How Red Yeast Rice May Lower Your Cholesterol

While cholesterol-lowering statins can be a lifesaver for people at risk for heart disease, they can also cause muscle pain and tenderness (called statin myopathy) in a certain percentage of them-estimates range from ten percent to twenty percent-resulting in patients having to stop taking the drugs. But findings from a new study may provide an alternative to people troubled by statin-related pain.

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, included 62 people with high LDL ("bad") cholesterol who had stopped taking their statins because of muscle pain. Half of the study participants were given three 600-milligram capsules of red yeast rice-an over-the-counter supplementsold in nutrition stores and pharmacies-and the other half were given a placebo (sugar pill). Both groups were enrolled in a three-month lifestyle program that included once-a-week, three-hour educational sessions in diet, exercise and stress management. After six months, patients taking the red yeast rice supplements had lowered their LDL cholesterol level by an average of 35 mg/dl, compared to just 15 mg/dl in the placebo group. Muscle pain scores were about the same in both groups.

But before you rush out to pick up a jar of red yeast rice, keep in mind that the amount of reduction in cholesterol levels in the study wasn't as good as those typically seen in patients treated with high doses of common name brand statins. Plus, over-the-counter dietary supplements aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so there's no way of determining the exact quality and quantity of the ingredients listed on the product you're buying and examinations of the contents and potency of red yeast rice pills have been shown to vary widely.  

Although some side effects from statins will likely go away as the body adjusts to the medication, if you're experiencing muscle pain or other side effects from your statin, ask your doctor if decreasing your dose or switching to another statin will help. But don't stop taking a statin without talking with your doctor first. 

Lifestyle Changes Are Key to Lowering Cholesterol

Regardless of whether you're on statins or not, making some lifestyle changes like the ones listed below can go a long way in keeping your cholesterol levels in check-and in improving your overall health.  Try:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating a healthy diet that's low in fat, cholesterol and fat
  • Exercising at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week
  • Managing stress in your life