers while sleeping).
- While this is just a hypothesis (by yours truly—having not found a single result on Google), getting our feet in the dirt and into the life of the forest, we’re probably changing our skin biome (swimming in the ocean does, as this study found). Just like it’s good for kids to play in the dirt (reducing asthma and allergy rates and stimulating their immune systems), it’s probably good for adults—and theoretically, it could help address stinky or itchy feet or other issues. In our world of antibiotic soaps and chemicals, getting a good dose of friendly bacteria on our feet may be a net positive. (Note: obviously, be wary of ticks, mosquitos, and poison ivy—as you don’t want any of these. But once you practice recognizing poison ivy, it isn’t difficult.)
- Now, after offering nine other reasons, let’s talk about the small literature on “earthing/grounding.” The article Bowman refers to is from a peer-reviewed journal—The Journal of Environmental and Public Health. In it, the authors argue that just as antioxidants neutralize reactive oxygen species, the electrical currents of Earth play a similar role. And the review article found that earthing helped with all sorts of ailments—from reducing pain to improving sleep and psychological well-being. Another article from 2015 published in The Journal of Inflammation Research found that inflammation could be reduced—both in animal and human subjects—by grounding individuals (like an electronic device is grounded). An elderly woman with an ankle wound that wasn’t healing was grounded each day and the wound healed—and blood flow to her feet (as could be seen by pinker skin) improved as well. Of course, the authors are promoting their commodified version of earthing (sleeping on grounded bed sheets) so one has to keep up one’s skeptic’s armor. But logically, it makes sense. Our bodies are electrical and perhaps rubber shoes and life indoors are enough to cut us off from being in sync with the Earth’s currents, which play a role in keeping us healthy by reducing free radicals and inflammation.
- Or, it’s just placebo effect. But that’s okay too. On a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Erik Vance, a leading expert of placebo effects. As a former Christian Scientist (who generally treat disease with only placebo effects—that is, prayer), Vance was curious about how the placebo effect could encourage healing. As he explains, the brain is like a prediction machine and when given a placebo that does nothing, it is sometimes easier for the brain to change reality (that it does something) than to change its expectations. If earthing is simply a placebo and has the potential to shift your reality, while also benefitting you in several other ways—especially if it is an active form of earthing like walking barefoot—then it’s a win on many fronts. And unlike most pharmaceuticals, it has no side effects (assuming you tread carefully).
Keep in mind: depending on your physical fitness, simply walking in a city park or on your lawn barefoot (or if pain prevents walking, sitting barefoot on the grass) may be enough at first. Over time, extend the practice by a few minutes each session, grapple with more difficult terrains, and your feet will strengthen and you’ll gain the other benefits. But considering the many benefits of walking barefoot outside, I recommend we, Gaians, embrace it as a physically active meditative practice. Worst case, it becomes a quirky identifying trait, like the Shakers shaking during prayer, Christian Scientists avoiding medicine, or Pentecostals speaking in tongues. Walking barefoot, connecting ourselves closer to Gaia, certainly makes sense—and is something I wouldn’t mind being connected with, even if we end up being called Earthers!
*After publishing this reflection, I asked a few in the primitive skills community why they walked barefoot. The list has been expanded after their thoughtful answers—specifically thermoregulation and increasing information about one’s environment. Thanks for those insights!