When 61-year-old Mark Aloe learned that he had high cholesterol and a family history of heart disease nearly 20 years ago, he immediately set out on the standard course of treatment for heart patients with high cholesterol: He began taking a prescription statin.
But after a few years of taking statin drugs, Aloe began to realize he either needed to find another treatment option for lowering his cholesterol or he would have to surrender his quality of life to the statin drugs, which were causing him unbearable muscle pain.
"It got to point with some of the statins that ... you feel like you were in an automobile wreck and you're sore all over and nothing can relieve it until you stop taking the statins," Aloe explained. "It got to point where I couldn't even sleep because I was so sore."
For about 15 years after initially being diagnosed with high cholesterol, Aloe switched back and forth between different forms of statin drugs -- from Lipitor to Crestor and back again.
"I think I must have tried just about all of the statins," Aloe said.
Finally, in 2003, Aloe's doctor at the University of Pittsburgh offered him an unlikely alternative to the prescription statin -- a Chinese herbal supplement.
Only a month and a half after dropping the statin drugs and replacing them with a Chinese supplement called red yeast rice extract, Aloe experienced a drop in his cholesterol levels without any noticeable side effects.
Before taking the red yeast extract pills, Aloe's cholesterol level was at 260; anything above 240 is considered to be "very high risk" by the American Heart Association. About 45 days later, his cholesterol had dropped to 180; anything below 200 is considered to be safe and healthy by the AHA.
"I wish I had heard about this 20 years ago," Aloe said. "I would have started this regimen and wouldn't have had so many years of muscle pain."
New research finds that for heart patients like Aloe -- who are unable or unwilling to tolerate a statin drug to lower their cholesterol levels -- taking a Chinese supplement purchased from a local grocery store might be just as effective at lowering their heart risks.
Chinese red yeast rice extract, it turns out, is a natural source of an active ingredient in many statin drugs called lovastatin.
In a study of 5,000 Chinese heart attack patients, researchers at Thomas Jefferson University's Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine compared red yeast rice extract pills to a placebo treatment. They found those subjects taking the red yeast rice pills cut their risk of repeat heart attacks by nearly one half.
These patients also reduced their chances of having a heart procedure, such as bypass surgery or angioplasty, and their risk of dying from cancer also appeared to be reduced by as much as two-thirds.
The results were a surprise, the researchers wrote in their article. But they cautioned that their findings deserve more study. And they also urged those with high cholesterol not rush out to buy these supplements, as the pills may contain unsafe doses of lovastatin or contain harmful ingredients.
Heart experts were divided on whether the extract should be suggested as a treatment option to heart patients who could not tolerate statins.