- 2011 March-April
The old people came literally to love the soil, and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. It was good for the skin to touch the earth, and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth. Their tipis were built upon the earth and their altars were made of earth. The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing, and healing. That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of propping himself up and away from its life-giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly; he can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him. — Lakota Chief Luther Standing Bear
In the late 1990s, a former cable guy named Clint Ober was sitting on a park bench in Sedona, Arizona, when he had a revelation. Early in life Ober had to quit school to help on the family farm in Montana, and then he got a job at the beginnings of the cable industry. He had installed poles and wires and home boxes on his way to becoming a successful cable executive. He knew, among other things, that one secret of a static-free cable TV picture is to make sure that all the electrical equipment in the cable system is protected from electromagnetic interference, and the simple solution is to connect the home cable system by a wire to an iron pole stuck into a single, six-sextillion-ton battery that is constantly charged by solar radiation, lightning, and heat from her molten core. That giant battery, of course, is Mother Earth. The connection is known as grounding. Cable systems have to be grounded with the same electrical potential as the surface of the earth, or customers call up and complain about fuzzy pictures.
Ober happened to be sitting on the bench that day in Sedona because he had recently almost died of a liver disease. Once healed, he decided to start a new life: He sold his cable company and his mountaintop house in Colorado, gave his possessions to his kids, and took to the road. He had time and resources and was wondering what to do next as he watched the tourists amble by in their expensive footwear. As he writes, “It occurred to me rather innocently that all these people — me included — were insulated from the ground, the electrical surface charge of the earth beneath our feet.”
Intrigued, Ober went home and created a simple grounding mechanism by attaching a wire to a grounded metal rod out his living room window. With a voltmeter and the wire in hand, he walked around his house measuring the voltage on his body. He writes, “When I walked toward a lamp, the voltage would go up. When I stepped back, the voltage went down. I tested this with all the electrical appliances in the living room and kitchen. The only appliances that did not create EMF (electromagnetic fields) voltage on my body were the refrigerator and my computer tower. They were grounded. From my background in the communications industry, this immediately made sense to me, as we had to ground all of our electronic equipment to prevent electrical interference from EMFs. … Next I went to the bedroom, lay down on my bed, and registered the highest level of EMF voltage on my body. The bedroom was the most ‘electrically active’ area of the apartment. The bed was up against a wall full of hidden electrical wires.”
The next day, Ober built himself a crude sleeping pad out of metalized duct tape, which he then grounded out his bedroom window. He speculated that his chronic sleeping problems might be caused by the electric fields in the room. When he lay down on the pad, the voltmeter showed that his bed was now the equivalent to the ground outside. “I was lying there fooling around with the voltmeter, and the next thing I knew it was morning. I had fallen asleep with the voltmeter on my chest. I hadn’t needed a pill to fall asleep. I had slept soundly for the first time in years, and I had hardly moved at all during the night.”
After a few days of sleeping restfully on the pad, Ober also noticed that his severe back pain had vastly improved. In fact, he was feeling better than he had in years. “I came to the conclusion that I may have made a great discovery.”
Over the following weeks and months Ober created more makeshift grids for the beds of half a dozen or so people, who reported that they too experienced benefits. Meanwhile, he scoured the Internet and visited Arizona’s top medical libraries, searching for anything he could find on grounding and health, but all he found were a few Native American stories. Electronic specialists confirmed that there was no risk from the grounding pads — or from standing barefoot on the earth, for that matter — but no one had seriously investigated whether or not our bodies depend on grounding energy to maintain health. When Ober brought the question to prominent sleep researchers in California, they laughed him out the door.
Are Circadian Rhythms All in Your Head?
Nobody doubts that our bodies are governed by biological clocks. Since the beginning of the space program and fueled by the demands of jet travel and 24-hour shift work, many millions of dollars have been spent on the field of chronobiology, mapping daily, monthly, and annual cycles in humans and animals and all the way down to single-celled organisms. The working of these clocks are enormously complex, orchestrating a wide variety of systems, including the stress hormone cortisol and the sleep inducer melatonin, but the ultimate goal of the clocks is straightforward: to keep the complex workings of living creatures in sync with our ultimate source of energy, the sun. And so the field of chronobiology has focused primarily on prevailing light conditions for keeping our systems entrained. For example, astronauts are given artificial light and dark periods to keep them healthy, and we fight the sadness of winter with bright, artificial sunlight (sunlamps). And we now worry the artificial light entering our bedrooms at night raises our risk of breast cancer.
Ober’s revelation raised another set of questions. What if light isn’t the only form of energy that affects our circadian rhythms and our health? What if the energy of the earth is part of our natural circadian system? As it turns out, these questions are not new. Chinese medicine refers to a spot near the ball of the foot that comes in contact with the earth when we walk barefoot. It is the primary entry point for soaking up the earth Qi, or energy. The spot also serves as an important acupuncture point – connecting with the urinary bladder meridian and most of the body’s major organs.
Before Ober came along, it had also been established that the earth is, in a sense, a giant battery with a charge that fluctuates according to circadian rhythms created by the sun and the moon, as well as by some 5,000 lightning strikes a minute, the continuing motion of wind and water, the dynamizing effect of spinning at 28,000 miles per hour, and the biodynamic forces of plants and fungal life. Much of this energy is stored in soil, itself composed mostly of energy-absorbent quartz crystals. And of course our feet are packed with as many as 1,300 nerve endings per square inch. While we tend to think of these nerve endings as simply a means to protect our feet on rough ground, could they also help to keep us electrically in tune with the natural rhythms of the earth?
Earthing Research Begins
Ignored by mainstream researchers, Ober went on to conduct the first study of what he now called “Earthing,” with the help of some sympathetic students at one university sleep clinic. He first contracted to have some conductive fiber material bonded with wool-lined sleeping pads attached to grounding wire. Then he rounded up 60 volunteers by dropping flyers at ten beauty salons. The 38 women and 22 men all complained of sleep problems and various forms of joint and muscle pain. He split the volunteers into two groups: 30 slept on pads that were properly grounded, and the other 30 on pads with a hidden disconnect. Only Ober knew who was actually grounded for the month-long study.
The results were astonishing: 85 percent of the grounded sleepers fell asleep sooner; 93 percent slept better; 100 percent were more rested upon waking; 82 percent “experienced significant reduction in muscle stiffness; 74 percent “experienced elimination or reduction of chronic back and joint pain;” and 78 percent reported “improved general health.” Furthermore, many participants reported “unexpected but significant relief from asthmatic and respiratory conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension (high blood pressure), sleep apnea, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). There were also reports of fewer hot flashes.”
With the help of an assisting nurse, Ober had the informal study published in ESD, an online journal covering electrostatics. That exposure generated a call from a retired anesthesiologist interested in whether grounding “affected the circadian secretion of cortisol.” Ober was excited because this study would move beyond simply gathering feedback from participants. Instead, it would measure a specific physiological change in the body. Published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the study showed that grounding “during sleep resynchronizes cortisol secretions more in alignment with its natural, normal rhythm — highest at 8:00 a.m. and lowest at midnight.”
In 2006, a study published in European Biology and Bioelectromagnetics by electrical engineer Roger Applewhite found that electrons travel from the earth to the body and back again when the body is grounded. Effectively, the body is grounded at the same negative-charged electrical potential as the earth. The same study also showed that grounding strongly reduced electromagnetic fields on the body. In other words, Applewhite suggests that connecting with the earth provides a source of healthy electrons and also acts as a shield from dangerous environmental electric fields.
Earthing Goes Public
Last spring Ober, Stephen Sinatra, MD, and Martin Zucker published a fascinating account of Ober’s adventures and research on Earthing in the book, Earthing: The most important health discovery ever? The three are part of a group called the Earthing Institute that is doing more research and selling Earthing-related products. So far the Institute has only small studies published in obscure journals (though one of their research papers was recently referenced in a Harvard Health Letter). Nevertheless, the “most important health discovery ever” should warrant a piece in a journal like The Lancet or the New England Journal of Medicine, either confirming or refuting the results. But so far that hasn’t happened. In fact, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Earthing is the silence. If you Google “Earthing Hoax” you’ll reach a forum from the Museum of Hoaxes that chortles about the health claims — insinuating that they cannot be real — but offering nothing but incredulity. Maybe the problem with Earthing is its simplicity.
But the stakes may be high. Over the last ten years as Ober has been doing his work, a variety of mainstream medical scientists have reached the conclusion that many diseases — from heart disease to diabetes to arthritis — are ultimately signs of chronic inflammation, in which the body’s natural defenses have been turned against itself. The problem seems to be an overabundance of positively-charged “free radicals.”
Ironically, free radicals are a beneficial tool used by white blood cells to fend off invasive microorganisms and repair damaged tissue. Chronic inflammation develops when the inflammatory response does not shut down properly, and these normally helpful free radicals continue seeking out electrons in healthy cells. Confused, our body sends in more white blood cells, more free radicals are released, and more healthy tissue is damaged. A variety of expensive supplements and dietary regimens are designed to provide electrons to neutralize the free radicals.
Practitioners of Earthing believe those electrons are freely available right outside your door. They believe that “normal inflammation veers out of control because of lost contact with the earth … The land and seas of planet Earth are alive with an endless supply of electrons. By making direct contact with the surface of the planet — the skin of our bodies touching the skin of the earth — our conductive bodies naturally equalize with the earth. Figuratively speaking, we refill the electron level in our tank that has become low … Just like standard electronic equipment that needs a stable ground to function well, so, too, the body needs stable grounding to also function well.”
One irony of all this is the billions of people worldwide who dream of the day when they will have good shoes to protect their feet and when they won’t have to sleep on the ground. For them, the energy of the earth can be all too close. Another irony is that folks like us are so well insulated that we need a series of scientific reports to go outside, kick off our shoes, and let our tens of thousand of nerves plug back in to Mother Earth. Maybe for us, Earthing is like the practice of gratitude: always accessible, always healing, and so easy to forget.
Experiment with Grounding
Whether you choose to walk, run, sit, or lie on the bare ground or grass, your conductivity with the earth will increase if the ground is damp, which may explain the joys of damp grass, moist earth, wading, and dipping your feet in the pool. Concrete, as long as it’s not painted or sealed, is grounding because its ingredients are simply water and minerals, so if you are sitting in a chair with your feet resting on your basement floor, you’re grounded.
Jet Lag Relief
Earthing research suggests that our internal clocks receive local timing cues from the ground as well as the sun. Numerous Earthing practitioners have reported that grounding for 30 minutes after a transcontinental flight can ease and even eliminate the effects of jet lag. Try it.
Trees are especially potent players in the earth energy equation, with a vibrant presence in three realms — below ground, on the earth’s surface, and reaching into the air above. In the words of Catriona MacGregor, author of Partnering with Nature, trees act as “dynamic columns of light, facilitating the movement of beneficial energy and life force from the sky, which is positively charged (yang), to the earth, which is negatively charged (yin), and back.” With this in mind, you can’t do better from an Earthing standpoint than to sit beneath an old oak.
For most of history, humans ran barefoot, and reputable studies now show that running barefoot is safe and healthy — in some ways, better than running in shoes. Barefoot runners maintain an upright posture, landing on the balls of their feet and absorbing their weight in the calves and thighs, thus avoiding the problematic heel strike, which greatly reduces the blunt forces on heels, ankles, knees, and the lower back. Try it, but take it slow on soft grass. Your feet need time to get tough again.
If you are unable to get outdoors, numerous Earthing systems — Earthing bands, patches, mats, sleep systems, and more — are available for use indoors. Many of them were designed by Clinton Ober, the founder of the modern grounding movement. Check out shop.earthing.net.