Red rice yeast (red yeast rice) has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for centuries to help blood circulation and ease stomach problems. It is made by growing red yeast on white rice, and then powdering it.
In the 1970s it was discovered that red rice yeast lowers high levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides in the blood. In 1998, the FDA banned the sale of a commercial dietary supplement called Cholestin which contained red rice yeast, claiming that the chemical composition of red rice yeast is nearly identical to that of the prescription drug Lovastatin, a statin which is often prescribed to help lower cholesterol levels. Products containing red rice yeast may not be sold in the United States, but are still widely available throughout the world, and can often be purchased on the internet.
What Red Rice Yeast Does:
Red rice yeast has been proven to lower levels of bad cholesterol in the blood as effectively as most pharmaceutical drugs that are prescribed to help lower cholesterol levels. In addition, red rice yeast has been proven in a number of research studies to help lower high levels of triglycerides in the blood. Like cholesterol, trigycerides can affect blood circulation by clogging blood vessels in the body. Red rice yeast (or, as it’s more often called – red yeast rice) contains a substance called monacolin K which inhibits the production of cholesterol in the liver. This is exactly the same action that prescription drugs like lovastatin (Mexacor) and Lipitor have on the production of cholesterol.
Interestingly, the concentration of monacolin K in red rice yeast is considerably lower than the amount of lovastatin usually prescribed as a daily dose to lower cholesterol – but it still reduced LDL cholesterol levels by as much as 17% in just 8 weeks in a study at UCLA. This has led some doctors and researchers to speculate that other chemicals in red rice yeast (specifically sterols) may boost the effect of monacolin K or actively reduce cholesterol themselves.
Health Benefits of Red Rice Yeast:
A number of well-constructed and well-documented studies confirm that red rice yeast substantially lowers the amount of total cholesterol and ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood without affecting the HDL, ‘good’ cholesterol.
At UCLA, researchers tested the effects of Cholestin, a red rice yeast product that contained red rice yeast produced by a proprietary method that increased the amount of monacolin K to near pharmaceutical levels. The results were unmistakable. Those in the study that took Cholestin reduced LDL cholesterol levels by as much as 21% over the 12 weeks of the study, and reduced triglycerides by . In contrast, those who took a placebo averaged a reduction of 1%. This is the most well-documented study and the one most often cited when referring to red rice yeast, but it’s important to note that the product used in this study contains higher levels of monacolin K than most preparations of red yeast rice though considerably less than the amount of active ingredients in most prescription statin drugs.
Possible Side Effects of Red Rice Yeast
Because the active components in red rice yeast affect the body in ways that are identical to those of some statin drugs, most doctors advise patients to treat red rice yeast with the same caution. The side effects of red rice yeast are rare and generally mild, but lovastatin has raised some concerns about compromised liver function. In addition, doctors and nutritionists advise that those who are taking statin drugs or other drugs to lower cholesterol levels should discuss the possibility of using red rice yeast as an alternative to conventional drug therapy rather than in addition to it.
Summary and Conclusion
In 2001, the FDA decided that Cholestin, with its proprietary formula of red rice yeast, contained a substance identical to lovastatin, a drug that is regulated by the FDA. A court upheld the FDA ruling, and Cholestin was removed from open store shelves. The manufacturer has introduced a reformulated Cholestin without red rice yeast. Following in the steps of NuSkin, the manufacturers of Cholestin, other nutraceutical companies also pulled products containing red rice yeast from the U.S. market. It is still, however, possible to find red yeast rice on the Internet.