Harvard Women's Health Watch

Ask the doctor: Can red yeast rice bring down cholesterol?

Q. I am taking pravastatin for high cholesterol, but my numbers are still high. Should I try red yeast rice?

A. Red yeast rice, a fermented species of yeast called Monascus purpureus, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. It contains a number of compounds called monacolins. Like the cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, monacolins hamper the production of cholesterol by inhibiting the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase, which makes LDL ("bad") cholesterol. One of the monacolins in red yeast rice extract is the active ingredient in lovastatin. In studies of people with high cholesterol, red yeast rice extract taken for two to three months lowers total and LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.

There are downsides to taking red yeast rice supplements. Because the FDA does not regulate their manufacture, the total amount of monacolins and effectiveness vary significantly among products. Red yeast rice supplements are sold over the counter and on the Internet, and are not covered by health insurance.

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