I have a friend who recently had blood work done as part of an annual physical. It came back with slightly elevated LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. My friend’s doctor told him it was nothing much to worry about and that she wouldn’t put him on statins (a class of drugs for lowering cholesterol that I’ve excoriated frequently). But, she said, he could take an over-the-counter red yeast rice supplement with “natural statins” that would lower his LDL level if he wanted. The doctor had seen studies in her medical journals that showed that red yeast rice, combined with healthy lifestyle changes, is as effective at reducing cholesterol as the statin drug Zocor.
Red yeast rice has been part of Chinese medicine for centuries. It comes from a fungus that grows on rice and it contains the compounds from which statins were originally derived. In fact, one compound, monocolin K, (known commercially as lovastatin) is a natural form of statin. Its name comes from the red color of the fungus that grows on the rice.
The research does seem to support the effectiveness of red yeast rice. For example, in 2008, NPR (National Public Radio) reported on the study mentioned above. Led by cardiologist David Becker, it showed that among 70 patients, half of whom took 40 mg per day of Zocor and half of whom who took red yeast rice supplements, the results were indistinguishable at the end of 12 weeks. Both treatments resulted in an average LDL decrease of about 40 percent.
Another study conducted in 2009 by Dr. Becker and his colleague, Dr. Ram Gordon, showed that people who took red yeast rice showed a greater reduction in LDL levels than people taking a placebo. In a WebMD report on the study, researchers said that patients who took red yeast rice supplements showed slightly more than double the reduction in LDL levels as compared to the group who took a placebo — 35 mg/dl for the former as compared to 15 mg/dl for the latter.
Even the National Institutes of Health MedLinePlus website gives red yeast rice an “A” grade at reducing high cholesterol. But, it also lists the following caveat: “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements. There is no guarantee of strength, purity or safety of products, and effects may vary.”
That concern was echoed by the authors of the studies cited. They argue that since the FDA does not regulate supplements the same way it does over-the-counter and prescription drugs, there’s no guarantee of the quality and quantity of the dosage that you get. The implied message, of course, is that FDA-approved statin drugs beat the pants off of red yeast rice, but certainly, the facts don’t support that claim. Nevertheless, Tod Cooperman, President of Consumerlabs.com, which studied ten brands of red yeast rice, said, “We found a 100-fold difference” in concentrations of the major ingredient, lovastatin form brand to brand. One brand contained more than 10 milligrams of lovastatin compared to less than 0.1 mg in another. Plus, according to Dr. Gordon, another study of 12 brands found that four contained citrinin, a toxin harmful to the kidneys. He did not mention that pharmaceutical statin drugs have been shown to cause severe memory loss, nerve damage, muscle tissue and bone damage, trouble talking, nausea, vertigo, and a fifty percent increased risk of cancer. Now those are consistent, quality results!
Still, my friend wanted to know if he should take red yeast rice supplements. I had to tell him that you can’t get the correct answer when you ask the wrong question. The real question isn’t how to lower cholesterol. It’s how to increase cardiovascular health. There are several reasons for this.
First, as I’ve said many times before, lowering cholesterol doesn’t necessarily decrease your chances of having a heart attack or cardiovascular disease. In fact, according to studies, going to church regularly adds about as many years to life for those with heart problems — about 3.5 — as regularly taking statins, and without all the side effects. Then again, regular physical exercise adds five years, so why would anyone recommend statins?
Second, cholesterol isn’t quite the culprit it’s made out to be. It plays an important role in repairing damage to arteries caused by things such as inflammation, acid build-up in the muscle tissue surrounding your arteries, an excessive build-up of Omega-6 fatty acids in the blood, high homocystein levels, and free radical damage. Nevertheless, it can become a problem in excess because it thickens the blood, making it more likely to block an artery, and is indicative of other problems, such as liver damage. So the real deal for my friend and many others like him is to prevent the conditions that lead to artery damage in the first place. Exercise, the Mediterranean diet, and supplementing with Omega 3’s, niacin, and proteolytic enzymes can all help with this. And if you want to attack high cholesterol levels without correcting the underlying problem, policosanol from cane sugar is probably a better choice than statins — either the pharmaceutical or natural versions.
If for some reason you’ve got to take statins, studies show that red yeast rice may help you delay and lessen the muscle pains that are a major side effect of the pharmaceutical form. Nevertheless, red yeast rice does indeed deplete tissue of CoQ10 like its unnatural, pharmaceutical big brothers (only more slowly), and so it’s important to take extra CoQ10 supplements (at least a few hundred mg daily) if you’re taking either red yeast rice or the prescription version. A quick search on the internet will yield plenty of companies manufacturing combination supplements with both red yeast rice and CoQ10 included.