A dietary supplement called red rice yeast, combined with fish oil and healthy lifestyle changes, can help reduce "bad" cholesterol as effectively as the statin drug Zocor, new research suggests.
"This might be an alternative for some people," says cardiologist David Becker, lead author of the study, published Tuesday in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
It might work particularly for those patients who can't tolerate side effects such as muscle cramps that sometimes come with stains, a class of drugs used to lower cholesterol.
The combination of supplements, a modified Mediterranean-type diet and moderate exercise has helped Barry Baron, 59, an engineer who lives outside Philadelphia. These days, he tries to get to the gym several times a week and takes extra walks in his neighborhood.
Baron's focus on prevention began as a fluke a few years ago. At the time, he was overweight and had high cholesterol and blood pressure. Then he met Becker and agreed to participate in the cardiologist's 12-week study of people at risk of heart attack or stroke.
"The key point is to get people to make lifestyle changes," Becker says.
Becker says he'd been hearing anecdotes for years that red rice yeast was effective in lowering cholesterol — in fact the original statin drugs were derived from a similar yeast. To test this, he put about 35 patients on Zocor (simvastatin). They took 40 milligrams per day. The other 35 volunteers in the study took red rice yeast supplements.
"After 12 weeks, the results were virtually indistinguishable," Becker says.
Patients in both groups significantly reduced their cholesterol levels — especially the bad type of cholesterol, called low-density lipoproteins. Becker says the LDL levels for both groups fell by about 40 percent.
Becker says he would never take certain patients off statin drugs. This includes people who have advanced heart disease, meaning they've already had a heart attack, angioplasty or stents implanted. For them, statin medicines can be lifesaving.
There is a major caveat, however, about red rice yeast supplements.
Becker explains that the capsules he used during the study were tested and certified for their potency and purity by ConsumerLab.com. But consumers can't be certain the red rice yeast on drug store shelves are quality supplements.
"You just don't know what you're getting," he says.
ConsumerLab.com has just released the results of its testing on 10 brands of red rice yeast. The Web site found major differences in concentrations of the main active ingredient, lovastatin.
"We found a 100-fold difference" says Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com. "One product had over 10 milligrams of lovastatin. Another one had less than 0.1 milligrams of lovastain."
ConsumerLab.com also found that several brands were contaminated with a compound called citrinin, which is known to be toxic to the kidneys.
All of this information puts consumers in a tough spot. The results of red rice yeast are promising. But as with all unregulated supplements, problems with quality control and contamination undermine confidence.