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2 September 2009

Why You Should Avoid Red Rice Yeast

Red yeast rice, a mainstay of Chinese medicine since ancient times, is emerging in drug stores and vitamin shops as a natural tool to lower cholesterol. The substance is actually derived from a fungus that grows on rice and is eaten as a dietary staple in certain Asian countries.

As its popularity grows, I wanted to share some important information, and a warning of sorts, about red yeast rice.

Even though it is natural, red yeast rice is not a panacea or miracle cure for those of you looking to lower your cholesterol. In fact, using it is an approach I would recommend avoiding.

What’s All the Hype about Red Yeast Rice?

Red yeast rice is sold over-the-counter and is often promoted as an alternative to cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, especially for those who stop taking the drugs due to side effects, like unbearable muscle pain.

In one recent study, researchers studied 62 people with high cholesterol, half of whom were given red yeast rice twice a day for six months while the other half received a placebo. The people taking red yeast rice also had weekly meetings for three months during which they learned about how to incorporate healthy nutrition, exercise and stress management into their lives.

After six months, the researchers found[1]:

LDL (bad) cholesterol levels decreased by an average of 35 mg/dL in those taking red yeast rice, compared with 15 mg/dL in the placebo group
Total cholesterol levels improved more in the red yeast rice group than the placebo group

Although the researchers acknowledged that the study was small and of short duration, they concluded that red yeast rice, coupled with lifestyle changes, could decrease LDL cholesterol without increasing pain levels or liver or muscle enzyme levels (as often happens in people taking statin drugs). They recommended the yeast rice as a valid treatment option for people who cannot tolerate statin drugs.

A separate study, this one of 5,000 people who have suffered a heart attack, also found favorable results. Those who took an extract of red yeast rice for five years reduced their risk of repeat heart attacks by 45 percent. It also lowered their chances of having a heart procedure such as bypass surgery or angioplasty, and even appeared to reduce their risk of cancer by as much as two-thirds.[2]

So why, then, do I NOT recommend you take this “natural” supplement if you have high cholesterol?

The answer is two-fold and may surprise you:

Red yeast rice is a statin drug -- with all the same side effects
Cholesterol is not your enemy

Red Yeast Rice is a Statin Drug

The “active” compounds in red yeast rice are known as monacolins, and are substances known to inhibit cholesterol synthesis. One type of monacolin, "monacolin K," is also known as mevinolin or lovastatin.[3]

Lovastatin, as you might now recognize, is the first statin drug to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and it goes by the brand names of Mevacor and Altocor. So if you’re taking red yeast rice in the hopes of avoiding a statin drug -- surprise!

They’re actually essentially the same drug.

And if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels, taking a drug, even a “natural” drug like red yeast rice, should be your absolute last resort. And when I say last resort, I’m saying the odds are very high, greater than 100 to 1, that you don’t need drugs to lower your cholesterol.

To put it another way, among the more than 20,000 patients who have come to my clinic, only four or five of them truly needed these drugs, as they had genetic challenges that required it.

Why Statin Drugs -- Including Red Yeast Rice -- Should be Avoided

Count yourself lucky that you probably do NOT need to take cholesterol-lowering medications of any kind, because these are some nasty little pills.

Statin drugs work by inhibiting an enzyme in your liver that’s needed to manufacture cholesterol. What is so concerning about this is that when you go tinkering around with the delicate workings of your body, you risk throwing everything off kilter.

For starters, statin drugs deplete your body of Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which is beneficial to heart health and muscle function. Because doctors rarely inform people of this risk, and advise them to take a CoQ10 supplement, this depletion leads to fatigue, muscle weakness, soreness and eventually heart failure.

Muscle pain and weakness, a condition called rhabdomyolysis, is actually the most common side effect of statin drugs, which is thought to occur because statins activate the gene atrogin-1 gene, which plays a key role in muscle atrophy.[4]

By the way, muscle pain and weakness may be an indication that your body tissues are actually breaking down -- a condition that can cause kidney damage.

Statin drugs have also been linked to:

An increased risk of polyneuropathy (nerve damage that causes pain in the hands and feet and trouble walking)
Cognitive impairment, including memory loss[5]
A potential increased risk of cancer[6]
Decreased function of your immune system[7]
Liver problems, including a potential increase in liver enzymes (so people taking statins must be regularly monitored for normal liver function)

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