Grounding – Helping Premature Babies

Intensive care doctors have discovered that grounding may boost the resilience of premature infants and lower the risk of complications.

The doctors reported that grounding produced immediate and significant improvements in measurements of autonomic nervous system (ANS) functioning critically important in the regulation of inflammatory and stress responses.

The findings, by researchers at the Pennsylvania State University Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Hershey, were published in the journal Neonatology in August 2017.

Specifically, grounding the babies, clinically stable and from five to sixty days of age, strongly increased measures of heart rate variability (HRV) that indicated improved vagus nerve transmission.  The vagus nerve, extending from the brainstem into the abdomen, is the main nerve of the parasympathetic division of the ANS.  Its offshoots supply and regulate key organs, including the lungs, heart, and intestines.  HRV refers to beat-to-beat alterations in heart rate, and is influenced by the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS.

This is the first Earthing study conducted with babies.  You can read the study abstract here.

Earlier, a 2011 study demonstrated that grounding rapidly improves HRV among adults, and generates a shift from an overactive sympathetic mode, associated with acceleration and stress, into a parasympathetic (calmer) mode.

If you improve your HRV you can reduce the likelihood of stress-related disorders.

Twenty of the 26 babies involved in the new study were tested for HRV while grounded during testing periods over 20 to 40 minutes.  Improved HRV was consistently documented for all of them.  The improvement disappeared quickly when they were alternately disconnected from the Earth.  Grounding was achieved by adhering a grounding patch on the skin of the babies, while in their incubators or cribs, and connecting the patch wire to the hospital’s grounding system.

Among the babies tested, “grounding raised parasympathetic tone within minutes,” says Charles Palmer, MB.ChB., a specialist in neonatology, and co-investigator in the study. “We obviously need more research to further prove that grounding may enhance vagus nerve transmission and thereby improve stress and inflammatory regulatory mechanisms in preterm infants.”

Previously, Dr. Palmer and his research colleagues reported that decreased vagus nerve function is a “valuable marker of vulnerability to stress” in premature infants, including an indicator of risk for necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious intestinal disorder that affects about 5-10 percent of preemies.  The condition has an inflammatory component that could adversely affect critical cells protecting nerve tissue and thus possibly undermine development of the nervous system.

During the last fifteen years research has revealed that the vagus nerve plays a major role in the so-called “anti-inflammatory reflex,” a mechanism that controls basic immune responses and inflammation during pathogen invasion and tissue injury.  Among other things, the nerve’s actions help to inhibit excessive production of pro-inflammatory chemicals.

Previous grounding studies have led to a hypotheses that grounding reduces inflammation as a result of electrons from the Earth entering the body and neutralizing free radicals involved in chronic inflammation. The fact that grounding improves vagus tone in adults, and apparently also in infants, offers another mechanism as to how grounding reduces inflammation in the body.

The Penn State researchers also reported that grounding immediately and substantially reduced skin voltage induced on the babies from ambient electric fields radiating from surrounding medical and incubator equipment.  Such voltage may have a stress effect on premature babies.  In a 2005 published study and again in 2016, Earthing has been shown to significantly reduce induced voltage on the body.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a half-million American babies are born preterm annually, or 1 of every 8 infants.  Preterm means a baby is born prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy. Preterm-related causes of death account for about 35 percent of all infant deaths, and more than any other single cause, and is also a leading contributor to long-term neurological disabilities in children.

Electrical grounding technique may improve health outcomes of NICU babies

Rachel Rabkin Peachman

August 3, 2017

HERSHEY, Pa. — A technique called “electrical grounding” may moderate preterm infants’ electromagnetic exposure in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and improve their health outcomes, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers.

Equipment in the NICU produces low-frequency electromagnetic fields that can have subtle yet measurable effects on the autonomic nervous system, the system that regulates involuntary body functions. Preterm infants may be especially vulnerable to these effects.

Previous research in adults has shown that exposure to electromagnetic fields can affect the vagus nerve, a key component of the autonomic nervous system which regulates the body’s internal organs during rest. Previous research also has shown that electrical grounding, which reduces the electrical charge to the body, can improve the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and the vagus nerve, producing improved vagal tone.

Vagal tone, which is measured by analyzing heart rate variability between inhalation and exhalation, is a valuable indicator of health. An earlier study performed with colleagues at Penn State found that low vagal tone in preterm infants is a marker of vulnerability to stress and a risk factor for developing necrotizing enterocolitis, an intestinal disorder that can have severe consequences. Strengthening vagal tone may reduce inflammation, guard against the development of necrotizing enterocolitis and offer protection from a variety of other conditions that can affect preterm infants.

Additionally, a separate study involving preterm infants in the NICU revealed that when the incubator’s power was switched off, thereby eliminating the electromagnetic source, the vagal tone of the infants improved. But until this Penn State study, published in a recent issue of Neonatology, no other research had directly evaluated the effect of electrical grounding on vagal tone in preterm infants in the NICU.

To evaluate the connection between electrical grounding and vagal tone in preterm infants, the researchers conducted a prospective observational study that included a total of 26 preterm infants who were between six and 60 days old and in the NICU at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center between October 2012 and January 2014.

“Preterm babies in the NICU have a lot of health challenges due to the immaturity of their lungs, of their bowel and of all their organs, so we decided to look at how electrical grounding could help improve vagal tone and mitigate some of those challenges,” said Dr. Charles Palmer, professor of pediatrics and chief of newborn medicine at Penn State Children’s Hospital. “Anything we might do to improve the babies’ resilience would be good.”

After measuring the environmental electromagnetic levels in and around the incubators, the researchers electrically grounded the babies by connecting an electrode wire from the infants’ incubators or open cribs to the ground. Twenty of the 26 infants were measured for both skin voltage — the voltage measured between the patient’s skin and electrical ground — and heart rate variability — to assess vagal tone — before, during and after grounding. Six of the infants were measured only for skin voltage.

“When we looked at the signal on the skin, it was an oscillating signal going out at 60 hertz, which is exactly the frequency of our electrical power. When we connected the baby to the ground, the skin voltage dropped by about 95 percent and vagal tone increased by 67 percent,” Palmer said. After grounding, vagal tone returned to the pre-grounding level.

“What we can conclude is that a baby’s autonomic nervous system is able to sense the electrical environment and it seems as though a baby is more relaxed when grounded,” Palmer said. “When tied to our previous work, which found that vagal tone was an important risk factor for necrotizing enterocolitis, this new finding may offer an opportunity to protect babies even further.”

A limitation of this study is the sample size, and further research is needed, said Palmer.

“If more research confirms our results, it could mean, for example, redesigning incubators to ground babies and cancel out the electrical field,” he said.

Palmer also said that more study is needed to evaluate the long-term effects on preterm infants of exposure to low-frequency electromagnetic fields in the NICU.

Other researchers on this project were Dr. Rohit Passi, fellow in neonatal perinatal medicine and Dr. Kim K. Doheny, both at Penn State Children’s Hospital, Division of Newborn Medicine; Yuri Gordin, medical student, Penn State College of Medicine; and Hans Hinssen, Penn State Department of Clinical Engineering and College of Medicine.

This research study received no specific funding.

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