April 19, 2024/Wellness

Is Earthing Actually Good for You? Here’s What We Know

Connecting with the Earth and its energy might improve your mental and physical health — but it’s not a cure-all

Person smiling, lying back, eyes closed, relaxing in long grass

Has anyone ever told you to go “touch grass”? If so, they were speaking figuratively — encouraging you to get offline and reconnect with the “real world.” It probably wasn’t intended as health advice or a recommendation to actually spend quality time in the dirt.

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They might not have meant it that way, but fans of “earthing” do! In fact, they think that touching grass might be just what the doctor ordered.

Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, explains why earthing has become so popular, and the benefits and risks associated with the practice.

Spoiler alert: Earthing’s safe for most people and may have a positive impact on your physical or mental health. But until there’s more research on the topic, it should always be a complement to — not a replacement for — evidence-based medicine.

What is earthing?

“Earthing is about having direct skin contact with the surface of the Earth, whether it’s your bare feet, your hands or other parts of your body,” Dr. Albers explains. The theory is that when we physically connect with the ground, its electrical energy rebalances our own. Proponents believe that the rise in chronic illnesses can be attributed, in part, to our footwear.

“They point out that we've just recently started wearing shoes with rubber soles, which don’t conduct electricity,” she continues. “So, part of the argument is that we've removed that contact from the Earth, which is making us unwell.”

Modern earthing is a new(ish) twist on a widespread belief in the healing potential of the Earth. Practitioners of the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) therapy of reflexology sometimes walk barefoot to stimulate the flow of energy (qi) throughout the body. Being barefoot is also a feature of many indigenous cultures around the world — and several religions require devotees to remove their shoes to pray or enter a place of worship.

So, these ideas have been “in the air,” in one form or another, for a long time. But the specific practice of earthing has been having a moment since 2022, when it became a hot topic on social media.

Grounding vs. earthing

If you’ve heard of grounding, but not earthing, you may be wondering: Are they the same thing? You’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. It’s common to use the terms interchangeably, but Dr. Albers sees grounding and earthing as two specific (but related) things.

According to Dr. Albers, “grounding” is an umbrella term for a wide range of mindfulness techniques, including physical grounding activities like earthing. So, all earthing is grounding, but not all grounding is earthing.

“I use the word ‘grounding’ to describe psychological techniques for addressing anxiety that help you to refocus on the present moment — on the here and now — and distract from anxious feelings and intrusive thoughts,” she explains.

One of the reasons Dr. Albers distinguishes between grounding and earthing is that not all grounding exercises involve connecting with the Earth. You can ground yourself physically in many ways, including stretching, doing breathwork and engaging your senses (think holding an ice cube or rubbing a fuzzy blanket).

Some of Dr. Albers’ favorite grounding exercises — like putting your hands on a table or sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor — could count as earthing in the right setting. But most people do those activities indoors. And if there’s not earth (or earth energy) involved, it’s not earthing.

Grounding techniques, unlike earthing, also don’t have to be physical. They’re often mental. A few examples of mental grounding exercises include repeating mantras and doing distracting tasks like math or memory games.

“I think grounding and earthing are similar concepts, but earthing is more specific and based on a particular school of thought,” Dr. Albers clarifies.

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Ways to practice earthing techniques

As you might expect, there are debates about the merits of different earthing techniques. Some earthing adherents think direct contact with the ground (or a natural body of water) is absolutely necessary. Others believe you can get the same benefits by using special electrical conduction products.

Outdoor earthing

According to Dr. Albers, outdoor earthing can take many forms. And there’s good news: Many of them are free!

You can:

  • Walk barefoot.
  • Sit or lie down in dirt, grass or sand.
  • Sit in a chair and let your bare feet touch the ground.
  • Swim or relax in a natural body of water.
  • Get your hands dirty (literally) by touching or playing with the soil.

We know what you’re thinking — and yes! Lying on the beach is a form of earthing! Outdoor gardening counts as earthing,too! The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, also known as “forest therapy” or “forest bathing,” may or may not fit the bill, depending on your clothing and footwear choices. Ditto for hiking and camping.

All earthing devotees believe outdoor earthing is good for you. Indoor earthing is where things get more controversial.

Indoor earthing

Not everybody has equal access to Mother Nature. And Dr. Albers is quick to note that some mental health disorders make it hard to feel safe in uncontrolled or unfamiliar surroundings.

Enter indoor earthing! There’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to bringing the benefits of the great outdoors inside. You can buy products that claim to bring the energy of the Earth to you, including:

  • Mats.
  • Shoes.
  • Blankets.
  • Mattress pads.
  • Adhesive patches.

Do they actually work? It depends on who you ask and — potentially — your personal circumstances.

A 2023 review article argued that most indoor-earthing experiments don’t (and, in some cases, probably can’t), control for all the different factors that influence biological grounding. Put simply, the researchers said that — if all the claims about indoor earthing products are true — the products’ effectiveness will still vary wildly for reasons that, in many cases, are beyond your control. This includes things like soil moisture levels and the quality of electrical mains’ ground connections.

Are they safe? That’s up for debate, too. We’ll circle back to that conversation in a bit.

7 claims about earthing’s benefits

There’s not much research on the health benefits of earthing. And a lot of the research we do have is of questionable quality — sometimes because the sample sizes are too small to be meaningful, sometimes because the study is poorly designed and sometimes because of flawed data analysis. Even good research on the benefits of earthing is too preliminary to base conclusions on. Nevertheless, proponents claim that integrating earthing into your life can:

  1. Improve mood and reduce stress.
  2. Improve sleep and prevent or treat fatigue.
  3. Reduce inflammation.
  4. Speed healing and reduce pain.
  5. Improve immune system function.
  6. Improve multiple heart health metrics.
  7. Modulate autonomic nervous system function.

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Dr. Albers is unequivocal: Connecting with nature can absolutely benefit your physical and mental health. And it may be worth integrating into a holistic treatment plan for a chronic condition. But that is not the same thing as claiming earthing can prevent or cure disease.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to spend too much time researching earthing to start finding unscientific (and even dangerous) claims about it. In some cases, those claims could have catastrophic effects. For example, some claim earthing can prevent or treat COVID-19, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among other conditions.

Just like you do when you’re walking barefoot on the ground, Dr. Albers recommends treading carefully when learning about earthing.

Does the lack of solid research mean you have to give up on earthing? Nope! While the specific medical claims connected to the practice are unproven, there is a substantial body of research suggesting that getting fresh air is good for us — no matter how we go about it.

You probably already know that walking, hiking and other forms of outdoor exercise like gardening have numerous health benefits, as does responsible sun exposure. And that good air circulation plays a crucial role in preventing airborne infections. You might not know that forests and other green environments tend to be rich in phytoncides, antimicrobial compounds released by trees and plants.

“Inhaling phytoncides may benefit the immune system and contribute to stress reduction,” Dr. Albers says. “And the natural aromatherapy of being outside may have a positive impact on mood and emotional well-being.”

It’s kind of a good news/bad news situation. The bad news: The fact that being outside is so beneficial to our health makes it harder to prove whether outdoor earthing has any health benefits. The good news: That means you don’t have to lose sleep debating the merits of shoes, blankets or beach towels. Being outside is a good decision, with or without accessories. (Except for sunscreen. That’s a must!)

Negative side effects and risks of earthing

As far as natural remedies go, most earthing techniques are pretty low-risk. But there are exceptions that prove the rule. Here are a few things to consider before making earthing part of your mental health hygiene routine.

Health and safety concerns

The safety hazards associated with earthing are probably pretty obvious, but let’s review them anyway.

  • Humans invented shoes for a reason: They protect our feet. If your earthing practice involves walking around barefoot, you’re risking injury, allergic reactions and infections.
  • If balancing on uneven terrain is difficult for you, practice earthing sitting down or standing still.
  • Just like camping and hiking, you should always be prepared for the possibility of an accident or emergency while earthing. And it’s especially important to bring plenty of water with you to prevent dehydration.
  • If swimming is your earthing technique of choice, the primary risks are contracting a waterborne infection and drowning. Choose your location carefully, follow water swimming safety precautions and be sure to check weather conditions before taking the plunge.
  • Mindfulness is all about being aware of your surroundings, so trust what you’re sensing. Don’t hesitate to leave an area if it feels unsafe.
  • Indoor grounding products have to be plugged into a grounded electrical outlet. Never use them during a thunderstorm — they pose an electrocution risk in the event of a lightning strike. Earthing advocates also recommend having an electrician check any outlet you plan to use with grounding devices, as faulty wiring could result in electric shock.

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Earthing is a practice that’s accessible to pretty much everybody. After all, it’s hard to be completely removed from the natural world, even today. But while earthing is accessible, it’s not always advisable.

Some earthing techniques may be off-limits — or require extra caution — if you have chronic medical conditions. Be sure to check with your provider before you start earthing, especially if you have:

  • Podiatric health issues. If you have a foot condition, check with your podiatrist to see if barefoot walking is safe.
  • Nerve damage. If you have reduced sensation in your feet, you might not notice minor injuries that happen when walking barefoot outdoors. The same goes for electrical burns or shocks from a faulty grounding mat.
  • Allergies. People with life-threatening allergies to insect bites and stings may need to avoid outdoor earthing. Watch your step when walking barefoot outdoors and be sure to carry an epi-pen if anaphylaxis is a concern.
  • Pregnancy. If you plan on earthing during your pregnancy, be extra cautious. There are many contaminants and infectious organisms in soil that could impact fetal development.
  • Immune system issues. If your immune system is compromised, touching soil or swimming in a natural body of water could raise your risk of an infection.

Earthing websites often advise that earthing may make you feel worse before it makes you feel better. If you experience flu-like symptoms or find the sensation of using indoor earthing products unpleasant, stop.

The bottom line

Earthing is the practice of connecting with the Earth’s energy by either making direct physical contact with the ground (or water) or using specialized electric conduction products.

While there’s some evidence to suggest earthing is good for your health, these claims aren’t backed by high-quality research, but there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that being outside (with or without touching the earth) benefits our physical and mental health.

Earthing is generally safe, provided you take basic health and safety precautions. But, again, people who have chronic conditions or take certain medications should speak with their provider before adding earthing to their self-care regimen.

And remember: Some online resources for earthing can contain medical misinformation, so read about the topic with a critical eye. Earthing likely has some physical and mental health benefits, but can’t — as some claim — cure diseases or take the place of modern medicine.

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