The traditional premise among some barefooters is that, by allowing our bodies to come in direct contact with the earth, we can exchange electrons with it and literally (electrically) ground ourselves. Supporters claim they have experienced numerous mental and physical health benefits by doing so. Others call it pseudoscience, saying it discredits our efforts to make better arguments for going barefoot.
To be honest, I have always believed so strongly in other justifications for barefooting that I spent very little time investigating the validity of the purported science. But, now, I am excited to report on some groundbreaking new insights I found at this Saturday's Boston Fermentation Festival (you'll see the connections, I promise) that may help explain the anecdotal results of "earthing" through completely different, highly plausible, and far more exciting (to me!) mechanisms than electrical grounding.
Earth, Dirt, and Soil
Consider earth as "soil." What distinguishes it from other ground matter (rock, sand, concrete...) is that soil is alive. The softness, darkness, dampness, and richness that make soil different from sand and rocks are the results of biological processes happening among the plants, insects, worms, and microorganisms inhabiting it.
Before shoes, we were frequently in contact with soil and, as a result, constantly exchanging microorganisms with it. By wearing shoes, we have not only instituted a barrier against "getting dirty," we've also isolated ourselves from this biological exchange.
We've Become Too Clean
These microorganisms make up what we call the human microbiome, and this is not only normal, but essential for healthy human function. Our tiny symbiotic partners fulfill vital roles in immunity, wound healing, digestion, waste disposal, and nutrient synthesis.
However, in our quest to combat "germs," i.e. rid ourselves of pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms, we have unknowingly created an intensely inhospitable environment for those which are actually our allies.
At the Boston Fermentation Festival this Saturday, John Durant (author of The Paleo Manifesto) outlined the historical stages we have gone through in our efforts to manage our interactions with microorganisms.
1. As hunter-gatherers: Long before we knew about microorganisms, and before we had begun to manipulate our environment through agriculture and urbanization, our traditional practices were more often in balance with the environment. Many animal products were eaten raw, foods were often fermented, and hygiene practices in some cultures could go so far as smearing oneself with the partially-digested stomach contents of one's prey rather than rinsing with water. Many of these long-standing microbe-friendly traditions developed precisely because they were associated with robust health, not sickness.
2. In early urban settings: We shifted toward increased population density in long-term settlements, many with inadequate waste disposal (making it easy for pathogens to survive and spread), and we also lost diversity in our diets by relying on agriculture, all the while still lacking an understanding of basic sanitation. Cumulatively, the balance shifted out of our favor, and our susceptibility to communicable illnesses spiked, leading to many major epidemics like the bubonic plague.
4. The overzealous war on germs: Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung too far. We have tried to obliterate disease-causing microbes without realizing the immense cost of wiping out others in the process. Non-pathogenic microbes not only provide crucial support for our own physiology, they also provide competition for resources against the more harmful invaders, making it harder for invaders to take hold and thrive. As a result of the widespread use of antibiotics, not only have we encouraged evolution of the most resistant strains of dangerous bacteria, we have made ourselves more susceptible by giving them free reign over our territory (our bodies as well as our obsessively "disinfected" physical environments).
The Future: Replenishing and Diversifying Our Microbiome
Keynote speaker Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, covered a key aspect of bacterial adaptability which was completely new to me: because bacterial cells do not contain a nucleus in which to confine their DNA, bacteria have the ability to trade DNA with one another based on the needs of the environment. (Bear with me, it matters!)
He described DNA as, to bacteria, simply a tool that they can pick up or discard as needed depending on their circumstances. The example given was, say, environmental access to a nutrient that they can't process: if the bacteria find DNA that give them the instructions to make use of it, they may gain a competitive advantage by doing so. Conversely, if the environment changes, they can trade that DNA out for something else later.
Sandor also made it clear that this competition among microbes is an issue we should be taking into consideration in our environment and in our food practices, as well: often, our sanitized stainless steel surfaces are much less "safe" than surfaces brimming with benign microbes (like, say, dirt). For example, it represents a seriously overlooked consideration in the FDA's recent stance on the health risks of wooden cheese aging boards, and may be a major contributor to why our extensive (but imperfect) attempts to sterilize hospital environments actually result in tremendous numbers of hospital acquired infections.
So, now that we see some of the importance of healthy microbiomes, what can we do to begin to restore the ones we have so carelessly demolished? There are two main steps:
- Stop killing them off;
- Start putting them back!
Lower Your Weapons (Stop Killing Friendly Microbes)
We could also stand to reduce our societal preference toward over-the-counter antibacterial products such as bleach, antibacterial soap, and hand sanitizer. As for antibacterial soap, it's not been shown to be more effective than regular soap anyway, assuming you have the chance to wash your hands. Topical antibiotics, as with prescription ones, have appropriate uses in cleaning/dressing open wounds. Making decisions for individuals with compromised immune systems may also call for different protocols from time to time, but the average person does not need to employ antibacterial products in most day-to-day life. (Personally, I find water alone to be an entirely satisfactory household cleaning agent for most purposes.)
Less obvious than the effect of antibacterial products, however, is that of even our basic NON-antibacterial soaps, shampoos, deodorants, and other cosmetic products on our skin microbiome. We use these products to eliminate body odor and excess oils; however, our skin bacteria are very sensitive to such products (even the simplest soaps), and it may be the very use of such products which causes the majority of disruption to our microbiome and makes us stink in the first place. (In other words, the "solution" we're being sold in the form of products may actually be what's causing the problem.)
In addition, because our friendly bacteria thrive most in the places where we grow hair (as compared to on bare skin), shampoos and hair removal methods (like shaving) are especially hard on them and deserve somber reconsideration.
Most of us are not ready to reject all our cleansing products yet: there are practical and social considerations to deal with, and everyone is different, and we simply still don't know enough for most of us to wean ourselves off confidently. Somewhere along the line, we will find a happy medium once we begin at least taking our microorganisms into consideration in our decisions. In the meantime, we can help the situation by looking for ways to collect new members for our microbial menagerie.
Sowing New Seeds (Start Reintroducing More Friendly Microbes)
Yogurt is often recommended as a probiotic food; however, most commercial yogurts are made with only one or two strains of bacteria. As we've seen, diversity is key, so while yogurt can be good to include, it's best to incorporate many other types of fermented foods as well, such as kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, kefir, and kombucha (to name just a few).
AOB stands for Ammonia Oxidizing Bacteria, and these kinds of bacteria are of interest because they take up the waste products that contribute to us smelling bad, and in turn produce nitric oxide, a biological regulator so important that a Nobel prize was awarded for discovering its role in cardiovascular signaling. Nitric oxide encourages blood vessels to dilate (Viagra works by enhancing signals along the same pathway), which is important in promoting circulation, which is in turn essential for countless physiological functions, maintaining energy levels and endurance, and encouraging relaxation and better moods.
As I was reading up on the details of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist and thinking what an exciting idea it was, one passage about AOB caught my eye:
"AOB are found everywhere in nature and have never been implicated in any human illness. If you have ever walked barefoot on dirt, swam in a lake or the ocean you probably emerged refreshed and covered with AOBs. Although our strain is cultured and produced to cosmetic grade quality it has the same safe properties as natural AOB."
Earthing: Exchanging Microorganisms, Not Electrons?
Earthing has been ascribed many positive effects (better mood, better energy, better sleep, fewer illnesses, reduced allergies, and more). Could these be the result, not of transferring electrons, but of promoting a diverse and robust microbiome through contact with the living soil? It certainly seems plausible:
- A more diverse microbiome brings more DNA "tools" and fills more niches, thus improving immunity by making it harder for infectious microbes to take hold, resulting in fewer illnesses.
- Synthesis of bioregulators like nitric oxide by skin bacteria could promote circulation and enhance mood and energy levels.
- In addition to fortifying our skin microbiome, some might contribute to the diversity of our gut microbiome, which is known to be a major factor in our ability to digest and synthesize nutrients, which is critical for maintaining health.
- This article and another it links to argue for precisely the same idea: that increased contact with microorganisms in nature confers numerous psychological and physiological health benefits.
These potential microbial contributions are entirely aside from the physical effects of barefooting such as improved balance and alignment and increased use of muscles (which also help circulation); and the mental effects of empowerment and well-being generated by taking charge and doing what's right for yourself (sans shoes) even against the status quo. There are quite likely still many more potential benefits to barefooting and "earthing" (in the new definition) than have even been mentioned here so far.
Let's Get Dirt-y!
Well, there you have it from me. Talk about Shoes Are Not Paleo! This is a perfect example of how barefooting, biodiversity, nutrition, and hygiene get wrapped up so closely in a thorough appreciation of ancestral health. I think it's important that we not merely "romanticize the natural," but instead take a close look at the systems (like symbiotic relationships with microbiota) which did develop through natural processes, and use them to inform our choices as well as the next questions to ask from here.
If you haven't yet tried going barefoot outdoors, this provides a great rationale for why getting your feet in the grass and soft dirt can be a worthwhile and gentle first step. If you need some more inspiration or reassurance, check out the Practical Barefooting Webinar series by myself and Sue Kenney, designer of Barebottom Shoes.*
What's your take? Did you have an opinion on earthing before, and did it change? Are you ready to diversify your microbiome? Hit me up in the comments below! :)
Sue and I consider ourselves a sort of Yin and Yang of barefooting, and while I've been into biomechanics, she has long been a proponent of getting into nature and dirt as part of our healing process. To celebrate my sharing this new insight, she's making another special offer:
Buy one pair of suede Barebottoms Original $55.00 and recieve a FREE pair of Barebottoms Amphibious Value $25.00. Note "Shoes Are Not Paleo" in your order comments.
Offer Ends October 10, 2014.