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Red Yeast Rice - Food as Medicine

Red Yeast Rice - Food as Medicine
Often regular rice is
simply dyed red and
sold as the higher-priced
red yeast rice.

Food is truly an amazing thing. It can wake you up, put you to sleep, tempt you to overindulge and trigger memories from the past. In some cases, it can even be classified as a drug and taken off the market.

That's what happened to something called "Red Yeast Rice." (Red yeast rice is a bright purple fermented rice that gets its color by being cultivated with the mold Monascus purpureus.)

For hundreds of years, red yeast rice has been sold as a treatment for indigestion and as a way to "invigorate the blood and the body." It doesn't really do those things, but there is something special about it. In the late 1970s, researchers discovered that red yeast rice has something called lovastatin in it. In clinical trials, "statin" drugs like lovastatin were found to lower cholesterol levels by 24-49%. Lovastatin was patented and became the prescription drug Mevacor for Merck & Co.

At the same time, red yeast rice began to be promoted as a less expensive "natural" way to lower cholesterol. Several small clinical trials showed that it was reasonably effective. There was just one problem. The companies selling red yeast rice had nobody checking what they were selling.

Unlike a prescription drug, some batches of red yeast rice had huge amounts of lovastatin in them, while others had little or none. No agency monitored the dosages. A few companies even started dying their regular rice red and calling it red yeast rice just so they could sell it at a premium. Without any controls, consumers had no guarantee of what they were buying.

Then there were the side effects. Clinical trials found statins can cause muscle damage, liver damage, and even kidney failure. When taking a drug the consumer is warned about the potential problems. No such warnings came with natural products.

In 1998 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stepped in. They began by banning a product called Cholestin that had red yeast rice in it. The FDA argued that it's a drug and therefore must have FDA approval to be sold in the United States. After three years in court, the FDA won. Red yeast rice products with any more than trace amounts of lovastatin in them would be banned. Over the next few years, they were removed from the market.

That might have been the end of the story, but there was still money to be made. Slowly companies started re-introducing red yeast rice products back into the market. But with the lovastatin removed, they no longer had any cholesterol-lowering abilities.

That didn't stop the supplement companies. Many simply provided links to the cholesterol-lowering studies. They didn't mention that the key ingredient, a statin was no longer in the red yeast rice they were selling. They let consumers believe it was the same product they had always sold and that it had a near-miraculous (and completely safe!) ability to lower cholesterol.

But it doesn't, and that's why I'm writing this article. On the one hand, I'm saddened that supplement companies and the FDA didn't work together. They could have put in place strong quality standards to guarantee consumers a cheap, natural product that could help lower cholesterol. But they didn't. I also wish that supplement companies hadn't hidden the dangerous and potentially lethal side effects to consumers. But they did.

Failures on both sides mean this. If you have high cholesterol, red yeast rice products available today won't bring it down, so don't waste your money. You might be a candidate for statins, but that's something you'll need to talk to a doctor about.

The best "natural" way to lower cholesterol is exercise. A resistance training program can lower cholesterol levels by as much as 20% over six months. Add cardio to the mix and a drop of as much as 35% is not unusual. Of course, that means you'll have to get off the couch, but isn't your life worth it?

For more information about cholesterol, read our "Combating Cholesterol" article by clicking here.

Special Note:

If you have a doctor that's recommending red yeast rice to lower cholesterol, give them a copy of this article. If they continue recommending it you need to ask yourself two very important questions.

1. Why are they recommending something that has had the essential cholesterol-lowering ingredient removed?

2. If your doctor thinks you should take a statin, why don't they prescribe a statin instead of an unregulated and now worthless product?

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.