Heart-Wise: Red Yeast Rice Lowers Cholesterol

There has been some controversy among the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, pharmaceutical companies and supplement manufacturers regarding a supplement that is cheaper, safer and more effective than statins to remedy heart conditions – red yeast rice. It has fluctuated on and off (and now on) the market as a cholesterol-lowering natural supplement.


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When it comes to natural solutions to lower cholesterol, it is good to know about all the options. Red yeast rice is one worth considering.

About the Controversy

In 1998, the FDA yanked red yeast rice, or monascus purpureus, from supplement shelves because it contains a natural form of lovastatin, the same active ingredient in the patented drug Mevacor. The issue was supposedly one of safety, with prescription statin manufacturers claiming that red yeast rice was an unapproved drug rather than a dietary supplement.

Experts contend that red yeast rice can naturally lower cholesterol levels in the body with fewer side effects and at a considerably lower cost than prescription statins. However, the FDA didn’t see it that way and got onboard with the drug companies.

Only the FDA knows for sure if red yeast rice was taken off the market because of the health risk or because of pharmaceutical company pressures – or both. Although the FDA removed it from the market apparently to protect the public, critics claim that it really was the pharmaceutical industry that was being protected from competition from a safer and less-expensive product.

In 1999, a federal judge lifted the ban on red yeast rice products, and today they are available at quality health-food stores.

Asia’s Natural Cholesterol Buster

Red yeast rice is made simply by fermenting red yeast on rice. It is commonly consumed as part of the traditional cuisine in China as well as other Asian countries, where people have long believed that it strengthens the heart and circulatory system. Used as a natural food flavoring and coloring agent, it is the ingredient that gives Peking duck its deep red color.

A study at UCLA School of Medicine confirmed red yeast rice’s natural cholesterol-busting abilities. In a rigorous double-blind, randomized trial, this supplement significantly reduced total cholesterol compared with a placebo. Among 83 people who took red yeast for 12 weeks, total cholesterol dropped by an average of 16% (from approximately 250 to 210), and cholesterol remained at about 250 in the 41 people who were given a placebo. There also was a positive impact on LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

A Safer Alternative

Red yeast rice is a good alternative for people who need mild to moderate cholesterol control, but don’t want to take statin drugs. It contains a wide array of cholesterol-lowering compounds, including lovastatin, but all in tiny amounts. This can make it safer than statin drugs and their array of potentially serious side effects, such as liver problems, muscle damage, joint pain, abdominal discomfort and even cognitive or memory problems.

Exercise Caution

Although the amount of lovastatin in red yeast rice is small, it still requires monitoring. You shouldn’t take red yeast rice without telling your doctor, and while taking it, be sure to get checked regularly for liver or muscle problems. Red yeast rice is available in different dosages. The usual recommendation is 1,200 mg a day, divided into two doses, and you shouldn’t take more than 2,400 mg daily. To reduce the risk for digestive disturbance, it’s recommended that you take it with food.

The informative Physicians’ Desk Reference recommends that you don’t take red yeast rice if you already take prescription cholesterol-lowering drugs; if you have liver disease; if you are pregnant or breast-feeding; or if you have a serious infection or after major surgery. If you develop any muscle pain, tenderness or twitching, stop using it and consult your doctor.

There are many other natural supplements helpful for high cholesterol, including plant sterols, inositol hexaniacinate, fiber, policosanol, guggulipid, soy and garlic.

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