pseu·do·sci·ence [so͞odōˈsīəns] noun. Any of various methods, theories, or systems, considered as having no scientific basis.
ear·thing ther·a·py [ərTHING THerəpē] noun. Pseudoscience.
In today's ultra-competitive endurance environment, athletes are always looking for an edge. From training techniques to nutrition to psychology, those looking to compete at the top levels are often eager to try anything that can boost their performance, and how else can we explain the sudden boon in products like chocolate milk or gluten-free items, beyond the medical conditions that require their use? Sometimes these trends are based in science and can very often lead to increased recovery and performance (think dynamic stretching), and sometimes they're a little more out there (think Emu belly oil).
How does one differentiate between the beneficial and the pointless? Easy: Science. The scientific method helps pave a way to evaluate, from an objective perspective, the relative merits and dangers associated with a product, concept or belief. Sometimes science falls short due to lack of information, and so scientists are generally trained to use the best information available to demonstrate an educated and informed stance on a given topic. For example, many observations once considered to be inflicted upon the earth from above have been explained by science and the laws of physics. Scientists are also empowered with the responsibility to create and carry out studies when current scientific understanding on a given topic is limited.
A problem arises in that not everyone has time to review the latest scientific studies, which is something advertisers may use to their advantage. Endorsements, opinions and anecdotes often replace hard evidence, and this can lead to some weird practices (like the Emu belly oil). At the end of the day, though, it's critical to recognize that science and only science provides an unbiased lens through which to view the world.
In the spirit of keeping things based on science, I'd like to highlight a practice that has grown in popularity in recent years, despite the complete lack of evidence for its effectiveness. The technique, creatively called "grounding" or "earthing," involves merely walking around barefoot so that the soles of your feet make contact with the Earth's surface (via a meadow, beach or stream). The theory contends that negative free electrons from the Earth are allowed to travel up into your body, which then act as antioxidants that reduce inflammation and improve recovery.
While not necessarily new (there are studies about grounding dating back to at least 2004), the practice has grown in popularity in recent years. We read online that the doctor for the US Tour de France teams and Lance Armstrong, Jeff Spencer, used grounding to help the team recover from injuries and for optimal rest during competition. Popular blogger and triathlete Ben Greenfield has advocated for the practice. It's been endorsed by Dr. Oz and plenty of health and fitness bloggers.
Grounding has also shifted from simply "walking around barefoot" to a plethora of techniques and, not surprisingly, products including fitted sheets, recovery bags, recovery patches and laundry detergents. There's even an Earthing Throw Blanket. Like any fitness trend, marketing companies have been quick to jump on the idea, creating enough products to satisfy even the most devout Earther. These products aren't cheap, either ... as in you'll be paying $75.00 for a pillow case.
So what should we make of grounding? Is it pseudoscience or an emerging path to better sports performance? There are many people with ammunition on both sides of the issue. However, as with any medical or science claim, in order to decide, it's best to look at the data.
Studies about Earthing
Only a handful of studies have been published, and this remains in the realm of "alternative medicine" and related philosophies. For example, the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine published a study in 2004 that examined cortisol levels in subjects who slept on an earthing mattress pad for six weeks. After comparing cortisol levels, the study's authors conclude that grounding both lowered average cortisol levels in subjects and resynchronized cortisol hormone secretion more in alignment with the natural 24-hour circadian rhythm profile. The subjects also self-reported a decrease in sleep dysfunction, pain and stress.
The problem with this study is that the researchers did not use a control group (not to mention the fact that the test group contained only 12 people, a tiny sample size). Instead, researchers simply compared cortisol levels in all subjects before and after the six-week period. While cortisol levels went down, the lack of a control group prevented the researchers from ruling out a placebo effect. (If you doubt the power of a placebo, just take a look at the results of a 2012 study which suggested that sleeping pills owe half of their benefits to this effect). For all we know, the mere fact that the subjects expected to sleep and feel better is all they needed to fix their pain and stress.
The second study often cited as evidence for grounding was published in the ESD Journal. A researcher randomly divided 60 people into two groups. All 60 had reported problems with sleep and chronic pain. The first group slept on grounded mattresses for six months, and the second group slept on similar mattresses that were "sham" grounded — mattresses that appeared to be grounded but weren't really. At the end of the six-month period, the first group reported significantly higher levels of sleep quality and lower levels of chronic pain and stress. Nothing changed in the second group.
So is grounding proved? After all, the study had a control group, and it accounted for the placebo effect with the "sham" grounding. That's enough evidence, right? Not exactly. There are three issues I take with this study.
First, it's published in a place called the "ESD Journal." That may sound scientific, but I want to emphasize that it is anything but a scientific, peer-reviewed journal. In fact, if you go to the "About" page, it's hard to tell exactly what they do at all.
Second, a disclaimer at the top of the study reads: "The following is an article reported on a subject which may be of interest to our readers. This technology has not been reviewed for its validity by the technical staff of the ESD Journal. In some cases we may have either supporting or dissenting opinions. However, we publish, you decide." So it's not only not peer-reviewed, it's not even staff-reviewed.
Finally, and most troublingly, the study is authored by a man named Clint Ober. A quick online search will show that this is the same Clint Ober who wrote Earthing: The most important health discovery ever? which helped popularize the grounding practice. But Ober did far more than just write the book. After publishing Earthing, Ober established earthing.com ... the same place that sells those $75.00 pillow cases. Pretty convenient that the scientific study supported the need for all of this extra stuff, don't you think? This is an apparent conflict of interest, and it casts very serious doubt on the validity of Ober's results.
Science often takes multiple studies to prove or disprove a concept, one study often building on the success or shortcomings of a previous study. Scientific studies are also based on a foundation of existing knowledge. Why are there not more studies on Grounding? Most researchers who are science-based will not take on a study which has no actual foundation in science, which is why no recent research exists on proving the world is flat. We have long since given up that notion, and so conducting additional studies to that end would not be fruitful. Similarly, for concepts that reputable scientists find lacking of any scientific basis, they will not spend time or resources to examine what they would consider a "quack" concept.
So if there's little science to support the idea, why is grounding so popular? There are plenty of success stories online, and they usually follow a similar plotline: Someone who experienced chronic pain and sleeplessness bought one of the Earthing mats, and they were magically cured.
"I was certainly skeptical at first but figured I had nothing to lose by trying to electrically ground myself," writes one blogger. "To my surprise, I noticed the first night I used the earthing mat that I feel asleep much easier. My husband didn't believe me until he slept on part of the earthing mat one night and had a noticeable improvement in sleep quality."
This story is one of many, but that does not mean we should accept grounding. After all, one can find success stories for every crazy alternative medicine practice out there (including horse placenta and goat's blood). Anecdotes are not the same thing as scientific proof. Aside from having the same issues as the study in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (in that the "improved sleep" could be due entirely to a placebo effect), anecdotes are entirely subjective, and thus lack any form of objective evidence, which is the foundation of science. The blogger even acknowledges this:
"From what I've read, reactions to earthing/grounding can vary drastically," the blogger writes. "Some people will notice a difference immediately while others take a few days or weeks. Others won't feel any changes but measures of cortisol levels will show improvement."
In other words, you may not feel anything at all, but rest assured, according to the advertizing, it's working!
Another popular anecdotal technique used by advocates is to argue that chronic medical conditions are the symptoms of a lack of grounding. "Throughout history, humans have spent time outdoors much more than we do in modern time and have been in direct contact with the soil," the same blogger writes. "From walking on the ground barefoot, to gardening or tilling the soil, humans have always touched the earth… until recently. Now, we live in houses, wear rubber shoes, are exposed to EMFs daily and don't often come into direct contact with the ground."
Look at that. Our chronic aches and pains are only the result of not walking around barefoot!
What should we make of grounding?
Chronic aches and pains may be the result of many things including an unhealthy Western diet, lack of sleep, improper sitting/standing position, and overtraining. However, science does not support that these ailments are due to a lack of walking around barefoot. Even more so, they cannot be cured with an electrical mattress. Will you feel better if you go outside and walk around barefoot for 30 minutes? Of course! There's no doubt that taking a peaceful walk will lower cortisol levels and improve your mood. But you'll get these benefits simply from walking.
The biggest issue with grounding is that certain companies are using sham science to sell products. As I wrote above, people can buy everything from computer mats to laundry detergents, but it's all a waste of money beyond what these products would normally deliver. The study most-often cited as evidence for buying the products was conducted by the very same guy that is selling these products.
Recovery is important, and experiments including trying new techniques are important for moving science forward. However, these practices must be grounded (I couldn't resist) in science, and not in pseudo-scientific techniques used to sell products.
[Jonathan Toker is a Canadian elite-level runner and triathlete. He received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from The Scripps Research Institute in 2001, and raced in the professional ranks as a triathlete for 5 years and now races trail running. Dr. Toker worked as a scientist in the biotech industry for 5 years prior to launching his unique SaltStick Electrolyte Capsule and Dispenser lineup. JT acknowledges the help of Joseph Havey with this article. ]