Research just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concludes a nonprescription, natural supplement -- red yeast rice -- has significant cholesterol-lowering effects. However, one important part of this story is that this isn't really a new discovery at all. Red yeast rice, a bright reddish purple fermented rice cultivated with the mold Monascus purpureus, has been used in Chinese medicine for more than a millennium to treat heart ills and other health problems.
The new study was a randomized controlled trial conducted by doctors at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Flourtown, Pennsylvania. David Becker, MD, and his research team studied 62 patients whose super high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol put them at risk for heart attack or stroke. Why weren't these people already on statin drugs, the supposedly miraculous cholesterol lowering "wonder" drugs? All of them had a history of trying those medications but had to stop them because of severe side effects often reported by statin users, including muscle pain and weakness.
Half of the research subjects were given 1,800 mg of red yeast rice twice a day for 24 weeks and the other half took inactive placebo pills. After the first 12 weeks, the study participants taking red yeast rice showed a significant improvement in their levels of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol. In fact, on average their cholesterol dropped an amazing 43 points. The placebo group had an LDL drop of only 11 points. After 24 weeks, there was a 35 point drop in "bad" cholesterol levels in the red yeast rice group. The researchers think this second cholesterol measurement showed less of a decrease than the earlier tests simply because some of the study participants may have stopped taking their supplements.
Another important finding: the "good" cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL) count, remained the same in both groups. This indicates red rice yeast only lowers the artery damaging type of cholesterol. What's more, the red yeast rice did not produce the common side effects like elevated liver enzymes and weakness that are quite common in people taking prescription statin drugs.