Tradition has a funny way of sneaking up and showing us who was right all along—especially where nutrition and health converge. Recently, the nutrition world has been abuzz over one long-standing Chinese diet staple: red yeast rice. Characterized by its red color (the same one that gives Peking Duck its rosy glow), it’s been heralded for its health benefits for thousands of years—and has lately garnered some extra press over its ability to reduce our very modern-day cholesterol woes. Always excited by more-natural opportunities for treating and maintaining health, I decided to delve a little more deeply into this claim.
Why All the Excitement?
The health benefits of red yeast rice were first documented around the year 800 in a Chinese pharmacy compendium. The pharmacist suggested using it to aid a bevy of bodily issues, including gastric problems, blood circulation, stomach pains, indigestion, and spleen health. The writer also detailed its manufacture for medical consumption: altering it into a dried, powdered form and extracting it with alcohol.
Given its recent attention from the health and medical community, scientists are now taking a closer look at red yeast rice. Turns out, what makes it so special is greater than simply the sum of its parts. The product of the yeast grown on the rice creates several compounds that the medical community refers to as monacolins, which have been proven to decrease our bodies’ production of cholesterol, according to the Mayo Clinic. These special compounds are the active ingredients in many mainstream cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Whether mixed into medication or taken alone, red yeast rice lowers the amount of cholesterol that the liver produces. This is what some modern cholesterol-lowering drugs, known as statins, work to do, too. The problem with statins is that they cause some takers to experience muscle pain. Red yeast rice claims to provide the same benefits sans the pain. One study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, that advocates of the Asian grain point to, had statin-takers who suffer from muscle pain ingest prescribed daily doses of red yeast rice. After twelve weeks, those taking it (along with following a healthy exercise and nutrition regimen) saw a 27 percent reduction in their unhealthy cholesterol levels—compared with a much smaller, 6 percent drop in the nontakers.
Additional research supports the claim, too. A Chinese study found that when people who had suffered from heart attacks took a red yeast rice supplement, they were 45 percent less likely to have another attack within five years.
About Those Other Benefits …
Along with proudly touting red yeast rice’s ability to lower cholesterol, holistic peddlers and natural-medicine gurus also proclaim the substance’s ability to right a whole list of other ailments—just as the Chinese wrote over a thousand years ago. (Those benefits include preventing hangovers, enhancing exercise performance, preserving food, and aiding healing of bruises, to name a few.) Were they really onto something? When the Mayo Clinic graded red yeast rice based on the scientific support substantiating these health claims, the grain received the highest mark possible, an A, in terms of its effectiveness in lowering cholesterol.
Coronary heart disease and diabetes, however, didn’t rank so highly when held up against the scientific research. The Mayo Clinic gave red yeast rice a C for combating these two health ailments, indicating that while some evidence shows positive results in cardiovascular benefits and improved blood flow, there aren’t enough studies done on humans to support either of these claims. Looking for something to help in these areas? “Being active for at least thirty minutes a day and avoiding saturated fats and processed foods are proven to do this,” says Patricia Vij, a Los Angeles–based nutritionist.
If you do decide to take red yeast rice, oral supplements are available online and from holistic-medicine retailers, but always check the dosage. Studies that support red yeast rice’s effectiveness indicate that the ideal amount for most adults is 1,200 milligrams of concentrated powder capsules, taken twice per day with food, according the National Institutes of Health.
What Are Its Risks?
Despite the optimism surrounding red yeast rice, so far the FDA hasn’t actually approved it to treat any diseases. This means that no doctor will recommend exchanging it for other medications, even to manage high cholesterol. So, without the FDA’s approval and full evaluation of its safety, effectiveness, and purity, red yeast rice remains a use-at-your-own-risk supplement. This also means that there aren’t any regulated manufacturing standards in place. Of course, a reliable supplier will make every effort not to sell you anything harmful, but there’s always the risk of marketed herbal supplements’ containing toxic contaminants, like metals and other drugs. So whether you purchase red yeast rice as dried grains, ground powder, or a pill from a health-foods store, it’s difficult to be certain exactly how much of the active ingredient you’re consuming and whether it’s been contaminated in any way.
Other risks to be aware of are those that go along with any cholesterol-lowering medication, such as breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue, which can lead to kidney failure and other potentially fatal disorders. Pregnant women should never take red yeast rice, because it could be harmful to the fetus. The National Institutes of Health caution anyone who experiences muscle pain or tenderness, upset stomach, or weakness with fever or flulike symptoms while taking the supplement to consult his or her doctor immediately. Want to try mixing red yeast rice into your nutrition routine? “Talk to your doctor or nutritionist for guidance on specific medications containing it that have a strong safety record,” says Vij.
While there’s still much to learn about red yeast, for anyone with high cholesterol hoping to avoid prescription drugs, this could be a more natural light at the end of the tunnel.