Any time there is a change in the availability of a statin drug to treat high lipid blood levels, discussions of potential options to these prescription drugs abound.
As Zocor (simvastatin) goes off patent, here is my contribution to the discussion: red yeast rice.
Given its ability to inhibit the action of HMG-CoA reductase and thus, cholesterol synthesis, red yeast rice has promise as an antihypercholesterolemic treatment. In one study, LDL cholesterol declined by 22% at 8 weeks. This was a significant difference compared to the placebo group, but this response is modest compared to prescription statins where LDL cholesterol reductions range from 25% to 45%.
Proponents of red yeast rice often mention the absence of any deleterious side effects. However, I’m aware of no long-term study to support this contention. (If anyone is aware of one, please let me know, and I’ll make the necessary correction here.) As it contains the same active ingredient as the statins, a similar safety profile might be anticipated.
Economically, there is no advantage using red yeast rice for those who carry health insurance. While the cost per month is reportedly 87% less than for conventional lipid-lowering drugs, the difference would be covered by insurance. Considering a co-pay of $20 to $30 per month for a prescription, the cost difference is negligible.
For those who do not carry health insurance, red yeast rice might be of benefit, but treatment should be guided by a physician with proper monitoring. The content of red yeast rice products varies among manufacturers. Therefore, selecting a brand with a history of content consistency is important for achieving a consistent response to treatment.
John Russo, Jr., PharmD, is president of The MedCom Resource, Inc. Previously, he was senior vice president of medical communications at www.Vicus.com, a complementary and alternative medicine website.