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Background Facts: Red Yeast Rice and Cholesterol

According to the American Heart Association, optimal blood cholesterol levels are below 200, while counts above 240 are considered dangerously high. But even people with counts between 200 and 240 are considered borderline-high and are at an increased risk of developing heart disease. While it's standard practice to prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs to people with total cholesterol 240 and over, it's less common for patients with cholesterol in the 200 to 240 range to receive medication.

In fact, the ongoing Framingham Study of heart disease has found that this discrepancy may explain why people with moderately increased levels are often less likely to survive a first heart attack than people with higher counts. If your blood cholesterol level is over 200, as it is for 57 million Americans, lifestyle changes such as increased exercise and modified diet can help to bring cholesterol under control, but they may not be enough. Conventional drug therapy is often effective but can cause stomach upset, increased sensitivity to the sun, or a rare but dangerous condition characterized by muscle breakdown and possible liver damage. An alternative currently being examined is an the ancient Chinese remedy called red yeast rice.

First documented during the Tang Dynasty of 800 A.D. and described in a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) medical encyclopedia as useful for improving blood circulation, red yeast rice is widely used in Asia as a spice and for its medicinal properties. There's been very little scientific examination of red yeast rice in the United States, however, a landmark American study was recently completed at UCLA after 17 studies in China declared that red yeast rice lowered cholesterol by 11 to 32 percent.

Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1999, the UCLA study reported that after 12 weeks, cholesterol levels among the 79 participants decreased by 15 percent, and all for about one-fifth the price of pharmaceuticals.

Ironically the most popular and effective prescription drugs for elevated cholesterol, Lipitor and Zocor, also known as "statin drugs," work much in the same way as red yeast rice, by inhibiting a key liver enzyme from producing cholesterol. Yet, research thus far has shown that red yeast rice does not carry with it the side effects associated with statin drugs.

Nevertheless, doctors warn that you should not use either pharmaceutical statins or red yeast rice if you suffer from liver disease, or if you are pregnant or nursing. Anyone considering taking red yeast rice to lower their cholesterol should seek the advice of their physician first.