Can Red Yeast Rice Lower Cholesterol?
If you are looking for a natural way to lower cholesterol, there are dozens of options, including red yeast rice, which has been somewhat controversial. A new study of red yeast rice and cholesterol fuels the debate over the effectiveness of this natural approach to high cholesterol.
What is red yeast rice?
If you are a stranger to red yeast rice, it’s a unique supplement that comes from fermenting a yeast called Monascus purpureus, which is grown on red rice. This supplement is sometimes suggested as an alternative for individuals who experience side effects (e.g., muscle weakness, kidney damage) associated with cholesterol-lowering drugs, (i.e., statins), which are the most commonly prescribed drug for high cholesterol.
A controversy exists surrounding use of red yeast rice because it contains a substance found in prescription statin drugs, called monacolin K, which is like the drug lovastatin (Mevacor). In fact, in the United States the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said it is illegal to sell red yeast rice supplements that contain more than trace levels of substances that can lower cholesterol, even though studies show it is safe, because the organization has determined it is an unapproved drug.
Red yeast rice: new study
In the new study, which appears in Nutrition Research, 25 individuals with mildly elevated cholesterol participated in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Here’s what happened:
- Participants followed a stabilization diet for 4 weeks
- After that time, they were randomly assigned to take either a placebo or red yeast rice with coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) daily for four weeks
- Participants who took red yeast rice showed a significant decline in total cholesterol (12.5%), LDL cholesterol, and non-HDL cholesterol compared with those in the placebo group after 12 and 24 weeks
- Researchers also measured matrix metalloproteanases (MMPs) 2 and 9, substances that appear to be elevated in people after they experience a heart attack or other heart-related conditions, and found that both MMPs were reduced after taking red yeast rice for four weeks.
Previous studies on red yeast rice
In a previous study of red yeast rice, investigators evaluated two groups of patients with high cholesterol for 24 weeks: one group was given a placebo and the other took red yeast rice. Total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels improved more in patients who took red yeast rice than those who took placebo.
Another study evaluated the use of a red yeast rice beverage that also contained niacin, coenzyme Q10, vitamin C, L-carnitine, and phytosterol esters—all ingredients that have shown some ability to reduce cholesterol. One control beverage had all the same ingredients except for the red yeast rice, while the other beverage was a placebo.
Fifty-nine participants completed the eight-week study. Although there were no significant differences in cholesterol factors among those who consumed the placebo or the beverage without red yeast rice, those who drank the red yeast rice beverage showed the following:
- A 13% reduction in total cholesterol at week 4
- A 14% reduction in total cholesterol at week 8
- A 17.1% decline in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol at week 4
- A 17.8% decline in LDL at week 8
The bottom line
Previous studies of red yeast rice, along with the new research, indicate that the natural supplement has merit in reducing cholesterol. The controversy still continues, however, from the FDA over safety issues concerning use of red yeast rice for lowering cholesterol levels.
Cicero AFG et al. Red yeast rice improves lipid pattern, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, and vascular remodeling parameters in moderately hypercholesterolemic Italian subjects. Nutrition Research 2013 Aug; 33(8): 622-28
Karl M et al. A multicenter study of nutraceutical drinks for cholesterol (evaluating effectiveness and tolerability). Journal of Clinical Lipidology 2012 Mar; 6(2): 150-58