date: 7/19/2006
Supplements or statins for cholesterol?
Are you considering taking "natural" supplements as an alternative to more expensive statin drugs for high cholesterol? ConsumerReportsHealth.org can help you sort out whether supplement treatments work well.
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The cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins you've seen advertised for years on TV unquestionably do a great job of lowering LDL cholesterol—anywhere from 20 to 60 percent, depending on the particular drug—and decreasing the risk of heart disease. But depending on the dose, they can be quite expensive and have several side effects, causing some people to consider "natural" statin-like supplements instead.

Here's our evaluation of some the nutritional supplements being promoted as natural cholesterol reducers.

Red yeast rice (rice extract fermented with a strain of red yeast) really does reduce cholesterol, not surprising since it contains the same active ingredient as a real statin drug called lovastatin (generic, Altoprev, Mevacor). In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that red yeast rice products were unapproved drugs, not supplements, and therefore illegal, but it's still easy to purchase the products online.

Our experts say that taking red yeast rice exposes you to all of the risks of taking a prescription drug, with dubious benefits. First, you really won't know how much you're taking. As with all supplements, there's no guarantee that what you buy will contain what the label says it does, since the FDA doesn't regulate the manufacturing quality for supplements as it does for drugs. Second, you may be taking a powerful drug with the same potential side effects as the prescription counterpart but without proper medical supervision.

Policosanol is a compound derived from sugar cane. Its enthusiasts have claimed, based on studies emanating from a single research group in Cuba, that it can cut your cholesterol as much as some statins. But an independent German study of policosanol published in the May 17, 2006, Journal of the American Medical Association found otherwise. Policosanol had no more effect on subjects' cholesterol than a dummy pill.

Guggulipid, extracted from a species of tree in India, is widely sold as a cholesterol reducer based on reported traditional use and a few clinical trials in India showing that it was modestly effective. But an American clinical trial of people eating a typical Western diet, published in the Aug. 13, 2003, Journal of the American Medical Association, found that guggulipid actually raised undesirable cholesterol slightly and also gave rashes to about 10 percent of the subjects.

CR's take
Our medical experts say that if your cholesterol is high enough to require treatment, you're much better off with the prescription versions.

Complete information on statin drugs is available free on Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.

Detailed information on supplements promoted for cholesterol control can be found at Natural Medicines Ratings, available to subscribers of Consumer Reports Health.


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