Red yeast rice has become a popular dietary supplement for those combating high cholesterol levels and looking for a natural, over the counter alternative to prescription medications. A recent study analyzed twelve brands of red yeast rice and concluded that, depending on which brand you purchase, using this supplement could potentially be harmful.
Red yeast rice’s active ingredients, called “monacolins”, are identical to those used in statin medications, and therefore have a similar cholesterol-lowering effect as found in the prescription version. Statins, a class of drugs used to lower the level of cholesterol in the blood, work by blocking an enzyme needed to produce cholesterol in the liver, thus reducing the total amount the body is able to make on its own. Both statins and red yeast rice have proven to significantly reduce levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and one study in particular showed red yeast rice to decrease total cholesterol by an average of 18 percent LDL by 23% and triglycerides by 15 percent compared to placebo.
But for all of its potential benefits, red yeast rice is, apparently, not without its risks. The researchers found that the products contained varying amounts of active ingredients, and some products even contained potentially toxic contaminants. Since the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements, there is no standardization for the amount of active ingredient – or any additional additives – in these products as there would be in a prescription statin. In other words, there is no way to know exactly what comes packaged in each capsule of a given dietary supplement. Various brands of red yeast rice claim to provide as little as 0.2mg to as much as 20.8 mg of the active ingredients, and a typical dosage is anywhere from one to four pills per day. This variability could translate into extreme differences in potency for each product, assuming the products even contained the actual labeled dosage.
In addition to the inconsistencies in the claimed versus actual amount of active ingredient, one-third of the supplements were found to be contaminated with citrin, a substance produced by yeast or fungi and known to cause kidney damage in animals. The study’s authors did not disclose the names of any of the products analyzed in the study, but a summary report that includes data on the individual products tested is available to subscribers of consumerlab.com, the independent lab which conducted the analysis.
Experts caution that, when it comes to supplements, there is also inherent risk in self-medicating. Since statin drugs, and therefore red yeast rice, have been associated with a low but nevertheless serious risk of potential side effects involving the liver and muscles, patients receiving the prescription version are closely monitored by their prescribing doctors for signs of potential complications. When self-dosing an over-the-counter version, this safety net is not in place.
To ensure your safety and wellness, if you’re using red yeast rice on your own or considering trying it out, consult a doctor to make sure you’re being appropriately monitored.