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Can I use red yeast rice instead of a statin to lower my cholesterol?

Updated: July 01, 2017

Ask the doctors

Q. My bad cholesterol has been rising, and my doctor suggested that I start taking a statin. I've read that red yeast rice has many of the cholesterol-lowering benefits of a statin, and I would rather go the natural route. However, I recently heard on a newscast that red yeast rice can have adverse effects on the kidneys. Is it still safe for me to take this supplement?

A. It's true that red yeast rice, which contains monacolin K, a chemical that's identical to the active ingredient in the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin (Mevacor), may reduce your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower your total cholesterol. However, an independent analysis of a dozen 600-milligram (mg) capsules of red yeast rice products conducted a few years ago found that the actual monacolin K content varied widely — from 0.1 mg to 10.9 mg. (The lowest dose of lovastatin is 20 mg.) In addition, one-third of the products were contaminated with a potentially toxic compound called citrinin, which can damage the kidneys. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has blocked the sale of red yeast rice supplements that contain enough of the active ingredient to make them as effective as lovastatin because they haven't undergone the drug approval process. Unlike FDA-approved drugs, supplements can be sold without proof of effectiveness and purity.

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