Complementary and alternative medicine Friday Woo Medicine Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

Your Friday Dose of Woo: “Grounded” in woo

The other day, as is my wont every week, I was perusing my Folder of Woo, the folder on my computer in which I keep a bunch of URLs leading to many potential targets for Your Friday Dose of Woo, looking for this week’s victim. I had one all picked out, too, but for some reason it just wasn’t getting the woo-inator going enough to inspire me to do what is expected every week. Not that it wasn’t good woo, even really good woo. It just wasn’t great woo, and YFDoW just hasn’t been around long enough for me to settle for anything less than the greatest, finest, tastiest woo just yet. Or maybe it was just that I wasn’t in the mood for the options that were there in my folder. So, I fired up the browser and prepared to head to or perhaps, either of which are so chock full of woo that they would almost certainly never let me down. I even contemplated going back to visit the Tiller Foundation to look for some even more “out there” woo.

And then a reader came to the rescue and sent me what I needed. But first I have to ask you a question:

Do you know why having direct skin contact with the ground is very, very, healthy for your body?

I bet you want to know.

But before we can get into this “grounded” woo, I realized that there was a problem. It turns out that I wasn’t the first to sample this particular woo. Not that that is a huge problem; the very best woo has often been noticed by fellow skeptics before I steal it for my nefarious purposes. Heck, I’ve even raided wholesale The Second Sight at times looking for targets. (What is it about Australia that nourishes the most bizarre forms of woo?) It’s my–shall we say!–unique take on this woo that makes for a good YFDoW. But even so, if someone else has been there before, I have to have a unique take on it, particularly when the blogger who’s been there before happens to be PZ, who, as I remembered, had taken on this particular woo in the not too distant pass.

Fortunately, as usual, I think I’m up to the challenge. Why? Because I have the “scientific paper” that allegedly “proves” the validity of this particular woo, served up in one of our favorite crank journals, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a journal whose output we’ve had some fun with before. But first, the woo as featured on the web site, which is perfectly encapsulated by these two pictures below:


You see, the idea is that you need to have your skin in physical contact with the earth because–well, just because it’s healthier, you know. Wearing shoes is bad for you! And here’s the reason:

When a person’s bare skin touches the earth, a flow of free electrons and frequencies from the earth travels all throughout that person’s body, neutralizing free radicals, erasing pain and inflammation and revitalizing one’s energy.

This healing flow of free electrons and frequencies from Mother Earth reduces stress, creates a feeling of peace, calms an over-reactive immune system, slows down inflammatory damage to cells and stops free radical escalation inside the human body.

Think how good you feel when your bare feet touch the earth. The rapid repudiation of free radicals that results from free electron flow from the earth is the reason why people feel so good when they go barefoot outside.

Now you know why Mr. Barefoot and his dog are so happy. They’re happy because they’re feeling these benefits:

Reduction of inflammation
Normalization of cortisol levels
Improved sleep
Lessened stress and irritability
Decreased pain
Improved flexibility
Hastened muscle recovery following exertion

Neutralization of free radicals to a far greater degree than is attainable with antioxidant supplements
If you can’t remember how good it feels to be barefoot outside, then we urge you to go outside and spend several hours with your feet on the ground. You can feel it.

But how can you accomplish this? What if you live in Chicago this time of year? You’re not about to be out and about going barefoot. What if you have a job, as most of us do? I dont’ know about you, but people would frown on it if I tried to go barefoot to work, and it’s not just because I have ugly feet. Patients would be appalled, and who knows what’s on the floor of my lab? Fortunately for people like me, Mr. Clint Ober sells conductive mattress pads:

Even though the scientific data is just beginning to come forth, with just what we now know already, it’s simple — if you’re not earthed daily, then your body is being deprived of multitudinous opportunities to extinguish free radicals and thereby stay younger and undamaged from free radical produced molecular disruptions inside your body.

But, you don’t have to be barefoot outside. Indeed, in most places, it’s too cold or uncomfortable for much of the year to do so. But, because of the pioneering work of Mr. Clint Ober, inventor of sleeping earthed systems, there is an easy way to sleep on a conductive mattress pad that is grounded to the earth and by doing so, you will effortlessly get the benefit of this healing earth contact every day of the year. If you wan’t even more earthed time than just sleeping hours, we have other day-use pads that can keep you grounded during non-sleeping hours.

i-c09a7e88eafeaa099a51c95b754b215a-a_Imagesdna2_1.gifOK, it’s true that free radicals can cause cellular damage. They’re believed to contribute to all sorts of health problems, including aging and cancer, not to mention heart disease as well. However, there is no evidence that any “continuous flow of elections” from the earth does anything whatsoever to eliminate these free radicals. There’s alleged science in there that’s just plain wrong, too:

Question: Why does the earth’s electric field transfer so easily to the body?

The body is mostly water and minerals; it is an excellent conductor of electricity (electrons). The free electrons on the surface of the earth are easily transferred to the human body as long as there is direct contact. Unfortunately, synthetically-soled shoes act as insulators so that even when we are outside we do not get the benefits of the earth’s electric field. When we are in homes and office buildings, we are also insulated and unable to receive the earth’s electrons. Barefoot technology remedies this situation allowing an individual to be in contact with the earth in the comfort of his/her home and work place.

The body may be a good conductor of electrons, but dry skin has a pretty high resistance to small amounts of electrical current, which is why an electric shock that might not kill you when you’re skin’s dry will kill you if you’re touching water, standing in a puddle, or, worse, sweating (mainly because the salt in your sweat provides a means for current flow). It’s the same reason why the grounding pad for the Bovie electrocautery that we use in surgery has a viscous, sticky jelly on it to improve conduction and why EKG pads have the very same sort of conductive gel on them. Does this “barefoot pad” that, according to the website, occupies the lower 1/3 of your bed where your feet are, have anything like conductive jelly to overcome the natural resistance of the epidermis? Take a look for yourself:


All it is is a pad containing conductive carbon fibers and billed as having a dissipative surface resistance of 1 x 105 ohms with–get this!–a wire that you string out your window and attach to a metal grounding rod driven into ground. I kid you not. That’s all this device is. Oh, not quite. There’s a 10 mA fuse in it, too. Why, I’m not sure. After all, why limit the supposed flow of electrons to just 10 mA? And it really, really works, if you believe the website. Really, it does. Here’s the evidence. One picture is an arthritic ankle before “earthing.” The other is the same ankle after “earthing.” It is claimed that earthing caused an improvement in the swelling.

i-cf551a503ca83ea655b9730c2a5cfbda-diabetic_ankle_before.jpg i-d0fb6c44b5c1b5d3dabf3606728779e1-diabetic_ankle_after5.jpg

Can you guess which is which? (No cheating and going to the link above.) One is claimed to be “less swollen” than the other. I don’t know about you, but to me the ankle on the right looks more swollen. Too bad that’s supposed to be the “after” picture.

Of course, there are many testimonials, including Lance Armstrong and the entire U.S. Bicycling Team. (Maybe Lance should start selling some of these “earthing” pads instead of his “Livestrong” bracelets.) And, of course, there’s lots of sciency-sounding jargon, all caps, and colored highlighting; so it must be important. But what about science? Glad you asked! here’s a paper in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine:

The biologic effects of grounding the human body during sleep as measured by cortisol levels and subjective reporting of sleep, pain, and stress.

Ghaly M, Teplitz D.

OBJECTIVES: Diurnal cortisol secretion levels were measured and circadian cortisol profiles were evaluated in a pilot study conducted to test the hypothesis that grounding the human body to earth during sleep will result in quantifiable changes in cortisol. It was also hypothesized that grounding the human body would result in changes in sleep, pain, and stress (anxiety, depression, irritability), as measured by subjective reporting. SUBJECTS AND INTERVENTIONS: Twelve (12) subjects with complaints of sleep dysfunction, pain, and stress were grounded to earth during sleep for 8 weeks in their own beds using a conductive mattress pad. Saliva tests were administered to establish pregrounding baseline cortisol levels. Levels were obtained at 4-hour intervals for a 24-hour period to determine the circadian cortisol profile. Cortisol testing was repeated at week 6. Subjective symptoms of sleep dysfunction, pain, and stress were reported daily throughout the 8-week test period. RESULTS: Measurable improvements in diurnal cortisol profiles were observed, with cortisol levels significantly reduced during night-time sleep. Subjects’ 24-hour circadian cortisol profiles showed a trend toward normalization. Subjectively reported symptoms, including sleep dysfunction, pain, and stress, were reduced or eliminated in nearly all subjects. CONCLUSIONS: Results indicate that grounding the human body to earth (“earthing”) during sleep reduces night-time levels of cortisol and resynchronizes cortisol hormone secretion more in alignment with the natural 24-hour circadian rhythm profile. Changes were most apparent in females. Furthermore, subjective reporting indicates that grounding the human body to earth during sleep improves sleep and reduces pain and stress.

Sound convincing? Consider this before you answer. It’s in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the same journal that published last week’s “information theory” homeopathic woo. Now, it’s not inappropriate for each patient to serve as his or her own control, which is what this study did, but consider the fact that the study is completely unblinded. Both the patients and the investigators know when they are sleeping on the pad. The proper way to do this study would be as follows: Have two groups, both of which start sleeping on the pad, but only hook up the patients in one group to the grounding wire, so that one group is sleeping on the pad but not grounded. Even better would be to include a black box in the course of the wire going to ground. Half the boxes could be set up so that the circuit was completed; in the other half, so that the circuit is not. Assign the boxes randomly to patients and do not break the code which tells which box completed the path to ground and which box did not until the experiment is over. Then, even the investigators wouldn’t know which patient was grounded and which wasn’t. Given the lack of blinding in this study, of patients or investigators, it’s impossible to tell whether the subjective reports by patients of improved sleep and feelings of well-being are anything more than the placebo effect. Finally, I have to wonder how they collected saliva samples without waking up the patients. Did they in any case, saliva cortisol levels, although they correlate with blood cortisol levels, can be affected by drugs and/or variations in the levels of different plasma proteins. Worse, they compared single day measurements, which are prone to large day-to-day variations:

Single day assessments are very weak approaches to this problem since measures are affected by many day-to-day variations, and this is especially difficult when the shape of the rhythm is of interest, since this seems rather sensitive to the influence of stress.


Joe Schwartz calculated that data should be collected over 3-4 days to get a reliable assessment of a “trait” daily concentration (area-under-the-curve), and for 6 or more days to get a reliable assessment of a “trait” rhythm. The advantage of using multiple days is that it helps to control the unreliability of one day’s data which can underestimate the cortisol relationship to outcomes. For example, if nine samples per day are collected, collection over 4 days will give an estimate of area-under-the-curve with .80 reliability, and 8 days will give an estimate of the slope with .80 reliability.

Not surprisingly, these guys didn’t bother with more than comparing two nights, one before and one after the eight week “grounding” period. Neither did these guys bother to look at the area under the curves. Instead, all we get is this:


Wow. Lots of curves superimposed on each other. It must be science, right? Well, yes, but it’s bad science. Notice how, if you removed just two of the patients, the before-and-after profiles would look very similar. Not that you could tell whether, even in this current form, there’s any statistically significant difference, mainly because no statistics are reported. Sorry, guys, but the “eyeball test” usually isn’t enough, especially when you’re using only 12 patients and especially when you didn’t bother to do a few repeat measures.

In other words, this study is, in essence, meaningless.

So how much will all this set you back? Well, for a queen size bed, the pad and grounding wire is $289. Of course, if you don’t want to hang a wire out your window, they now offer a handy-dandy outlet connector to “ground” you through your home’s electrical system. Of course, given the “competence” of these guys with regard to their science, I don’t know that I’d trust them to have gotten this outlet connector right. It’d really suck if it turns out that the wire was connected to the live prong rather than the ground prong of the plug. That’d give the “groundlings” way more electrons than they bargained for.

I wonder what Bora would have to say about this. After all, besides being a form of electrical and free radical woo, this is also a form of Circadian rhythm woo. (A trifecta of woo, of sorts!) Whatever he says, this website, as have so many before it, makes it clear that I’m definitely in the wrong business.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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