Those of you with high cholesterol will be happy to learn that there are some legitimate options to your statin pills. Many people cannot tolerate the extremely popular statin pills, especially from side effects of muscle aches. But there’s now some very strong evidence that herbal medicines, including red yeast rice, can be at least as effective as a statin, and without the side effects. Too good to be true? Maybe not…
Red yeast rice is a bright reddish purple fermented rice, which acquires its colour from being cultivated with the mold Monascus purpureus. Red yeast rice is known as Zhi Tai when in powdered form but is called Xue Zhi Kang in alcohol extract form. This has been used in China for many centuries for many reasons, but researchers have been very interested in its effectiveness in lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease (similar benefits from statins). It seems that the main active ingredient is indeed the natural form of a common statin, lovastatin — but researchers feel that other ingredients inside may add more protective effects. There is an official patented Chinese TCM formulation, called Xue Zhi Kang (xue2 zhi1 kang2 jiao nang 血脂康 胶囊), which has the equivalent of 10mg of lovastatin. The ScienceDaily website has a nice 2008 review of a well-designed study, printed in American Journal of Cardiology, which followed 5,000 persons after their first heart attack, and divided them into two groups taking either xuezhikang or placebo. After 5 years:
Frequencies of the primary end point were 10.4% in the placebo group and 5.7% in the XZK-treated group, with absolute and relative decreases of 4.7% and 45%, respectively. Treatment with XZK also significantly decreased CV and total mortality by 30% and 33%, the need for coronary revascularization by 1/3, and lowered total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides, but raised high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. In conclusion, long-term therapy with XZK significantly decreased the recurrence of coronary events and the occurrence of new CV events and deaths, improved lipoprotein regulation, and was safe and well tolerated.
This is impressive data, and the study design is very well done, which means the evidence is quite strong. One co-author, Dr Capuzzi, has a nice summary:
“It’s very exciting because this is a natural product and had very few adverse side effects including no abnormal blood changes,” said Capuzzi. “People in the Far East have been taking Chinese red yeast rice as food for thousands of years, but no one has ever studied it clinically in a double-blind manner with a purified product against a placebo group until now and we are pleased with the results. However, people in the United States should know that the commercially available over-the-counter supplement found in your average health food store is not what was studied here. Those over-the-counter supplements are not regulated, so exact amounts of active ingredient are unknown and their efficacy has not been studied yet.”
In another randomized trial study, printed last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine, patients who had previously failed treatment of statins due to side effects were given 1800mg of red yeast rice twice a day versus placebo. The red yeast rice group had a significant improvement in cholesterol numbers — with no major reports of severe muscle aches they previously had on the statins.
There are other studies that also show similar benefits. In fact, the evidence is so strong that it is classified as Grade A evidence: “Strong scientific evidence for use”. This is the highest grade that any therapy can get. There are a number of good reviews of red yeast rice in Western literature, including from Medscape; the Mayo Clinic; WebMD; MedlinePlus; and NCCAM. There’s also more informal information from the TCM blog Qi Spot. You can find more scholarly information in the 2008 review from Chinese Medical Journal.
The Bottom Line
I’m impressed enough by all this to start stocking it in my clinic’s pharmacy, and I will start to discuss this option with patients as well. The evidence for this herbal medicine is unusually strong, and this could become one of China’s more popular medicines around the world, as it seems to have similar cholesterol reducing properties as the statins — without those liver and muscle side effects. Please note that people already on statins and very happy with them should not add this medicine, as the active ingredient is about the same. But for those who couldn’t tolerate the statin side effects, or even those newly diagnosed with just slightly elevated cholesterol who want to avoid “prescription” medicines, you may want to consider discussing red yeast rice with your doctor.
But it’s also important to buy the proper Chinese version of xuezhikang, since there are reports of pills being doctored with actual statin medicines. The photo above shows the official patented Chinese version. There seem to be other patents in other countries, including Lipascor. In America, the pills Cholestin are pure red yeast rice.
What Else Works For Cholesterol?
There’s a nice summary of herbal medicines, including red yeast rice, from Natural Medicines Database. There’s also pretty good evidence for the omega-3 in fish oil; at least 1 gram a day of the supplement may help, independently of statin’s benefits. And the mineral niacin can also be extremely effective for certain people, although the flushing side effects can be severe when using the immediate release tablet, and dosing is tricky.
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