MONDAY, June 15, 2009 (Health.com) — A statin can be a lifesaver if you’re at risk of heart disease, but some people who take the cholesterol-lowering drugs—up to 20%, by some estimates—have to stop because of muscle pain, the most common side effect. (Nearly 30 million people filled a statin prescription in 2005, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Statins include popular drugs such as Crestor, Lipitor, and Zocor.)
Now a new study suggests that an over-the-counter dietary supplement sold at pharmacies and health-food stores may be a workable alternative for people who have statin-related muscle pain. It seems that when combined with diet and lifestyle changes, red yeast rice supplements can lower LDL, or bad cholesterol, levels by more than 20% without a substantial risk of muscle pain (also known as myalgia), according to a study published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
“For some people, especially if they’ve had muscle aching, taking red yeast rice and making lifestyle changes can work as well as a statin,” says lead study author David Becker, MD, a cardiologist in private practice at Chestnut Hill Cardiology in Pennsylvania.
Although these and other results are promising (in a previous study led by Dr. Becker, a combination of red yeast rice and fish oil outperformed simvastatin, the generic version of Zocor), people with high cholesterol shouldn’t race to the vitamin store just yet. Red yeast rice is “not a panacea for all people with statin-association myalgias,” Dr. Becker cautions. In some patients, the supplements may cause a recurrence of muscle pain, or other serious muscle problems that are more difficult to detect.
Plus, consumers who buy red yeast rice off the shelf don’t necessarily know what they’re getting. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements, and the contents and potency of red yeast rice pills have been shown to vary widely among manufacturers. Some pills might even be dangerous: A 2008 analysis of red yeast rice products conducted by a supplement-industry watchdog group found a potentially toxic ingredient in 4 of out 10 brands—one was the store brand of a major pharmacy chain.
Next page: What is red yeast rice?