Together with lifestyle changes, red yeast rice can help reduce so-called "bad" cholesterol in people who cannot tolerate treatment with popular cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins, according to a new study.

Moreover, red yeast rice does not seem to have the side effects, including muscle pain, often experienced by those who cannot tolerate statin treatment, lead author Dr. David J. Becker, from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, and colleagues note in their report in the Annals of Internal Medicine for June 16.

Red yeast rice is a dietary supplement that has been used for centuries in China as an herbal medication. Researchers knew that it lowered LDL cholesterol, but they had not determined whether it worked in people who could not take statins.

Becker and his colleagues studied 62 patients with high cholesterol who had stopped taking statins because of muscle pain. The patients received either red yeast rice (1800 milligrams) or dummy pills twice per day for 24 weeks. All of the subjects also participated in a 12-week therapeutic lifestyle change program, including visits with a cardiologist, dietician, exercise physiologist, and several experts in relaxation techniques.

After 12 weeks and 24 weeks, those who received the red yeast rice saw their LDL levels, and their overall cholesterol levels, fall more than those who took the dummy pills. By contrast, levels of other forms of cholesterol and fats in the blood did not change.

The results suggest that the combination of red yeast rice supplements and lifestyle change may be a treatment option for those who cannot tolerate statins, the authors conclude.