By Dr. Mercola
When's the last time you kicked your shoes off and took a walk in the grass — or let mud squish between your toes or sand warm the bottoms of your feet?
Going barefoot almost becomes taboo once you're past school age, and even children are often scolded should they toss off their shoes in favor of going bare.
But there's much to gain, and typically little risk, by going barefoot more often, both for children and adults. Many who have adopted a barefoot lifestyle say they made the switch because it feels natural; it feels good.
"It sounds corny, but there's something nice about feeling the earth you're walking on. You're just more connected to the world," barefoot devotee Kyle Vaughn told ABC News.1
While some refer to going barefoot as a trend, those living the barefoot lifestyle say shoes are the real trend and should be used more like tools — for instance to put on when there's snow on the ground or you'll be walking on hot asphalt — then stowed away until they're needed again.
Going Barefoot Can Be Good for Your Feet
The primary objection to going barefoot is that you could injure your feet if you step on a sharp object. This is true, but your feet have ways of compensating, like building tougher skin the more you go bare. Further, as written in The Washington Post:2
"Both children and adults who go barefoot frequently also have a heightened sense of their surroundings and can easily spot a sharp object they need to avoid."
Your feet have more than 200,000 nerve endings, making them incredibly sensitive, for this very purpose.3 Children, in particular, may benefit from walking barefoot as much as possible.
This helps to strengthen their feet and lower legs while enhancing proprioception, which is the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within your body itself.4 Pediatric specialist Dr. Kacie Flegal told The Washington Post:5
"One of the simplest ways to motivate proprioceptive and vestibular development is to let our babies be barefoot as much as possible … Another benefit to keeping babies barefoot is the encouragement of presence of mind and conscious awareness.
As the little pads of babies' feet feel, move, and balance on the surface that they are exploring, the information sent to the brain from tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular pathways quiet, or inhibit, other extraneous sensory input.
This creates focus and awareness of walking and moving through space; babies get more tuned in to their surroundings."
Shoes Often Damage Feet
Twenty-five percent of your bones are located in your feet and ankles, and your feet are the foundation of your body, carrying all your weight. With 26 bones and 33 joints in each foot, there's plenty of opportunity for something to go wrong, especially if you choose ill-fitting or inappropriate footwear.
Certain footwear, including flip-flops and tight-fitting or high-heeled shoes, may damage your foot structure and change the dynamics of how you walk.
For instance, high heels (generally described as a heel height of 2 inches or higher) shift your foot forward into an unnatural position with increased weight on your toes.
Your body tilts forward, so you lean backwards and overarch your back to compensate. This posture changes the normal human gait and adds tremendous strain to your hips, lower back and your knees.
When worn long-term (defined as at least 40 hours a week for a minimum of two years), high heels lead to "substantial increases in muscle fascicle strains and muscle activation during the stance phase compared with barefoot walking."
Further, according to Tony Bruno, a certified muscle activation techniques specialist, wearing flip-flops can cause dysfunctional changes and pain in your foot, and these changes can resonate all the way up to your head, neck, and jaw.6
Surprising as it may sound, some research suggests that even modern running shoes, with their heavily cushioned, elevated heels, may cause problems by encouraging runners to strike the ground with their heel first — a move that generates a greater collision force with the ground, leading to an increased potential for injury.
Forefoot- and mid-foot-strike gaits were probably more common when humans ran barefoot or in minimal shoes and may protect your feet and lower limbs from some of the impact-related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners.
Wearing Shoes May Lead to Higher Injury Rates
It's often assumed that going without shoes is dangerous, but if you use commonsense precautions it's unlikely to cause you any harm. In the developed world, for instance, you're unlikely to pick up parasites or infectious diseases by going barefoot.
You're probably more likely to pick up such maladies via your hands, not your feet. Wearing shoes, on the other hand, may increase your risk of toe fungus and athlete's foot, and may even increase your risk of injury. Research reviewed by Michael Warburton, a physical therapist in Australia, revealed:7
- Running-related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare in developing countries, where most people are habitually barefooted
- Where barefoot and shod populations co-exist, such as in Haiti, injury rates of the lower extremity are substantially higher in the shod population
- Wearing footwear increases the likelihood of ankle sprains, one of the most common sports injuries, because it either decreases your awareness of foot position or increases the twisting torque on your ankle during a stumble
- One of the most common chronic injuries in runners, plantar fasciitis (an inflammation of the ligament running along the sole of your foot), is rare in barefoot populations
- Running in bare feet reduces oxygen consumption by a few percent
The Tarahumara people of northwestern Mexico are one of the few modern-day cultures that still embrace barefoot living and, famously, barefoot running.
The tribes are among the most skilled runners in the world, running up to 200 miles over a two-day period. Notably, they run barefoot, and this has been suggested as the reason for their remarkable athletic prowess
Grounding: The Often-Overlooked Benefit of Taking Off Your Shoes
When you walk barefoot, you get to experience electrically conductive contact of your body with the surface of the Earth, a phenomenon known as grounding or earthing.
The Earth carries an enormous negative charge. It's always electron-rich and can serve as a powerful and abundant supply of antioxidant and free-radical-busting electrons. Your body is finely tuned to "work" with the Earth in the sense that there's a constant flow of energy between your body and the Earth.
When you put your feet on the ground, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons through the soles of your feet. The effect is sufficient to maintain your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth.
This simple process of grounding is one of the most potent antioxidants we know of. Grounding has been shown to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, improve sleep, enhance well being, and much, much more. In the video above, you can hear my interview with James Oschman, who is an expert in the field of energy medicine.
Oschman, along with a dozen other researchers, has conducted research on the physiological effects of grounding.
More than a dozen studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals showing its benefit for fighting inflammation, improving the immune response, wound healing, and the prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.8
Many Shoes Interfere With Grounding
Many people spend most of their waking hours wearing shoes with rubber or plastic soles. These materials are very effective insulators that will disconnect you from the Earth's natural electron flow. Walking barefoot is one of the easiest and best ways to stay grounded, but you'll need to do so on the proper surface. Leather-soled shoes will also allow you to stay grounded with the Earth. Good grounding surfaces include:
- Sand (beach)
- Grass (preferably moist)
- Bare soil
- Concrete and brick (as long as it's not painted or sealed)
- Ceramic tile
The following surfaces will NOT ground you:
- Rubber and plastic
- Tar or tarmac
In today's world, this is more important than ever, yet fewer people than ever actually connect with the Earth in this way anymore. Free radical stress from exposure to pollution, cigarettes, insecticides, pesticides, trans fats, and radiation, just to name a few, continually deplete your body of electrons.
Simply by getting outside, barefoot, touching the Earth, and allowing the excess charge in your body to discharge into the Earth, you can alleviate some of the stress continually put on your system. So the next time you feel the urge to kick off your shoes, go ahead and try it. You just might like it.