Natural supplements have become very popular in the market today. Many people turn to these supplements in hope to relieve body pain symptoms and cure certain illnesses. In the advent of technology, drugs sold over the counter become very accessible to many.

But ironically, these drugs could also do harm than cure to the body. This is because most of these drugs may harm certain organs in the body especially if not prescribed by doctors. Hence, a lot people clamor for more natural supplements that are gentle to the body and possess equal ability to heal certain ailments.

What is Red Yeast Rice Supplement?

One of the many natural supplements out there is the red yeast rice supplement. Red yeast rice supplement, also called Went Yeast, has been used for centuries in China as both food and medicine (1). It is made by fermenting a type of yeast called Monascus purpureus over red rice. In Chinese medicine, red yeast rice is used to lower cholesterol, improve blood circulation, and improve digestion (2).

In addition, it contains chemicals that are similar to prescription statin medications (3). One of these, called monacolin K, has the same makeup as the drug lovastatin, which is prescribed by most doctors to lower LDL cholesterol levels and help reduce the risk of heart disease. It also contains unsaturated fatty acids, isoflavones, and phytosterols. Manufacturers remove monacolin before it is sold to the market (4).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that red yeast rice products that contain more than trace amounts of monacolin K are unapproved new drugs and cannot be sold legally as dietary supplements (5). As a result, many of the red yeast rice products you can buy may not contain monacolin but there is no way to tell whether a product contains monacolin because it is not listed on the label (6).

Red Yeast Rice Benefits

1. Lowers cholesterol levels. Red yeast rice has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels. The chemical found in red yeast rice called monacolin K has similar properties to lovastatin, the first statin developed to lower cholesterol (7). Some studies have shown that certain red yeast rice supplements can lower LDL “bad” cholesterol (8). Studies in the United States have shown that high doses of red yeast rice extract (2.4 gm/day) can reduce your total cholesterol level as much as 20-25%, although usually less (9). Red yeast rice extract naturally contains lovastatin, which keeps the body from making cholesterol (10). The lovastatin in the extract has the same chemical make-up as Mevacor, a cholesterol-lowering drug (11). A 2015 review in the Journal Atherosclerosis concluded that a daily dose of red yeast rice containing 10.4 mg of the active ingredient monacolin K, taken for at least four weeks, lowered LDL cholesterol more than a placebo (12).

2. Maintains heart health. Red yeast rice is used in foods such as Peking duck and in Chinese medicine. When it is fermented with certain strains of yeast, it creates a very low-dose statin – drugs are commonly prescribed for reducing high levels of bad cholesterol (13). High level of bad cholesterol is detrimental to the heart. Red yeast rice supplement has been used as a possibly effective aid in reducing the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, or death in people with a history of heart attack (14). In fact, red yeast rice extract was found to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease, or having another heart attack, in a study of almost 5,000 Chinese adults who had previously had a heart attack (15). As an oral supplement, people take red yeast rice for high cholesterol and heart disease.

3. Fights inflammation. When our body is attacked by foreign invaders, our immune system reacts. Inflammation is a normal immune response designed to protect your body against acute infections and foreign invaders. If it is not long-term, it is safe. However, sustained inflammation is thought to contribute to chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer and heart disease (16). Studies show that supplementing with red yeast rice may help reduce inflammation and promote better health in the long term. A study in 50 people with metabolic syndrome showed that taking a supplement containing red yeast rice and olive extract reduced levels of oxidative stress — a key cause of chronic inflammation — by up to 20% (17). Additionally, one study found that giving red yeast extract to rats with kidney damage reduced levels of specific proteins involved in inflammation in the body (18).

4. It may prevent abnormal cell growth. Although current research is limited to animal and test-tube studies, some evidence suggests that red yeast rice may help reduce the growth and spread of cancer cells. A yellow pigment in red yeast rice called monascuspiloin can cause the death of prostate cancer cells by inhibiting mTOR and increasing AMPK (19). Monascuspiloin makes cancer cells more sensitive to radiation and enhances the effectiveness of radiation therapies (20). Researchers are also interested in yet another pair of compounds found in red yeast rice, rubropunctatin and monacolin L. Rubropunctatin may block telomerase, an enzyme that allows cancers to metastasize and move to different parts of the body while monacolin L seems to increase the rate of apoptosis, or cell death, in the tumor (21).

In addition, red yeast rice supplement is believed to be beneficial for diarrhea, circulation improvement, and indigestion (22).

Red Yeast Rice Side Effects

Despite the long list of benefits associated with red yeast rice, supplementing with it may come with some adverse effects. Some of these include gastrointestinal problems like bloating, gas and stomach pain. In more extreme cases, it can also cause issues like muscle problems, liver toxicity and allergic reactions, similar to the side effects caused by prescription cholesterol-lowering medications (23). Get medical help right away if you have signs of an allergic reaction like hives, difficulty breathing, and swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.

Although not all side effects are known, red yeast rice is thought to be possibly safe when taken as directed for up to 4 years. Stop using red yeast rice and call your healthcare provider at once if you have unexplained muscle pain, tenderness, or weakness; fever, unusual tiredness; or nausea, upper stomach pain, itching, tiredness, loss of appetite, dark urine, clay-colored stools, jaundice. Common side effects may include constipation; or stomach discomfort (24).

For this reason, it’s important to stick to the recommended dosage and buy from a reputable retailer to ensure you’re getting the best quality possible. Because research is still limited on the long-term safety of red yeast rice, it’s also not recommended for those currently taking statins or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding (25).