Did red yeast rice lower my cholesterol?

I suspect that most Americans’ attitude toward Chinese herbal remedies is similar to mine: We won’t pooh-pooh curatives backed by centuries of testimonials, but we wouldn’t turn to them first for treatment of a serious condition.

At least that was what I thought before my total cholesterol dropped 23 points in a year, and the only change I’d made was to start taking red yeast rice.

Now, I know that cholesterol tests can be inaccurate. The one in 2017 that returned the number 239 might have been faulty. I also know that good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol numbers are more important than the overall number. My LDL wasn’t very bad, and my HDL was optimal. Still, I wanted to ward off the possibility that my doctor would suggest taking prescription statins, so I looked for an alternative therapy and found red yeast rice.

Red yeast rice (often referred to as RYR) has been used in China and other Asian countries for centuries as a digestive and vascular medicine. It is sold here as an over-the-counter supplement in capsule form.

RYR is created by fermenting rice with a yeast called Monascus purpureus that blocks the production of cholesterol. Monascus purpureus contains an ingredient, monacolin K, that has the same chemical makeup as cholesterol-lowering drugs, but in lower amounts. In other words, RYR contains statins that occur naturally instead of in the laboratory. The side effects of prescription statins — including muscle, liver, and memory problems — are possible with RYR but, because the statin amount is lower, they are less common, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Andrew Weil says that red yeast rice is the most effective of the natural supplements available to help lower cholesterol. Since not everyone accepts the word of the alternative medicine guru, I’ll add the Mayo Clinic’s take: “the supplement is generally considered safe” but caution is still advised. Consumer Reports recommends not taking RYR because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate it.

I took only one 600 mg capsule a day, half the amount recommended on the bottle. That probably reflects lukewarm faith in the supplement’s likely efficacy as well as hedging against side effects. Actually, experts haven’t studied RYR enough to come up with an ideal dosage, but most brands sold here recommend 1.2 grams daily, twice what I took. One study showed that 1.2 grams a day lowered levels of LDL by 26 percent in just eight weeks, according to WebMD.

The amount of the active ingredient, monacolin K, can vary from brand to brand, however. Since the FDA prohibits potency listings on supplement labels, consumers can’t know how much monacolin K is in any RYR supplement. There’s not much to do about that except buy from a reputable source.

In reading more about RYR now than when I started taking it, I learned that you should take coenzyme Q10 along with it, since RYR inhibits the synthesis of CoQ10 in the body. (Reminder to self that it’s important to thoroughly research beforehand anything one takes.)

When I told my doctor at my annual physical in June that I’d been taking red yeast rice, I was pleased that she endorsed it. “It’s not as powerful as statins, but it’s safer because it’s natural,” she said.

A few days later I received the results of my blood work and was happy to see total cholesterol had dropped to 216. That’s still higher than desirable but around where it was for years before 2017.

I’m still taking just one RYR capsule a day and waiting until next year’s blood work to decide whether to make RYR a permanent therapy.



I’ve written about my parents’ longevity more than once, so I won’t repeat myself here. Just want to say happy birthday to Dad (98 tomorrow) and Mom (91 Wednesday) — even though they won’t see this.



“The entire Republican platform can now be reduced to three words: whatever Trump says.”

— Conservative columnist Max Boot


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  • In the Tribune today (Wednesday), the People's Pharmacy column has a letter about red yeast rice. https://www.pressreader.com/usa/chicago-tribune/20180711/282531544167263

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