I love that people want scientific explanations for how to improve their health. But in the realm of alternative health, the science is often cherry-picked and applied incorrectly – despite sounding impressive, the explanations are often misinterpretations of the scientific principles and collapse when subjected to scrutiny.
On a positive note, the attempts to use mangled scientific explanations suggest that people want to better understand their lives. Scientific explanations are often added to boost credibility even if the ‘science’ is misinterpreted or incorrectly used. I hope people will start getting more interested in science – but will also start to view these ‘sales pitches’ with a more critical eye and informed mind.
Walking barefoot is good for you
This popped up in my Facebook feed, posted by people I respect:
I can believe that walking barefoot on the earth and grass can be beneficial (ignoring the ‘But the parasites!’ from my germophobe husband).
We feel better on days when we take the time to go outside for a meandering walk or just to read a book in the warm sun. Bursts of stress can cause our blood pressure to spike, although the long-term effect on blood pressure, specifically, is not yet known (AMA). It is known that chronic stress can have a negative impact on our health (MayoClinic) and reducing our stress should help improve our health. It’s not a big leap to believe that taking a moment to go outside and de-stress can help.
So are the health benefits of walking barefoot due to de-stressing and taking the time and opportunity to relax outside? Not according to fans of ‘Earthing’.
According to the article, walking barefoot outside gives us a“Direct physical contact with the vast supply of electrons on the surface of the Earth. Modern lifestyle separates humans from such contact. The research suggests that this disconnect may be a major contributor to physiological dysfunction and unwellness. Reconnection with the Earth’s electrons has been found to promote intriguing physiological changes and subjective reports of well-being… from Spirit Science and Metaphysics (I’m not linking to avoid giving the pseudo-scientific article extra clicks)
This article doesn’t go into the ‘science’ but details a host of benefits, including reducing blood cell clumping (I wasn’t aware that this is a problem, and it isn’t anything taught at my medical school). There is an explanation from Dr. Mercola (popular pseudo-doctor as described well at Visionary or Quack and the science-based medicine site). His post includes the statement:When you walk barefoot on the Earth, there’s a transfer of free electrons from the Earth into your body that spread throughout your tissues. The effect is sufficient to maintain your body at the same negatively-charged electrical potential as the Earth.
The explanation by Dr. Mercola has a bunch of science words and some apparent reasoning, but it doesn’t hold up. It is almost like someone said, “electrons, those are science-y. They have something to do with energy, right? Having more electrons will give us more energy.”
The Earthing ideas are based on a simplistic view of grounding. The earth is a reservoir of electrons and can provide or receive electrons. When you work with electricity, you want to have a low resistance path to the earth (a ground) so that excess electricity flows to the earth instead of through you or your equipment. If you are out in a lightning storm, you want to have rubber soles or other ways to disrupt current so that the lightning doesn’t use you as the lowest resistance path or ground. But the ‘Earthing’ people are extrapolating these ideas to suggest that we need new electrons directly from the earth. Even if we need new electrons, we can get electrons from other things we touch that touch the earth. Direct contact would not be necessary. And the idea that these electrons are then changing our physiology in significant ways doesn’t make sense. [A more complete discussion of this pseudoscience is at Neurologica.]
Of course, Dr. Mercola has a grounding/earthing mat to sell you for your home. He is using this science-y sounding explanation to explain why you desperately need more electrons. And why you should buy his product(s).
In general, when I read an idea to improve my health and there is an associated device or supplement to be bought, I get suspicious. My suspicion goes higher when these products are promise a way to decrease the effort needed to follow the advice. In this case, walking barefoot makes you healthier, a bad science explanation is provided, and then they try to sell you something that relies on the ‘science’, but avoids the original point of walking barefoot.
The sellers are directly benefiting from you believing them. Natural health providers like to say that they aren’t beholden to big Pharma or other interests, but the natural health providers also aren’t regulated. Dr. Mercola makes his money from selling things and he earns millions from his website and supplements. In contrast, health care providers implement evidence-based therapies and they can’t directly sell medication or devices without endangering their license to practice. In British Columbia, Canada, you do not provide money directly to your physician, and physicians are not paid more to give you a medical test or prescribe you a drug. In contrast, a natural health practitioner receives money from every remedy and test.
Walking barefoot may very well make you feel better and may have health benefits. However, I don’t believe that sleeping on a special electron mat would give the same effects.
I think there is good advice to be found in some alternative/health articles and I encourage people to go outside more, eat a varied diet high in fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, etc. But please be wary when you are reading the science, especially if there is a pill or device that will let you shortcut the good advice. Just as you don’t trust the car salesman when he raves about a car, be careful when someone is selling you ‘easy health’.
Again, I love that people want scientific explanations. But just as you might check consumer reports or talk to car aficionados about some of the claims made by a salesman, you should make sure that health explanations make sense. Review them with objective authorities not invested in the economics of it all. You can check out science-based medicine, a site that evaluates medical treatments and products.
Scientists are as interested in good health as we all are. But like a savvy car buyer, they depend on facts, not speculation or inventive marketing, to make a good decision.