Red yeast rice (RYR), a product made from cultivating rice with the mold Monascus purpureus, has been used in China for centuries to treat circulatory and digestive disorders - and apparently without a bit of controversy. RYR has been in use in the U.S. for a much shorter period of time (as a non-prescription cholesterol-lowering supplement), and it has generated lots of controversy.
Here is a summary of what we know about the usefulness of RYR in lowering cholesterol levels - and why it has been so controversial.
The Controversy and Confusion Over RYR
The controversy began in 1999, shortly after clinical trials first showed that RYR could indeed significantly lower cholesterol levels. At that time it came to the attention of the FDA that RYR's effectiveness is related to the fact that it contains a naturally-occurring form of the statin drug lovastatin (marketed as Mevacor). So the FDA ruled that RYR was a regulable drug, and thus ordered it removed it from the shelves.
This FDA decision was initially overruled by the District Court of Utah in 1999, but in 2000 the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the FDA that RYR could be regulated. So RYR could still be sold legally in the U.S., but only if steps were taken in its manufacturing process to remove the lovastatin (presumably eliminating its effectiveness).
Then, in 2007, the FDA found that at least some RYR in the U.S. still contained lovastatin, and (after issuing a formal FDA Consumer Safety Alert) took further steps to purge the "tainted" products from the shelves.
Currently, as far as the FDA is concerned, the RYR that you can buy in the U.S. contains no lovastatin. But otherwise, RYR is still considered a dietary supplement, so its formulation and content is still not regulated -- and it is very difficult if not impossible to find out what it does contain. (This is the case with any unregulated dietary supplement.)
But Does It Work?In the face of all this confusion, two clinical trials have appeared in the last few years that show that at least some RYR legally available in the U.S. is still effective in reducing cholesterol levels.
In 2009, a study from Pennsylvania showed that in 60 patients who had to stop taking statin drugs because of muscle pain, taking RYR and initiating lifestyle changes for 24 weeks significantly reduced total and LDL cholesterol levels, compared to taking a placebo and making the same lifestyle changes.
And in 2010, investigators from the University of Pennsylvania reported that in patients who had to stop taking statins due to muscle pain, RYR was just as effective as 20 mg per day of the statin drug pravastatin (Pravachol) in reducing cholesterol levels. (Both RYR and pravachol produced only a very low incidence of recurrent muscle pain.)
In the 2009 study, the investigators performed a formal chemical analysis on the RYR product they used in their study (from Sylvan Bioproducts in Kittanning, Pennsylvania). They found that the RYR contained monacolin K (the naturally-occurring form of lovastatin), as well as eight other monacolins (statins or statin-like substances).
The result of this chemical analysis suggests two things. First, that RYR available in the U.S. apparently still contains at least some lovastatin, and second, even if all the lovastatin were completely removed (which appears to be much harder to do than the FDA thinks) other, similar chemicals in RYR may be effective in reducing cholesterol.
Should You Take RYR?Taking RYR would seem to be at least a reasonable consideration if you are looking for a non-prescription means of cholesterol lowering. However, what you would really be doing is taking variable amounts of certain statin-like substances. It is impossible to tell, from manufacturer to manufacturer, or even from bottle to bottle, what you are really buying.
If you want to reduce your cholesterol without losing your shirt to the big drug companies, ask your doctor about generic statin drugs. They're readily available, and may even be cheaper than RYR -- and as a bonus, the dosage will actually be known, and can be controlled and adjusted to optimize your results.
Halbert SC, French B, Gordon RY, et al. Tolerability of red yeast rice (2400 mg twice daily) versus pravastatin (20 mg twice daily) in patients with previous statin intolerance. Am J Cardiol 2010; 105:198-204.
Becker DJ, Gordon RY, Halbert SC, et al. Red yeast rice for dyslipidemia in statin-intolerant patients. Ann Internal Med 2009; 150:830-839.