Red yeast rice is 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.
Red yeast rice naturally contains several ingredients that lower cholesterol levels. These include a number of monacolins, sterols, isoflavones, and monounsaturated fatty acids. One of the most important ingredients in red yeast rice is monacolin K. The lipid lowering effects of monacolin K have been tested and proven, as the same compound was isolated and marketed as the prescription drug lovastatin, a leading lipid-lowering pharmaceutical used worldwide.
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, this does not mean that red yest rice is as effective as it's pure derivative. Some of the side effects of lovastatin, such as muscle weakness and pain, may occur after daily doses of red yeast rice as well. Since research into red yeast rice is still in its early stages, experts still aren't sure of what the ideal dose should be. The amounts taken in some studies have varied from 1.2 to 2.4 grams per day. In China and other countries, estimates of average daily consumption are much higher.
Red yeast ice has been used by the Chinese for many centuries as a food preservative, food colorant (it is responsible for the red color of Peking duck), spice, and an ingredient in rice wine. According to some references, red yeast rice continues to be a dietary staple in China, Japan, and Asian communities in the United States, with an estimated average consumption of 14 to 55 grams of red yeast rice per day per person.
Red yeast rice may not be safe for everyone and should should not be taken if you:
Have kidney disease
Have liver disease
In addition, anyone taking one of the following medicines should not use red yeast rice:
Statins to control cholesterol such as rosuvastatin (Crestor), fluvastatin (Lescol), atorvastatin (Lipitor), pravastatin (Pravachol), and simvastatin (Zocor)
Other cholesterol drugs such as gemfibrozil (Lopid) and fenofibrate (TriCor)
Drugs to suppress the immune system, like cyclosporine
Antifungal drugs such as fluconazole (Diflucan), ketoconazole (Nizoral), and itraconazole (Sporanox)
The antibiotics erythromycin and clarithromycin (Biaxin)
Serzone, an antidepressant
Protease inhibitors, used to treat HIV
People who have allergies to fungus or yeast should also be wary of using red yeast rice.
Red yeast rice may also interact with other drugs for blood pressure and thyroid problems and interact with other herbs and supplements you may be taking.
Those using red rice products should supplement with Coenzyme Q10 (Co-Q10), because Red Yeast Rice can interfere with the normal production of this important liver metabolite.
Whatever the state of your health, always talk to your doctor before you start using red yeast rice or any other supplement.
MedicineNet web site: "Red Yeast Rice and Cholesterol: A Critical Review." Alternative Medicine Review, 2004.
Nies, L., Annals of Pharmacotherapy, November, 2006; vol 40: pp 1984-1992.
FDA web site: "FDA Warns Consumers to Avoid Red Yeast products Promoted on Internet as Treatments for High Cholesterol."
PDR health web site: "Red Yeast Rice."
NIH web site: "Red Yeast Rice."