Should you be tested for inflammation?

A test tube with yellow top is filled with blood and has a blank label. It is lying sideways on top of other test tubes capped in different colors.

Let’s face it: inflammation has a bad reputation. Much of it is well-deserved. After all, long-term inflammation contributes to chronic illnesses and deaths. If you just relied on headlines for health information, you might think that stamping out inflammation would eliminate cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, and perhaps aging itself. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

Still, our understanding of how chronic inflammation can impair health has expanded dramatically in recent years. And with this understanding come three common questions: Could I have inflammation without knowing it? How can I find out if I do? Are there tests for inflammation? Indeed, there are.

Testing for inflammation

A number of well-established tests to detect inflammation are commonly used in medical care. But it’s important to note these tests can’t distinguish between acute inflammation, which might develop with a cold, pneumonia, or an injury, and the more damaging chronic inflammation that may accompany diabetes, obesity, or an autoimmune disease, among other conditions. Understanding the difference between acute and chronic inflammation is important.

These are four of the most common tests for inflammation:

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (sed rate or ESR). This test measures how fast red blood cells settle to the bottom of a vertical tube of blood. When inflammation is present the red blood cells fall faster, as higher amounts of proteins in the blood make those cells clump together. While ranges vary by lab, a normal result is typically 20 mm/hr or less, while a value over 100 mm/hr is quite high.
  • C-reactive protein (CRP). This protein made in the liver tends to rise when inflammation is present. A normal value is less than 3 mg/L. A value over 3 mg/L is often used to identify an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but bodywide inflammation can make CRP rise to 100 mg/L or more.
  • Ferritin. This is a blood protein that reflects the amount of iron stored in the body. It’s most often ordered to evaluate whether an anemic person is iron-deficient, in which case ferritin levels are low. Or, if there is too much iron in the body, ferritin levels may be high. But ferritin levels also rise when inflammation is present. Normal results vary by lab and tend to be a bit higher in men, but a typical normal range is 20 to 200 mcg/L.
  • Fibrinogen. While this protein is most commonly measured to evaluate the status of the blood clotting system, its levels tend to rise when inflammation is present. A normal fibrinogen level is 200 to 400 mg/dL.

Are tests for inflammation useful?

In certain situations, tests to measure inflammation can be quite helpful.

  • Diagnosing an inflammatory condition. One example of this is a rare condition called giant cell arteritis, in which the ESR is nearly always elevated. If symptoms such as new, severe headache and jaw pain suggest that a person may have this disease, an elevated ESR can increase the suspicion that the disease is present, while a normal ESR argues against this diagnosis.
  • Monitoring an inflammatory condition. When someone has rheumatoid arthritis, for example, ESR or CRP (or both tests) help determine how active the disease is and how well treatment is working.

None of these tests is perfect. Sometimes false negative results occur when inflammation actually is present. False positive results may occur when abnormal test results suggest inflammation even when none is present.

Should you be routinely tested for inflammation?

Currently, tests of inflammation are not a part of routine medical care for all adults, and expert guidelines do not recommend them.

CRP testing to assess cardiac risk is encouraged to help decide whether preventive treatment is appropriate for some people (such as those with a risk of a heart attack that is intermediate — that is, neither high nor low). However, evidence suggests that CRP testing adds relatively little to assessment using standard risk factors, such as a history of hypertension, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, and positive family history of heart disease.

So far, only one group I know of recommends routine testing for inflammation for all without a specific reason: companies selling inflammation tests directly to consumers.

Inflammation may be silent — so why not test?

It’s true that chronic inflammation may not cause specific symptoms. But looking for evidence of inflammation through a blood test without any sense of why it might be there is much less helpful than having routine healthcare that screens for common causes of silent inflammation, including

  • excess weight
  • diabetes
  • cardiovascular disease (including heart attacks and stroke)
  • hepatitis C and other chronic infections
  • autoimmune disease.

Standard medical evaluation for most of these conditions does not require testing for inflammation. And your medical team can recommend the right treatments if you do have one of these conditions.

The bottom line

Testing for inflammation has its place in medical evaluation and in monitoring certain health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. But it’s not clearly helpful as a routine test for everyone. A better approach is to adopt healthy habits and get routine medical care that can identify and treat the conditions that contribute to harmful inflammation.

About the Author

photo of Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School. … See Full Bio View all posts by Robert H. Shmerling, MD


A refresher on childhood asthma: What families should know and do

Child with dark hair and eyes wearing a blue and white striped top is learning how to use an asthma inhaler, which she holds near her mouth; blurry adult seen partially from the back

Asthma is the most common chronic lung disease in children. In the US, it affects about 6 million children, or about one in every 12 children.

Breathing is key to life, obviously, so asthma can make life very hard. It can make going for a walk outside feel very hard. It leads not just to visits with the doctor or to the emergency room, and to hospitalizations, but also to missed school, missed work for parents, missed events, and missed activities.

The good news is that asthma is very treatable. If parents, children, and doctors work together, a child with asthma can lead a healthy, normal life. Here’s what you need to know and do.

Know your child’s symptoms

Wheezing is definitely a symptom of asthma, but a dry persistent cough can be as well (for some children, this occurs mostly at night).

Watch for signs that a child is working harder to breathe. One sign is skin tugging inward between, on top of, or below the ribs. Difficulty talking in long sentences is another sign of this.

Some children with exercise-induced asthma avoid exercise; if your child is choosing to be less active, talk to them about why.

Know your child’s triggers

There are many different triggers for asthma, including:

  • Upper respiratory infections, like the common cold. COVID falls into this category, which is why children with asthma should be vaccinated against COVID.
  • Allergies, such as
    • outdoor allergens like pollen, which are often worse in the spring and fall
    • indoor allergens like dust mites or mold
    • pet dander.
  • Exercise. Some children will struggle with even mild exercise, while others only have trouble with vigorous exercise or exercising when there are other triggers too (like a cold or allergies).
  • Weather changes, especially to colder weather. Some children can be triggered by going into a cold, air-conditioned room.
  • Stress. Stress affects our bodies in multiple ways, and in some people it can trigger their asthma or make it worse.

Understand your child’s medications

Several kinds of medicines are used to treat asthma, including:

  • Bronchodilators. Examples are albuterol, levalbuterol, formoterol, or ipratropium. Known as “rescue medications,” these are inhaled and work by opening up the airways. They are given through metered-dose inhalers or a nebulizer machine. They are used when a person is experiencing symptoms.
  • Inhaled steroids. These work by decreasing inflammation in the lungs and making them less likely to react to triggers. They are “controller medications” given regularly to prevent symptoms.
  • Combined inhalers. These have both an inhaled steroid and a long-acting bronchodilator. They are very useful for patients with more difficult asthma. Sometimes they are used in SMART (Single Maintenance And Reliever Therapy), in which the same inhaler is used for both rescue and control.
  • Oral or injected steroids. These are generally used when someone has a bad asthma attack, but some people need to take them regularly to prevent attacks.
  • Allergy medications. Medicines like loratadine, cetirizine, or montelukast can be very helpful when there is an allergic component to asthma.

Some people with severe asthma need other treatments, such as allergy shots for severe allergies, or medications like dupilumab that work in the body to flight inflammation. This is far less common.

Use medication correctly

  • Sometimes medications and medication regimens can be confusing. That’s why everyone with asthma should have a written Asthma Action Plan that spells out exactly what they should do and when.
  • If your child uses an inhaler, make sure that they are doing it right! For most inhalers, it’s important to use a spacer, which is a tube that attaches to the inhaler and helps to ensure that the medication gets into the lungs and not just the mouth or surrounding air.
  • If you have any questions about anything your child is prescribed, call your doctor.

Meet with your doctor regularly

If your child’s asthma is anything more than very mild (a few mild attacks a year), you need to check in more frequently than at the yearly checkup. Extra check-ins give you a chance to talk to your doctor about how things are going — and give your doctor a chance to tweak your child’s regimen so that your child can live the healthiest, happiest life possible.

Which, after all, is totally the point.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

About the Author

photo of Claire McCarthy, MD

Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD


Struggling to sleep? Your heart may pay the price

Alarm clock on wood table shows 2:40 am; on dark blue background is crescent moon and fuzzy stars, concept is insomnia

Growing evidence suggests that poor sleep is linked to a host of health problems, including a higher risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Now, a recent study on people in midlife finds that having a combination of sleep problems — such as trouble falling asleep, waking up in the wee hours, or sleeping less than six hours a night — may nearly triple a person’s risk of heart disease.

"These new findings highlight the importance of getting sufficient sleep," says sleep specialist Dr. Lawrence Epstein, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Many things can contribute to a sleep shortfall, he adds. Some people simply don’t set aside enough time to sleep. Others have habits that disrupt or interfere with sleep. And some people have a medical condition or a sleep disorder that disrupts the quality or quantity of their sleep.

Who was in the study?

The researchers drew data from 7,483 adults in the Midlife in the United States Study who reported information about their sleep habits and heart disease history. A subset of the participants (663 people) also used a wrist-worn device that recorded their sleep activity (actigraphy). Slightly more than half of participants were women. Three-quarters reported their race as white and 16% as Black. The average age was 53.

Researchers chose to focus on people during midlife, because that’s when adults usually experience diverse and stressful life experiences in both their work and family life. It’s also when clogged heart arteries or atherosclerosis (an early sign of heart disease) and age-related sleep issues start to show up.

How did researchers assess sleep issues?

Sleep health was measured using a composite of multiple aspects of sleep, including

  • regularity (whether participants slept longer on work days versus nonwork days)
  • satisfaction (whether they had trouble falling asleep; woke up in the night or early morning and couldn’t get back to sleep; or felt sleepy during the day)
  • alertness (how often they napped for more than five minutes)
  • efficiency (how long it took them to fall asleep at bedtime)
  • duration (how many hours they typically slept each night).

To assess heart-related problems, researchers asked participants "Have you ever had heart trouble suspected or confirmed by a doctor?" and "Have you ever had a severe pain across the front of your chest lasting half an hour or more?"

A "yes" answer to either question prompted follow-up questions about the diagnosis, which included problems such as angina (chest pain due to lack of blood flow to the heart muscle), heart attack, heart valve disease, an irregular or fast heartbeat, and heart failure.

Poor sleep linked to higher heart risk

The researchers controlled for factors that might affect the results, including a family history of heart disease, smoking, physical activity, as well as sex and race. They found that each additional increase in self-reported sleep problems was linked to a 54% increased risk of heart disease compared to people with normal sleep patterns. However, the increase in risk was much higher — 141% — among people providing both self-reported and wrist-worn device actigraphy data, which together are considered more accurate.

Although women reported more sleep problems, men were more likely to suffer from heart disease. But overall, sex did not affect the correlations between sleep and heart health.

Black participants had more sleep and heart-related problems than white participants, but in general, the relationship between the two issues did not differ by race.

What does this mean for you?

If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, there are many ways to treat these common problems, from simple tweaks to your daily routine to specialized cognitive behavioral therapy that targets sleep issues. These are well worth trying, because getting a good night’s sleep helps in many ways.

"Treating sleep disorders that interfere with sleep can make you feel more alert during the day, improve your quality of life, and reduce the health risks related to poor sleep," says Dr. Epstein.

About the Author

photo of Julie Corliss

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Julie Corliss is the executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter. Before working at Harvard, she was a medical writer and editor at HealthNews, a consumer newsletter affiliated with The New England Journal of Medicine. She … See Full Bio View all posts by Julie Corliss


The plant milk shake-up: Pea and pistachio join oat and almond

A variety of plant-based milks in bottles against a gray background. Nuts, seeds, oats, coconut flakes in the shell, and green leaves also are shown.

For the longest time, your milk choices were whole, 2%, 1%, and fat-free (or skim). Today, refrigerator shelves at grocery stores are crowded with plant-based milks made from nuts, beans, or grains, and include favorites like almond, soy, coconut, cashew, oat, and rice. Yet the fertile ground of the plant-milk business continues to sprout new options, such as pistachio, pea, and even potato milk. It seems if you can grow it, you can make milk out of it.

So, are these new alternatives better nutritionally than the other plant milks — or just more of the same?

A few facts about plant-based milks

Plant-based milks are all made the same way: nuts, beans, or grains are ground into pulp, strained, and combined with water. You end up with only a small percentage of the actual plant — less than 10% for most brands. Nutrients like vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and protein are added in varying amounts. "Still, many alternative milks have similar amounts of these nutrients compared with cow’s milk," says Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Plant-based milks are considered "greener" than dairy and emit fewer greenhouse gases during production. However, growing some of these plants and making them into milk requires great quantities of water. Most plant-based milks are low-calorie. On average, though, these milk products cost more than dairy.

Nutrition, calories, and other benefits of newer plant-based milks

Here’s a closer look at three new members of the alternative-milk family.

  • Pistachio milk is not green like the nut, but rather an off-brown color. Because it contains little actual pistachio, you miss out on the nuts' essential vitamins and minerals, like thiamin, manganese, and vitamin B6. Yet pistachio milk contains less than 100 calories per cup, which is similar to skim cow’s milk and other plant-based milks. One extra benefit of pistachio milk is that it's a bit higher in protein than other plant milks (which can be light in the protein department compared with cow’s milk).
  • Pea milk is created from yellow field peas, but has no "pea-like" flavor. Its color, taste, and creamy consistency are close to dairy, so people may find it more appealing than the sometimes-watery texture of other plant milks. Pea milk has a decent protein punch — at least 7 grams per serving — and each serving adds up to about 100 calories. It also requires less water in production than other plant milks, and has a smaller carbon footprint than dairy.
  • Potato milk looks more like regular dairy milk than other plant milks because of the potato's starchy nature. It’s arguably the most eco-conscious plant milk, because growing potatoes requires less land and water than dairy and other plants. Potato milk also is low-calorie: 80 to 100 per serving.

What’s the best plant-based milk for you?

There doesn’t appear to be a huge difference between most plant milks. Ultimately, three issues drive your choice: digestion issues, environmental impact, and personal taste.

Digestion issues. Plant-based milks are a quality alternative for people with lactose intolerance or lactose sensitivity whose bodies can't break down and digest lactose, the sugar in milk. This causes digestive problems like diarrhea, gas, and bloating. (However, lactose-free and ultra-filtered dairy milk are available for those who prefer dairy.)

Environmental impact. One study in Science found that dairy milk production creates almost three times more greenhouse gas than plant-based milk. However, some plant milks, predominantly almond, demand much water to produce. (Some research suggests the water demands of almond milk are about equal to cow’s milk, according to Dr. Willet.)

Still, if you want to do your part to fight climate change, buying plant-based instead of dairy is the greener choice.

Personal taste. Plant-based milks can be an acquired taste, but with multiple choices, there is a good chance you can find one that satisfies your taste buds. Manufacturers try to overcome the taste dilemma by pouring in extra sugar, sweeteners like vanilla and chocolate, and other additives. So always check the total and added sugar amounts and keep the amount per serving below 10%. Of course, the lower the amount, the better.

About the Author

photo of Matthew Solan

Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Matthew Solan is the executive editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. He previously served as executive editor for UCLA Health’s Healthy Years and as a contributor to Duke Medicine’s Health News and Weill Cornell Medical College’s … See Full Bio View all posts by Matthew Solan


Gun violence: A long-lasting toll on children and teens

A classroom with several rows of empty desks and chairs in front of large-multipaned windows

In the aftermath of the killing of 19 children and two adults in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, there is a lot of discussion — and argument — about what we should do to prevent shootings like this from happening.

In the midst of all the back and forth between banning guns and arming teachers, there is an important question that cannot be lost: what does it do to a generation of children to grow up knowing that there is nowhere they are safe?

There is increasing research that growing up amidst violence, poverty, abuse, chronic stress, or even chronic unpredictability affects the brains and bodies of children in ways that can be permanent. These adverse childhood experiences put the body on high alert, engaging the flight-or-fight responses of the body in an ongoing way. This increases the risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, but it does so much more: the stress on the body increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, chronic disease, chronic pain, and even shortens the lifespan. The stress on the brain can literally change how it is formed and wired.

Long-term effects on a generation

Think for a moment about what this could mean: an entire generation could be forever damaged in ways we cannot change. The ramifications, not just for their well-being but for future generations and our work force and health care system, are staggering: stress like this can be passed on, and affects parenting.

As we talk about arming teachers and increasing armed police at schools, it is important to remember that research shows that the more guns, the higher the risk of homicide. It’s also important to remember that many children die every year from unintentional shootings in the home. In fact, guns have overtaken motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death in children. The idea of “arming the good guys” is an understandable response to horrible events like Uvalde, Parkland, and Sandy Hook, but the data would suggest that it may not be the most successful one. Violence begets violence, and guns aren’t reliably used the way we want them to be.

It’s not just guns, of course. There are other stressors, like poverty, community violence, child abuse, racism and all the other forms of intolerance, and lack of access to health care and mental health care. The pandemic has likely forever altered this generation in ways we cannot change, too.

The communities our children are growing up in and the world they are growing up in are increasingly becoming scary places. If we care about our children, if we care about our future, we need to stop fighting among ourselves and come together to create solutions that support the health and well-being of children, families, and communities. We need to nurture our children, not terrify them.

About the Author

photo of Claire McCarthy, MD

Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD


Can music improve our health and quality of life?

Music boosts our mood and well-being, and music therapy may help during treatments for certain health conditions.

photo of a music therapy session: senior woman is playing piano and a young man is sitting on the bench next to her

Times are hard. The current political climate, war, impact of global warming, continued inequities due to systemic racism, and ongoing physical and mental health challenges from COVID are taking a toll on our feelings of safety in the world and quality of life. Hopefully, each of us can find moments of ease and temporarily shift our thoughts away from the difficult daily news. For many people, music can play a role in making that shift, even incrementally.

How can music impact our quality of life?

Recently, researchers looked at the impact of music interventions on health-related quality of life, and tried to answer the question about the best way to help make that shift toward release, relaxation, and rehabilitation. This recent systematic review and meta-analysis (a study of studies) showed that the use of music interventions (listening to music, singing, and music therapy) can create significant improvements in mental health, and smaller improvements in physical health–related quality of life. While the researchers found a positive impact on the psychological quality of life, they found no one best intervention or “dose” of music that works best for all people.

Complexities of music

As complex human beings from a wide variety of cultures, with a variety of life experiences and mental and physical health needs, our connection with music is very personal. Our relationship with music can be a very beautiful, vulnerable, and often complicated dance that shifts from moment to moment based on our mood, preferences, social situation, and previous experiences. There are times where music can have a clear and immediate impact on our well-being:

  • easing a transition to sleep with a soothing playlist
  • finding motivation for exercise by listening to upbeat dance music
  • aiding self-expression of emotions by singing
  • connecting to others by attending a live musical performance.

There are other times when a board-certified music therapist can help you build that connection to music, and find the best intervention and “dose” that could positively impact your health and provide a form of healing.

How can music be used as a therapeutic tool?

Music therapy is an established health care profession that uses evidence-based music interventions to address therapeutic health care goals. Music therapy happens between a patient (and possibly their caregivers and/or family) and a board-certified music therapist who has completed an accredited undergraduate or graduate music therapy program.

Music therapists use both active (singing, instrument exploration, songwriting, movement, digital music creation, and more) and receptive (music listening, guided imagery with music, playlist creation, or music conversation and reminiscence) interventions, and create goals to improve health and well-being.

Some of those goals could include decreasing anxiety, shifting your mood, decreasing pain perception during cancer or other medical treatment, increasing expression, finding motivation, and many others. The approach to using music to achieve these kinds of goals — and to improving your quality of life in general — can shift from moment to moment, and a music therapist can help you find what works best for a particular situation.

My top music therapy tools


This intervention has been studied the most, in almost every scenario. It can be done either on your own or in music therapy. The music can be live or recorded. Listening can be done with intentional focus or as background listening. You can amplify emotions for release. You can use music to quiet the mind. Or you can utilize the “iso principle” and match music to your current energy or mood, and then slowly change feel, tempo, and complexity to help you shift. Music listening can be paired with prompts for relaxation, or to motivate you to exercise, move more, or do a task you’ve been putting off.

Learning or playing an Instrument

Active music-making truly engages your entire brain. This creates the most potential for distraction, pain reduction, cognition, fine and gross motor development, and expression. Some instruments are designed for easier access to free expression or learning.

A steel tongue drum, for example, set up in a pentatonic scale, has a beautiful resonant sound, has no “wrong notes,” and by design allows you to just play! If you want to engage your cognitive brain a bit, try learning the ukulele. The strings are easy to push, beginner chords only need one or two fingers, and there are many great ukulele resources online. Making music with an instrument can be fun and easy.

A board-certified music therapist can help you find the most direct and success-based path to musical expression. Learning how to really master an instrument and read music takes time, patience, and practice.


This can be an amazing intervention if you have a good connection to your voice and/or have a good music therapy relationship where the therapist can help you build your connection to your instrument. There are physical benefits of singing on lung function and emotional benefits of singing lyrics that speak your truth. Finally, there is the community connection and power of being surround by strong, tight harmonies.

The bottom line

Although there is not one best intervention, magical song, or perfect genre to make all the hard things in life easier, music can be a powerful agent of change.

Need some extra help finding the best music tools for you? Here are some resources for exploring music therapy and finding certified therapists.

American Music Therapy Association
Certified Board of Music Therapists
American Psychological Association: Music as Medicine

About the Author

photo of Lorrie Kubicek, MT-BC

Lorrie Kubicek, MT-BC, Contributor

Lorrie Kubicek is a board-certified music therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital, co-director of The Katherine A. Gallagher Integrative Therapies Program, and program manager of expressive therapies at MGH Cancer Center and Mass General Hospital for Children. … See Full Bio View all posts by Lorrie Kubicek, MT-BC


Waist trainers: What happens when you uncinch?

Yellow measuring tape showing black numbers "32" and "37," partial numbers, and fraction of inch markings

You may have noticed nipped-in, hourglass waists among women wearing the celebrity trend du jour: so-called waist trainers. This tummy-tucking shapewear evokes images of buttoned-up corsets and too-tight girdles from a dim past. But does it live up to the hype?

Splashy advertisements suggest these compression devices can help you selectively sculpt inches off your waistline by wearing them during workouts or as part of everyday routines. But the claims largely don’t live up to the evidence, says Michael Clem, a physical therapist with Spaulding Rehabilitation Network.

“People want the quick fix,” Clem says. “Putting something around our waist seems easy — we do it every day with pants and belts. What’s one more thing? Diet and exercise take longer and require more dramatic habit changes. We all know what we need to do, we just don’t want to do it.”

Debunking the hourglass hype

Clem debunks four common claims made about waist trainers — and points out one case where they may prove useful.

  • Spot-reduce fat: Compressing fat with a waist trainer and expecting it to stay put once you uncinch the shapewear is a faulty concept. “Fat is a systemic deposit,” Clem says. “Putting something around your waist can’t help you burn the fat in just that place.”
  • Sweat away the inches: Similarly, perspiring more profusely in one body area — in this case, under your waist trainer — will not melt fat there. “Sweat is a mechanism for cooling the body. We expend calories when we sweat but we can’t say those calories are going to come from the area we sweat from,” Clem notes.
  • Eat less due to belly compression: While orthopedic braces or compression sleeves can heighten awareness of a body part, leading wearers to act differently, the same probably can’t be said of a thick band around the belly. Our awareness of internal organs isn’t as strong, Clem says. And while waist trainers apply pressure to the abdomen, they probably wouldn’t alter the body’s feeling of being full.
  • Build a stronger core: Wearing a waist trainer might help if a doctor recommends temporary use after certain surgeries — such as while someone is rebuilding core muscles after a cesarean section, hernia surgery, or appendectomy — by offering tangible “feedback” on abdominal muscle use as a person recovers. “But there are much better ways to teach someone to feel their core,” says Clem, including working with a physical therapist on posture and breathing.

In most cases, there’s probably no harm in trying one of the shape-shifting devices, although anyone who is pregnant should not use them. And if you have any health issues, it’s best to talk to your doctor about whether compressing your core could have any negative effects, including not being able to breathe deeply and comfortably.

Want to shape your waist? Try core strengthening exercises

Listed from least to most challenging, here are three great exercises to strengthen core muscles that help define the waist. Start with one set and work up, paying attention to your form.


photo of a person performing the bridge exercise, showing the starting position

photo of a person performing the bridge exercise, showing the movement

photo of a person performing the bridge exercise, showing how to make it harder

Reps: 10
Sets: 1–3
Tempo: 3–1–3
Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Place your arms at your sides. Relax your shoulders against the floor.

Movement: Tighten your buttocks, then lift your hips up off the floor until they form a straight line with your knees and shoulders. Hold. Return to the starting position.

Tips and techniques:

  • Tighten your buttocks before lifting.
  • Keep your shoulders, hips, knees, and feet evenly aligned.
  • Keep your shoulders down and relaxed into the floor.

Opposite arm and leg raise

photo of a person performing the opposite arm and leg rais exercise, showing the starting position

photo of a person performing the opposite arm and leg raise exercise, showing the movement

photo of a person performing the opposite arm and leg raise exercise, showing how to make it harder

Reps: 10
Sets: 1–3
Tempo: 3–1–3
Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Kneel on all fours with your hands and knees directly aligned under your shoulders and hips. Keep your head and spine neutral.

Movement: Extend your left leg off the floor behind you while reaching out in front of you with your right arm. Keeping your hips and shoulders squared, try to bring that leg and arm parallel to the floor. Hold. Return to the starting position, then repeat with your right leg and left arm. This is one rep.

Tips and techniques:

  • Keep your shoulders and hips squared to maintain alignment throughout.
  • Keep your head and spine neutral.
  • Think of pulling your hand and leg in opposite directions, lengthening your torso.

Stationary Lunge

photo of a person performing the stationary lunge exercise, showing the starting position  photo of a person performing the stationary lunge exercise, showing the movement

Reps: 8-12 on each side
Sets: 1-3
Tempo: 3-1-3
Rest: 30-90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your right foot one to two feet in front of your left foot, hands on your hips. Shift your weight forward and lift your left heel off the floor.

Movement: Bend your knees and lower your torso straight down until your right thigh is about parallel to the floor. Hold, then return to starting position. Finish all reps, then repeat with your left foot forward. This completes one set.

Tips and techniques:

  • Keep your front knee directly over your ankle.
  • In the lunge position, shoulder, hip, and rear knee should be aligned. Don’t lean forward or back.
  • Keep your spine neutral and your shoulders down and back.

About the Author

photo of Maureen Salamon

Maureen Salamon, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Maureen Salamon is executive editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and later covered health and medicine for a wide variety of websites, magazines, and hospitals. Her work has … See Full Bio View all posts by Maureen Salamon


Should you try intermittent fasting for weight loss?

When trying intermittent fasting, both the quantity and quality of what you eat during your eating window matter.

photo of a plate with an alarm clock on it, silverware wrapped in a measuring tape, and a few salad green leaves; next to the plate is a pair of yellow hand weights

Intermittent fasting is a trendy topic that arises repeatedly in my clinic these days. I get it: restrict the time period when you eat, but within that time window eat as you normally would. No calorie counting. No food restrictions. Simple and flexible. In an on-the-go world, intermittent fasting has come into vogue as a potential pathway toward sustainable weight loss.

What is Intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting (IF) has become a catch-all term for one of the key levers in our dietary pattern: timing. More accurately, intermittent fasting refers to an eating schedule that is designed to expand the amount of time your body experiences a fasted state. You achieve this by reducing the so-called eating window. The most popular time-restricted eating protocols (typically based on study designs) are explained in these previously published articles:

  • Time to try intermittent fasting?
  • Intermittent fasting: The positive news continues
  • Not so fast: Pros and cons of the newest diet trend

How might time-restricted eating help with weight loss?

To start, consider a fed state that promotes cellular growth versus a fasted state that stimulates cellular breakdown and repair. Both can be beneficial or harmful, depending on the context (consider how cellular growth builds lean muscle mass and also spawns cancer). Many of our genes, particularly those that regulate our metabolism (how we digest and utilize the energy from food), are turned on and off each day in accordance with our innate circadian rhythms (our sleep/wake cycle).

We transition from a fed to an early fasted state several hours — five to six, on average — after our last meal. This often aligns with the time when the sun has set, our metabolism slows, and we sleep. However, in our modern environment with artificial lights, 24-hour convenience stores, and DoorDash, we are persistently primed to eat. Rather than obeying our circadian cues, we are eating at all times of day.

Plenty of research, mainly in animal models but also some human trials, indicates that your body experiences numerous benefits from being in a fasted state, given its impact on cellular processes and function. In a fully fasted state, your metabolism switches its primary source of fuel from glucose to ketones, which triggers a host of cellular signaling to dampen cellular growth pathways and increase cellular repair and recycling mechanisms. Repeated exposure to a fasted state induces cellular adaptations that include increased insulin sensitivity, antioxidant defenses, and mitochondrial function.

Given how much of chronic disease is driven by underlying insulin resistance and inflammation, it’s plausible that fasting may help reduce diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and obesity. And multiple short-term clinical studies provide evidence that intermittent fasting — specifically, time-restricted feeding — can improve markers of cardiometabolic health.

Is intermittent fasting a reliable strategy to achieve weight loss?

To date, the answer has remained murky due to the quality of the evidence, which often involves very small sample sizes, short intervention periods, varied study designs (often lacking control groups), different fasting protocols, and participants of varying shapes and sizes. The data on intermittent fasting and its impact on weight loss largely involves studies that employ the time-restricted eating methodology of intermittent fasting. A recent compilation of the evidence suggests that limiting your eating window might indeed help you shed a few pounds.

New research on IF as a tool for weight loss

To tease out the independent impact of time restriction on weight loss, we need to evaluate a calorie-restricted diet combined with time-restricted eating, compared to time-restricted eating alone. The recent results of a yearlong study assessed this exact question: does time-restricted eating with calorie restriction produce greater effects on weight loss and metabolic risk factors in obese patients, as compared with daily calorie restriction alone?

To answer this question, the trial involved people ages 18 to 75 with BMIs between 28 and 45, notably excluding those who were actively participating in a weight-loss program or using medications that affect weight or calorie intake. Participants were instructed to follow a 25% calorie-reduced diet (1,500 to 1,800 calories per day for men and 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day for women) with a set ratio of calories from protein, carbs, and fats. In order to confirm adherence to the diet (a notorious challenge in diet studies), participants were encouraged to weigh foods and were required to keep a daily dietary log, photograph the food they ate, and note the times at which they ate with the use of a custom mobile app.

Half of the participants (those in the time-restricted eating group) were instructed to consume the prescribed calories within an eight-hour period, whereas the other half in the daily-calorie-restriction group consumed the prescribed calories without time restriction. All participants were also instructed to maintain their usual daily physical activity throughout the trial, to remove this variable and to isolate the timing of food intake as the only difference between the two groups.

After a full year, 118 patients successfully completed the study, with similar rates of adherence to the diet and composition of the diet between the two groups. Both groups lost a significant amount of weight: an average of about 18 pounds for the time-restricted eating group and 14 pounds for the daily-calorie-restriction group. The difference in weight loss between the two groups was not statistically significant, nor was there a significant difference in weight loss among subgroups when sorted by sex, BMI at baseline, or insulin sensitivity. The resulting improvements in blood pressure, lipids, glucose, and cardiometabolic risk factors were also similar between the two groups. This trial provides strong evidence that, all else being equal, restricting the eating window alone does not have a substantive impact on weight loss.

What does the new research on IF mean for you?

For most people (with notable exclusions of those who have diabetes, eating disorders, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or require food with their meds), a time-restricted eating approach appears to be a safe strategy that is likely to produce some weight loss, assuming you are not changing your current dietary pattern (eating more calories).

The weight loss effects of time-restricted eating derive primarily from achieving a negative energy balance. If you maintain your regular diet and then limit the time window during which you eat, it is likely that you will eat a few hundred fewer calories per day. If this is sustainable as a lifestyle, it could add up to modest weight loss (3% to 8% on average, based on current data) that can produce beneficial improvements in cardiometabolic markers such as blood pressure, LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and average blood sugar.

But — and this is a big but — if you are overcompensating for the time restriction by gorging yourself during your eating window, it will not work as a weight loss strategy. And it may indeed backfire. The other two levers in your dietary pattern — the quantity and quality of what you eat during your eating window — still matter immensely!

One downside of IF: Loss of lean muscle mass

While weight loss for cardiometabolic health is a sensible goal, weight loss from any intervention (including intermittent fasting) often entails a concurrent loss of lean muscle mass. This has been a notable finding — what I might even call an adverse side effect — of intermittent fasting protocols. Given the importance of lean muscle mass for revving your metabolic rate, regulating your blood sugar, and keeping you physically able overall, pairing resistance training with an intermittent fasting protocol is strongly advised.

Finally, the weight loss achieved through time-restricted eating (which we often refer to interchangeably with intermittent fasting) is likely different than the cellular adaptations that happen with more prolonged fully fasted states. At this time, it is hard to determine the degree to which the cardiometabolic benefits of fasting derive from weight loss or from underlying cellular adaptations; it is likely an interrelated combination of both.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that in a 24/7 world of around-the-clock eating opportunities, all of us could benefit from aligning with our circadian biology, and spend a bit less time in a fed state and more time in a fasted state each day.

About the Author

photo of Richard Joseph, MD

Richard Joseph, MD, Contributor

Dr. Richard Joseph is the founder of VIM Medicine, cofounder of Vital CxNs, a practicing clinician in the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, and a faculty member at Harvard … See Full Bio View all posts by Richard Joseph, MD


Can a vegan diet treat rheumatoid arthritis?

A brightly colored selection of plant-based vegan foods, including vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts, seeds, and vegan dips.

I recently learned about a study suggesting a vegan diet is an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.

While that sounded intriguing, another claim made in an interview about the study really caught my attention: the lead author of the study said that physicians should encourage people with rheumatoid arthritis to try changing their eating patterns before turning to medication.

Before turning to medication? Now wait just a minute. That flies in the face of decades of research convincingly demonstrating the importance of early medication treatment of rheumatoid arthritis to prevent permanent joint damage. An increasing number of effective treatments can do just that.

In fact, there’s no convincing evidence that changes in diet can prevent joint damage in rheumatoid arthritis. And that includes this new study.

So, what did this research find? Let’s take a look.

A vegan diet for rheumatoid arthritis

Researchers enrolled 44 people with rheumatoid arthritis in the study. All were women, mostly white and highly educated. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups for 16 weeks:

  • Vegan diet. Participants followed a vegan diet for four weeks, followed by additional food restrictions that eliminated foods the researchers considered to be common arthritis trigger foods. These foods included gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley, and rye), white potatoes, sweet potatoes, chocolate, citrus fruits, nuts, onions, tomatoes, apples, bananas, coffee, alcohol, and table sugar. After week seven, these foods were reintroduced, one at a time. Any reintroduced food that seemed to cause pain or other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis was eliminated for the rest of the 16-week period.
  • Usual diet plus placebo. These participants followed their usual diet and took a placebo capsule each day for 16 weeks. The capsule contained insignificant doses of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E.

After the first 16 weeks, participants took four weeks off, then the groups swapped dietary assignments for an additional 16 weeks.

What did the study find about the vegan diet?

The vegan approach seemed to help lessen arthritis symptoms. Study participants reported improvement while on the vegan diet, but no improvement during the placebo phase.

For example, the average number of swollen joints fell from 7 to 3.3 in the vegan diet group, but actually increased (from 4.7 to 5) in the placebo group. In addition, while on the vegan diet, participants lost an average of 14 pounds, while those on the placebo gained nearly 2 pounds.

What else do we need to consider?

While the findings sound great, the study had significant limitations:

  • Size. Only 44 study subjects enrolled and only 32 completed the study. With such small numbers, it only takes a few to alter the results. Larger studies (with several hundred or more participants) tend to be more reliable.
  • Lack of diversity. This trial did not include men and had mostly white, highly educated participants.
  • No standard diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. A physician’s diagnosis was required, but there was no requirement that standard criteria be met.
  • Study duration. A treatment lasting four months may seem like a long time, but for a chronic disease like rheumatoid arthritis that can wax and wane on its own, this is too short a time to make firm conclusions.
  • Self-reported diet. We don’t know how well study subjects stuck to their assigned diets.
  • Medication use. Study subjects took arthritis medications, though no information on specific drugs is offered. Some made dosage adjustments during the trial. While the researchers tried to account for this through a separate analysis, the small number of participants could make that analysis unreliable.
  • Weight loss. Losing weight, rather than eating a vegan diet, might have contributed to symptom improvement.
  • No assessment of joint damage. No x-rays, MRI results, or other assessments of joint damage were provided. That’s important, because we know that people with arthritis can feel better even when joint damage continues to worsen. Steroids and ibuprofen are good examples of treatments that reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis without protecting the joints. Without information about joint damage, it’s impossible to assess the true benefit or risk of relying on a vegan diet to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Finally, it’s unclear how a vegan diet would improve rheumatoid arthritis. This raises the possibility that the findings won’t hold up.

Should everyone with rheumatoid arthritis become vegan?

No, there isn’t enough evidence to justify recommending a vegan diet — or any restrictive diet — for everyone with rheumatoid arthritis.

That said, a plant-rich diet is healthy for nearly everyone. As long your diet is nutritionally balanced and palatable to you, I see little harm in adopting an anti-inflammatory diet. But in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, diet should be combined with medicationto prevent joint damage, not used instead of it.

The bottom line

Growing evidence suggests diet can play a role in treating rheumatoid arthritis. But it’s one thing for a person to feel better on a particular diet; it’s quite another to say diet is enough by itself.

For high cholesterol or high blood pressure, dietary changes are the first choice of treatment. But rheumatoid arthritis is different. Disabling joint damage can occur early in the disease, so it’s important to start taking effective medications as soon as possible to prevent this.

We will undoubtedly see more research exploring the impact of diet on rheumatoid arthritis, other forms of arthritis, and other autoimmune disorders. Perhaps we’ll learn that a vegan diet is highly effective and can take the place of medications in some people. But we aren’t there yet.

About the Author

photo of Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School. … See Full Bio View all posts by Robert H. Shmerling, MD


An emerging treatment option for men on active surveillance

tightly cropped photo of a sheet of paper showing prostate cancer test results with a blood sample tube, stethoscope, and a pen all resting on top of it

Active surveillance for prostate cancer has its tradeoffs. Available to men with low- and intermediate-risk prostate cancer, the process entails monitoring a man’s tumor with periodic biopsies and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests, and treating only when — or if — the disease shows signs of progression.

Active surveillance allows men to avoid (at least for a while) the side effects of invasive therapies such as surgery or radiation, but men often feel anxious wondering about the state of their cancer as they spend more time untreated. Is there a middle path between not treating the cancer at all and aggressive therapies that might have lasting side effects? Emerging evidence suggests the answer might be yes.

During a newly-published phase 2 clinical trial, researchers evaluated whether a drug called enzalutamide might delay cancer progression among men on active surveillance. Enzalutamide interferes with testosterone, a hormone that drives prostate tumors to grow and spread. Unlike other therapies that block synthesis of the hormone, enzalutamide prevents testosterone from interacting with its cellular receptor.

A total of 227 men were enrolled in the study. The investigators randomized half of them to a year of daily enzalutamide treatment plus active surveillance, and the other half to active surveillance only. After approximately two years of follow-up, the investigators compared findings from the two groups.

The results showed benefits from enzalutamide treatment. Specifically, tumor biopsies revealed evidence of cancer progression in 32 of the treated men, compared to 42 men who did not get the drug. The odds of finding no cancer in at least some biopsy samples were 3.5 times higher in the enzalutamide-treated men. And it took six months longer for PSA levels to rise (suggesting the cancer is growing) in the treated men, compared to men who stayed on active surveillance only.

Enzalutamide was generally well tolerated. The most common side effects were fatigue and breast enlargement, both of which are reversible when men go off treatment.

In an accompanying editorial, Susan Halabi, a statistician who specializes in prostate cancer at Duke University, described the data as encouraging. But Halabi also sounded a cautionary note. Importantly, differences between the two groups were evident only during the first year of follow-up. By the end of the second year, signs of progression in the treated and untreated groups “tended to be very similar,” she wrote, suggesting that enzalutamide is beneficial only for as long as men stay on the drug. Longer studies lasting a decade or more, Halabi added, may be necessary to determine if early enzalutamide therapy changes the course of the disease, such that the need for more invasive treatments among some men can be delayed or prevented.

Dr. Marc Garnick, the Gorman Brothers Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, editor of the Harvard Health Publishing Annual Report on Prostate Diseases, and editor in chief of, said the study points to a new way of approaching active surveillance, either with enzalutamide or perhaps other drugs. “An option that further decreases the likelihood that men on active surveillance will need radiation or surgery is important to consider,” he says. “This was a pilot study, and now we need longer-term research.”

About the Author

photo of Charlie Schmidt

Charlie Schmidt, Editor, Harvard Medical School Annual Report on Prostate Diseases

Charlie Schmidt is an award-winning freelance science writer based in Portland, Maine. In addition to writing for Harvard Health Publishing, Charlie has written for Science magazine, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Environmental Health Perspectives, … See Full Bio View all posts by Charlie Schmidt