Over one third of all Americans struggle with cholesterol issues. According to the CDC, high cholesterol doubles the risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
While much of the science around cholesterol is still up for debate (more on that later), the medical mainstream has nevertheless chosen to simplify the issue by specifically targeting high cholesterol. To this end, society has embraced the use of statins and similar drugs as the gold standard of cholesterol management. More than 25 million Americans currently take statins, and the figure increases every year.
At first glance, statins appear to be another success story in the annals of pharmaceutical history, another miracle pill that circumvents the need for holistic treatment and lifestyle modification. But as usual, statins have a dark side.
Some experts warn that statin use can adversely affect the body in over 300 different ways
Advocates claim that the decreased heart disease risk conveyed by statins outweigh their side effects—but this line of thought is hard to justify when you look at just how many problems statins can cause. Some experts warn that statin use can adversely affect the body in over 300 different ways, including muscle pain and damage, liver damage, increased blood sugar levels and the development of type 2 diabetes, memory loss and impaired cognitive function, and more.
Is red yeast rice a viable alternative to cholesterol-lowering drugs?
Red yeast rice has long established itself as a natural alternative to statins, and over the years, its efficacy has been well-demonstrated by a series of studies.
A 2007 study in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation examined the effects of red yeast rice on patients unable to tolerate statins; over the course of eight weeks, they exhibited a “significant decrease” in both total cholesterol and LDL (“bad” cholesterol.)
A 2010 study in the American Journal of Cardiology confirmed these findings by demonstrating that after four weeks of taking red yeast rice twice daily, statin-intolerant patients experienced a 14% average decrease in total cholesterol and a 19% average decrease in LDL levels.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Dietary Supplements showed an even greater decrease (19% in total cholesterol and 33% in LDL), and even controlled for lifestyle factors in order to demonstrate the acute therapeutic effect of red yeast rice. The researchers observed that the “magnitude of reduction in LDL cholesterol is significantly greater than the 28 percent reduction observed in the 1999 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) meta-analysis on the average effectiveness of statin medications in lowering cholesterol levels.”
Finally, a clinical trial that combined red yeast rice with phytosterols (and found increased efficacy) suggests that phytosterols (which are also found naturally in red yeast rice) are at least partially responsible for its cholesterol-lowering effects.
Caveats, best practices, and a word about cholesterol
If you’ve been researching cholesterol remedies for very long, you may already know that red yeast rice has a controversial history. In 1998, the FDA began to closely regulate the manufacture and sale of red yeast rice supplements. Rumors spread that the product carried potential risks and dangers, but the real reason for the regulation was that red yeast rice was found to naturally contain monacolin K, a cholesterol-lowering compound with the same chemical makeup as popular statins like lovastatin and mevinolin.
Most experts agree, though, that this chemical is not the sole reason why red yeast rice lowers cholesterol. Most importantly, the studies above demonstrated that red yeast rice products do not carry the same risks as statins, despite this chemical similarity. Today, most red yeast rice products do not even contain appreciable levels of monacolin K, due to continuing FDA regulations.
While red yeast rice has been found to be safe (even for statin-intolerant individuals), you should not take red yeast rice if you’re currently taking statins or other cholesterol drugs, the antidepressant Serzone, antifungal drugs, immunosuppressant drugs, the antibiotics erythromycin and clarithromycin, or protease inhibitors used to treat HIV. Always tell your doctor before starting a regimen with red yeast rice.
And remember: cholesterol is not an inherently bad thing, nor should lowering cholesterol be your exclusive goal. As we outlined in a recent article, low cholesterol can also be detrimental to your health—chronic low cholesterol can lead to serious health problems like hemorrhagic stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and severe mood imbalances like depression, violent behavior, and suicide.
Red yeast rice can serve as a safe and effective alternative to statins if your cholesterol is deemed dangerously high, but always keep in mind that balancing cholesterol should be your true aim. By optimizing your overall lifestyle through diet and exercise, and by addressing fundamental imbalances in your body such as systemic inflammation, oxidative stress, and endocrine dysfunction, cholesterol will level out on its own.