Yesterday I reposted The Microbiome as a prelude to discussing today a new blog entry from Stephanie Welch, Restoring Our Microbiome: A New Take on “Earthing”
It’s an interesting article that you should go read.
Are you back? Have you read it?
Stephanie starts by noting the controversy over “Earthing”, which I’ve written about a few times. See, for instance, Eye on Ions. She recently went to fermentation festival (a microbiome in and of itself) and came away with an insight:
Suppose, instead of looking at “earth” in terms of the physical mass of variously charged particles that makes up our planet, we consider its other meanings: dirt or soil. Shoes function quite explicitly to protect us from “dirt,” whether physical contamination or microbial infiltration. The new question is: what if cutting ourselves off from “dirt” isn’t actually such a good thing?
* * *
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.
Stephanie then goes on to do a very nice job discussing much of the ongoing thought on the microbiome of humans. It’s all good stuff and shows the importance of what we are just beginning to realize is out there.
She then ends by asking
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.
I’m sorry, but I don’t find it plausible at all. I simply don’t see any sort of mechanism for transferring a changed microbiome on the feet to any other part of the body.
Microbiomes are very local to the body, differing considerably from spot to spot (that’s part of the micro in microbiome). The microbiome of your armpit has no way of knowing that the microbiome on your feet has changed. While I suppose one could conceive some sort of penetration of exterior bacteria into intact skin (though we have no evidence of that) or that properly microbiomed skin might emit chemical signals into the blood, that’s a real stretch without something to back it up.
Don’t get me wrong. The changed microbiome of the feet from going barefoot is quite beneficial . . . to the feet. You’re going to lose all the athlete’s foot fungus I talked about in The Microbiome, and gain a microbiome better suited to going barefoot.
In addition, that microbiome will in all likelihood better protect your feet from minor cuts or abrasions, since it will make the skin healthier and also provide other bacteria that can safely cover a wound and let it heal. (But let me also say that the microbiome in such an instance is not a miracle worker—other bacteria can also get in and cause infections. It’s just that a properly functioning microbiome reduces the number of such bacteria.)
Let me also add that even those minor wounds can be beneficial to the whole body, priming the immune system and letting your body build up immunity to a wider range of bacteria. It’s sort of a natural inoculation system. (Admittedly, this can sometimes go horribly wrong, as with tetanus, which is why other vaccinations are a really, really good idea.)
But again, I see sort of plausible mechanism by which improving the microbiome of the feet would have any sort of effect on the other microbiomes, for which it is also important that we don’t screw them up by trying to kill them off or otherwise indiscriminately trying to modify them.
Stephanie ends up by saying
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 wellbeing 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.
I think those explanations are more than enough to explain the benefits of barefooting without looking for additional implausible mechanisms.
I’d also like to add one other comment about the word “earthing”.
It’s been taken by the electron crowd. When folks try to use it to talk about the benefits Stephanie expands on above, things just get confusing, and the term automatically turns off those who know much of science and how it works.
It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is. And continuing to use the term “earthing” just feeds that.
It’s kind of like the word “Creationism”. Some folks would like it to include a possible deistic creation of the universe 13.8 billion years ago, but that’s not what it means to most people, and specifically not those who ignore all science to claim the literal truth of the Genesis account. The term has been taken, and using it to describe other things confuses things (and even allows the non-scientific to claim some sort of undeserved legitimacy).
I’ve spent a bit of time trying to come up with a better term. The trouble is “earthing” sounds so, well, “earthy”. It’s a good word; it just no longer means what we want it to mean.
My suggestions is “georesonance”. I wrote a bit about how going barefoot allows our bodies to “resonate” with the earth in Renewal. It’s a metaphorical resonance, but what I’m trying to describe encompasses Stephanie’s paragraph above. Our genes have been tuned (another metaphor) to our environment. Yes, our bodies can handle deviations from the way our bodies have adapted to our original environment, but over the long term, the more we allow them to work in that original environment without additional stresses, the better they can “resonate” with the earth (“georesonate”).