by Carrie Dennett of the Washington Post
It is not a secret that spending time in nature is good for you. For years, researchers have been detailing how people who live near green spaces — parks, greenbelts, tree-lined streets, rural landscapes — have better physical and mental health, and practices such as Japanese forest bathing and Nordic hygge, which has a strong outdoorsy component, are being embraced here in the United States. Could grounding be next?
I was intrigued when a colleague recently recommended a mutual patient — seeing her for stress management and me for nutritional advice — experiment
with walking barefoot in the grass for a short time each day. A few weeks
later, I stumbled across an article that gave a name to that practice:
grounding. The idea behind grounding, also called earthing, is that humans
evolved in direct contact with the Earth's subtle electric charge, but have lost
that sustained connection thanks to inventions such as buildings, furniture
and shoes with insulated synthetic soles.
Advocates of grounding say this disconnect might be contributing to the
chronic diseases that are particularly prevalent in industrialized societies.
There is actually some science behind this. Research has shown barefoot
contact with the ground can produce nearly instant changes in a variety of
physiological measures, helping improve sleep, reduce pain, decrease muscle
tension and lower stress.
There are many reasons connecting with nature is good for mind and body,
but electricity probably is not one you have considered. If you think back to
the last time you took a science class, you may remember that everything,
including humans, is made up of atoms. These microscopic particles contain
equal numbers of negatively-charged electrons, which come in pairs, and
positively-charged protons, so an atom is neutral — unless it loses an
electron. When an atom has an unpaired electron, it becomes a "free radical"
with a positive charge, capable of damaging our cells and contributing to
chronic inflammation, cancer and other diseases. In this case, "positive" is
not a good thing.
One reason direct physical contact with the ground might have beneficial
physiological effects is the earth's surface has a negative charge and is
constantly generating electrons that could neutralize free radicals, acting as
antioxidants. You may think of antioxidants as coming from food, and indeed
a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and other foods that provide beta-carotene,
selenium, lutein, lycopene and vitamins A, C and E help prevent cellular
damage from free radicals. Still, it is interesting that we may be able to get
them directly from the earth, too.
Research also suggests physical contact with the Earth's surface can help
regulate our autonomic nervous system and keep our circadian rhythms --
which regulate body temperature, hormone secretion, digestion and blood
pressure, among other things — synchronized with the day/night cycle.
Desynchronization of our internal clocks has been linked to a number of
health problems, as evidenced by research on shift workers.
The key may be the impact on the vagus nerve. This is the largest nerve of the
autonomic nervous system — extending from the brain to the colon — and
plays a key role in heart, lung and digestive function. Strong vagal tone helps
you relax faster after experiencing stress, while weak vagal tone is associated
with chronic inflammation. Inflammation, in turn, is associated with a
number of chronic diseases — including cardiovascular disease, Type 2
diabetes and some forms of cancer. Vagal tone is often assessed by measuring
the variation in your heart rate when you breathe in and out, and in one
study, grounding was shown to improve heart rate variability and thus vagal
tone in pre-term infants. In another small study of adults, one two-hour
session of grounding reduced inflammation and improved blood flow.
While many clinical studies have demonstrated beneficial physical changes
when participants are grounded, studies tend to be small and are done
indoors using wires that connect to ground outlets. This is partly because
using a lab is more practical than taking study participants outdoors, but also
so participants will not know if they are grounded or not — to avoid a placebo
effect. There is little research specifically on the effects of grounding in nature
and whether it results in the same positive effects on stress, pain and sleep.
Still, since being outdoors is proved to be good for you, it probably would not
hurt to try it yourself to see if you notice any benefits. So how do you ground?
Simply allow your skin to be in contact with any natural conductors of the
earth's electricity, working up to at least 30 minutes at a time (unfortunately,
studies do not seem to have addressed how often grounding should occur).
You can walk barefoot on grass, moist soil, sand, gravel or concrete (but not
other types of pavement). You can swim in the ocean, a lake or other natural
body of water. You can sit under a tree, leaning against the trunk.
If you have concerns about whether it is sanitary to walk barefoot outside,
there are options. Keep a patch of lawn off-limits to your dog. Or put a
blanket or towel between your skin and the ground; natural fibres such as
cotton and wool do not interfere with grounding. You can even wear leathersoled
shoes. Or, garden instead. Digging gloveless in the garden also puts you
in direct contact with the earth — just make sure you are not using chemical
pesticides or fertilizers.