Red yeast rice extract is a compound extracted from red yeast rice, an Asian specialty which has been produced and consumed for centuries. Studies on red yeast rice and red yeast rice extract have shown that it can reduce cholesterol levels. In fact, some of the active compounds in red yeast rice appear in prescription drugs designed to lower cholesterol. This extract is sold as a dietary supplement, although some regulatory organizations have suggested that it should be treated like a drug.
In Asia, red yeast rice is eaten with a variety of dishes, and it is a fundamental part of some traditional recipes. It is made by cultivating a yeast known as Monascus purpureus on polished rice, allowing the rice to become covered in a thick layer of reddish yeast. Once the yeast has been cultivated, the rice can be packaged for sale and eventual cooking, or treated to obtain red yeast rice extract, which may be sold in liquid or capsule form.
Chemical analysis of red yeast rice has indicated that it contains compounds which inhibit the formation of cholesterol, thereby lowering cholesterol levels. In scientific studies, red yeast rice extract appears to have no impact on levels of good cholesterol, instead working to lower triglycerides and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Some researchers have suggested that the consumption of red yeast rice may explain traditionally low levels of cholesterol in Asian populations, although this may also be related to dietary trends and exercise habits.
Red yeast rice extract can act as a statin or cholesterol lowering drug, and some practitioners of alternative medicine recommend it to patients with high cholesterol levels. However, there are some caveats involved. Statins need to be used under medical supervision, with periodic blood tests to monitor cholesterol levels, and many medical professionals feel that red yeast rice extract should be treated in the same way, since it is chemically similar to pharmaceutical drugs.
Using red yeast rice extract is also less reliable than using a statin, because it is not formulated and compounded in a laboratory, which means that the levels of the cholesterol-lowering compounds can vary from dose to dose. Thus, it is difficult to arrive at dosage recommendations. Patients can also experience bloating, nausea, and all of the symptoms with statin use, and red yeast rice extract has also been linked to liver damage, so it should not be used by people with chronic liver conditions.