For as long as Delaware yogini Diana Hoscheit can remember, she’s been more comfortable being barefoot than wearing shoes—especially outside. “It just lightens my whole energy and being,” she explains. “There’s also a philosophy in yoga that connecting physically with the earth and nature is important for connecting to our spirit.”
Distance runner and yogini Monique Claudio echoes these same feel-good benefits. Running barefoot is easier on her body, she points out, though she has trouble putting her finger on just why a trail run without rubber soles feels so elating beyond that.
According to Clint Ober, a cable television giant turned expert on grounding, there’s scientific reason for this.
“Because the earth itself is a reservoir, free electrons created by protons and electrons from the sun lay on its surface,” explains Ober, who grew up playing barefoot on a farm and hikes shoeless in his current hometown of Palm Springs, California. “When you connect something to the earth, it can absorb electrons or give them up. When you stand barefoot on earth, your body absorbs electrons to the point that it is equal with the earth.”
Studies point to chronic inflammation—the body’s biological response to harmful irritants or pathogens—as a precursor to myriad health conditions, from asthma, allergies and autoimmune disorders to cardiovascular disease and cancer.
So, how does grounding translate to better health? Put simply: “You can’t have a charge in a grounded body,” Ober explains. “Therefore, you can’t have inflammation.”
This “Earthing” connection is also said to reduce stress, increase energy and improve sleep, as well as accelerate healing from injuries.
If not for his background and knowledge in cable television, Ober says he would not have made this discovery. “I was sitting on a bench one day when a bunch of people wearing tennis shoes got off a tour bus.…I wondered if these rubber-soled shoes we all wear nowadays could be related to the many health problems we see today,” says Ober, who noted the correlation between the advent of sneakers in the 1960s and increased rates of illness in the U.S since that time.
“We can see ourselves in nature by looking at the animal world,” Ober continues. “Animals in nature don’t have the same issues we have. However, studies show that domesticated pets develop the same disorders as their owners and die at the same rates.”
Ober tested this theory with his own tools before turning to the medical research community to help him further his studies. “Initially, I was met with blank stares,” he says. “You see, everything in our environment is electromagnetic. But what I learned from many researchers at the time is that they didn’t understand electromagnetism—it didn’t make sense to them.”
Not knowing anything about biology, Ober set out on a 20-year journey to study the body and how the two might be connected. Funding research with over $5 million of his own money, along the way he met board-certified cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, M.D., who with Ober and health writer Martin Zucker would pen Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever! and 24 published peer-reviewed studies to support their findings. Levels of inflammation before and after grounding were evidenced through infrared imagining.
“When you have an injury, white blood cells will encapsulate that damaged cell and rip electrons from it, creating an electron imbalance,” Ober explains. “When you’re grounded to the earth (essentially, your bare feet or body flat on the grass or dirt), every cell in your body is flooded with free electrons and becomes negatively charged—meaning, there’s no charge.
“The body is electrical first, chemical second,” Ober hypothesized.
In one study, he took 12 subjects who complained of sleep problems, pain and stress and had them sleep on Earthing pads—one of a series of electromagnetic devices made for the purpose of these studies—for eight weeks. Ober’s team measured subjects’ cortisol levels and discovered that grounding during sleep resynchronizes hormone secretion with its natural, normal rhythm. Subjects reported faster and better sleep, as well as reduced emotional stress and pain within the first few days.
In another study, they grounded 29 premature babies with electro-patches for 30 to 40 minutes in incubators who were said to feel anxious or become colicky.
“We saw a 70 percent improvement,” Ober says, noting that it “normalized heart rate variability and nervous systems,” adding: “There is no placebo effect with infants.”
“It makes sense,” says Hoscheit, who practiced Earthing long before it was given a name. “More and more, we’re spending time indoors surrounded by man-made products that off-gas chemicals and negatively affect our physiology and energy. The impact I notice of regularly peeling off my shoes and putting my feet in the grass, dirt or sand helps to neutralize that.” She too reports more regular sleep cycles and less pain day to day.
Ober accidentally happened upon a line of grounding accessories throughout years of study. The public wanted a way to ground through the night or long winters where going barefoot wasn’t possible. He hopes that demand will grow to the footwear industry. “We need to study this further and fix our shoes,” he says. “But Nike isn’t going to make conductive shoes until people ask for them.”
For change to happen, enough people must understand the challenges and demand it, he says.
“My clients often ask me, ‘Where’s the scientific evidence?’ And I tell them, ‘Let your own experience be proof enough for you. You have nothing to lose by spending time trying it. Put your feet in the grass for a week…spend a week gardening with your hands in the dirt.’”
The only drawback: “Just be more cautious when hiking barefoot,” he says, “if you want to avoid broken toes.”