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Red Yeast Rice Beverage Lowers Cholesterol


Many people are interested in finding alternatives to statins to reduce their cholesterol levels, especially in light of the growing number of warnings associated with the drugs. Now a new study reports that a red yeast rice beverage can safely lower both total cholesterol and LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol.

Red yeast rice naturally lowers cholesterol

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University, Healthy Drinks Discoveries Inc., and Miami Children’s Hospital came together to compare the effect of three beverages—one placebo and two nutraceutical beverages—on total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Each 4-ounce serving of the nutraceutical beverages contained 12.5 mg of niacin, 650 mg phytosterol esters, 150 mg L-carnitine, 500 mg vitamin C, and 25 mg coenzyme Q10. One of the beverages also contained 600 mg naturally fermented red yeast rice.

All of the ingredients in the nutraceutical beverage, including red yeast rice, have demonstrated some ability to help lower cholesterol or to play a role in the process, noted cardiologist and internist Mitchell Karl, MD, of Boca Raton, the study’s lead author, during an interview.

In fact one of the ingredients, niacin, is available as the prescription drug Niaspan, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of high cholesterol, specifically to help raise levels of the “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and lower LDL.

Seventy-nine adults were randomly assigned to one of the three groups and asked to consume 4 ounces of the beverage or placebo twice daily for eight weeks. During the trial, the investigators gathered information on total and LDL cholesterol, as well as HDL and C-reactive protein at baseline and at weeks 4 and 8.

Fifty-nine participants completed the study. None of the tested factors changed significantly among the subjects who drank the placebo or the beverage without red yeast rice. However, among those who drank the beverage that contained red yeast rice, the results were as follows:

  • Total cholesterol declined 13% (-35 mg/dL) at week 4
  • Total cholesterol declined 14% (-46 mg/dL) at week 8
  • LDL cholesterol decreased by 17.1% (-28 mg/dL) at week 4
  • LDL cholesterol decreased by 17.8% (-30 mg/dL) at week 8

The investigators noted that “Although an 18% reduction in serum LDL concentration may seem modest, the consequential expected reduction in cardiovascular events may be twice that number on the basis of previous LDL reduction trials.”

Previous studies of red yeast rice and cholesterol
Red yeast rice has demonstrated promising results in previous studies as well. In research reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, 62 patients were assigned to receive either 1,800 mg red yeast rice or placebo twice daily for 24 weeks. The participants also took part in a 12-week therapeutic lifestyle change program.

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Individuals in the red yeast rice group showed a 43 mg/dL decline in LDL cholesterol at week 12 and a 35 mg/dL decline at week 24 compared with a 11 mg/dL and 15 mg/dL decline, respectively, among those taking placebo. Total cholesterol also decline significantly at weeks 12 and 24 in the red yeast rice group when compared with placebo.

In a subsequent study, investigators compared red yeast rice with the statin pravastatin in patients who could not tolerate other statins because of myalgia (muscle pain). Forty-three people with high cholesterol were randomly assigned to take either 2,400 mg red yeast rice twice daily or 20 mg pravastatin twice daily for 12 weeks.

LDL cholesterol levels decreased 30% in patients who took red yeast rice and 27% in those who took pravastatin. The authors concluded “red yeast rice was tolerated as well as pravastatin and achieved a comparable reduction of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in a population previously intolerant to statins.”

Red yeast rice
This natural alternative to statin drugs is a product of yeast (Monascus purpureus) grown on rice. Red yeast rice contains substances called monacolins, which are capable of inhibiting the synthesis of cholesterol.

One of the monacolins, called monacolin K, is also known as the statin drug lovastatin. Currently, the FDA prohibits the sale of red yeast rice supplements that contain more than trace amounts of monacolin K because products that contain higher levels would be considered unapproved drugs.

In this latest study of the red yeast rice beverage, the authors noted that “Because the red yeast rice is the only constituent in that drink not found in the other nutraceutical drink, one might be lead to conclude that all of the effectiveness of that drink results from the red yeast rice constituent.”

They also pointed out, however, that “it remains possible that other nutraceutical components, although ineffective without red yeast rice, might potentiate the effect and improve the efficacy or tolerability of the effective formulation.”

Dr. Karl, who is founder of Healthy Drinks Discoveries, explained that to his knowledge, “no study has put together each of these ingredients and found that it was safe and effective.” He also pointed out that many of the participants in this study remarked that in addition to the cholesterol-lowering benefit of the beverage, they “felt better” when they took the active (red yeast rice) product.

For now, however, the study participants and anyone else interested in this red yeast rice beverage that helps lower cholesterol will have to wait a bit longer until the product is ready for market.

Becker DJ et al. Red yeast rice for dyslipidemia in statin-intolerant patients: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med 2009 Jun 16; 150(12): 830-39
Halbert SC et al. Tolerability of red yeast rice (2,400 mg twice daily) versus pravastatin (20 mg twice daily) in patients with previous statin intolerance. Am J Cardiol 2010 Jan 15; 105(2): 198-204
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