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Red Yeast Rice

Red yeast rice is a traditional Chinese medicine that has been purported to lower cholesterol. Several types of the extract are sold as supplements.

Red yeast rice may be appealing because it's "natural," but you need to be careful. Experts have not studied it extensively. The ideal dosing and long-term safety are unclear. It could be dangerous for some people. And because the ingredients of different brands of red yeast rice extract might vary so much, it's hard to make firm statements about its effectiveness or safety.

What Is Red Yeast Rice?

Red yeast rice is a substance that's extracted from rice that's been fermented with a type of yeast called Monascus purpureus. It's been used in China and other Asian countries for centuries as a traditional medicine. It's also used as a food coloring, additive, and preservative.

Red yeast rice naturally contains several ingredients that may help control cholesterol levels. These include a number of monacolins, most importantly monacolin K. It also contains sterols, isoflavones, and monounsaturated fatty acids, or "healthy fats."

Is Red Yeast Rice a Drug or a Supplement?

Confusingly, the answer is both. One of the most important ingredients in red yeast rice is monacolin K. It's also known as lovastatin, the active ingredient in the prescription drug Mevacor.

So on one hand, red yeast rice is a traditional remedy that helps lower cholesterol. On the other, the pharmaceutical manufacturer of Mevacor argues that it owns the rights to the ingredient lovastatin.

This confusion extends to how the supplement is sold in the U.S. Because red yeast rice contains a substance classified as a prescription drug, the FDA has attempted to control its sale. In 2007, the FDA asked that three red yeast rice products -- Cholestrix by Sunburst Organics and two red yeast rice formulations by Swanson Healthcare Products (Red Yeast Rice and Red Yeast Rice/Policosonal Complex) -- be withdrawn from the market because they contained lovastatin. The FDA cited a risk of severe muscle problems that could lead to kidney disease.

Despite the FDA's attempts, many people in the U.S. still manage to get similar red yeast rice extracts from other countries or the Internet.

How Well Does Red Yeast Rice Lower Cholesterol?

Studies have shown that red yeast rice can significantly lower levels of total cholesterol and specifically LDL, or "bad" cholesterol. One showed that taking 2.4 grams per day of red yeast rice reduced LDL levels by 22% and total cholesterol by 16% in 12 weeks. Another study showed that taking 1.2 grams per day lowered LDL levels by 26% in just eight weeks.

However, the studies of red yeast rice have so far been fairly small and didn't last long enough to reveal the long-term effects.

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Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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