Cholesterol is a fatty substance needed by your body for many metabolic processes -- but when your blood cholesterol level is too high, you are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. Red yeast rice is a supplement that may help keep your cholesterol in a healthy range. A class of drugs called statins, which includes the prescription drug Lipitor, may also be helpful in reducing your cholesterol level. Consult your doctor for advice about the best choice for you.
Your body gets the cholesterol it needs from two sources: cholesterol-containing foods in your diet and production of cholesterol by your liver. Cholesterol travels in your blood in a complex with protein, called a lipoprotein. Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is called "bad" cholesterol because it may contribute to formation of artery-blocking plaque. Your liver cells use nutrients such as glucose to manufacture LDL, releasing it into your blood. One of the important enzymes that the liver uses to accomplish this is called HMG-CoA reductase.
Red Yeast Rice
Red yeast rice has been part of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Produced by fermenting rice with a fungus, Monascus purpureus, it contains an active ingredient called monacolin K. This compound suppresses production of LDL by blocking the activity of HMG-CoA reductase in liver cells. Several clinical trials have found that red yeast rice is effective in reducing cholesterol in subjects with high LDL levels. For example, a study published in "European Journal of Endocrinology" in 2005 found that red yeast rice reduced LDL by almost 30 percent in subjects who took the supplement for 8 weeks; those who took a placebo experienced no change.
The prescription medication Lipitor belongs to a class of drugs called statins. Its active ingredient, atorvastatin, acts on the liver to reduce activity of HMG-Co A reductase, lowering production of LDL. The medication is usually taken once daily with food, at dosages ranging from 10 to 80 mg. Lipitor is not recommended for patients with liver disease or for those who drink alcohol regularly. Occasional side effects include diarrhea, gas, headache or joint pain. Sometimes, more serious side effects occur, including muscle pain or tenderness, rash, flu-like symptoms, difficulty swallowing or breathing, or loss of appetite.
Recommendations and Precautions
Although Lipitor and red yeast rice use a similar mechanism to suppress LDL production by your liver, red yeast rice may be less likely to cause significant side effects, including elevated liver enzymes and muscle pain. In a study published in "Annals of Internal Medicine" in 2009, researchers concluded that red yeast rice is as effective as Lipitor in reducing LDL and is a good alternative for patients who are unable to take statins because of their serious side effects. The recommended dose of red yeast rice is 1,200 to 2,400 mg, once or twice daily. Discuss with your doctor whether red yeast rice or Lipitor is a good choice for your situation.
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: What is Cholesterol?
- Medline Plus; Red Yeast; November 22, 2010
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Red Yeast Rice May Help Patients With High Cholesterol Who Cannot Take Statin Drugs
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Red Yeast Rice; August 18, 2010
- "European Journal of Endocrinology"; Efficacy and Safety of Monascus Purpureus Went Rice in Subjects with Hyperlipidemia; C.C. Lin et al.; November 2005