Health & Family

Red yeast rice linked to lowering cholesterol

Q. About six years ago, I had trouble with statin cholesterol-lowering drugs. My muscles and joints got very sore. Then a friend suggested red yeast rice. At that time, my doctor required a lab test for cholesterol every six months. He was amazed to learn I was using red yeast rice instead of Lipitor. My cholesterol had dropped from 270 to 178. My LDL, HDL and triglycerides were all in the desirable range.

Red yeast rice has been used for centuries in China to flavor, color and help preserve food. It has also been used in traditional Chinese medicine to promote circulation.

Red yeast rice contains natural compounds related to the statins in cholesterol-lowering drugs such as lovastatin. A 5,000-person study in China demonstrated that taking red yeast rice can cut the risk of a second heart attack nearly in half. It also cut the need for angioplasty or stents by a third.

The researchers say subjects experienced only mild side effects, including digestive upset and temporary liver enzyme elevation. No one should take red yeast rice without medical supervision, though. Some people who are susceptible to muscle pain when they take statins may also experience this problem when they take red yeast rice.

Growth tonics? Be wary

Q. I would like to know if there are any herbs used for penis enlargement. I am interested in natural approaches to growing body hair and improving potency.

A. Despite extravagant claims that pills can increase penis size, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any product for this purpose. Urologists we have consulted tell us that there is nothing you could take that would noticeably change your anatomy.

Environmental contamination with estrogenlike compounds may be affecting penis size in babies. Phthalates are used in certain plastics to make them more flexible. A recent study found that among baby boys, those with the highest levels of phthalates in their bodies had the smallest genitals.

We don't know of a safe way to increase body-hair growth. There are a couple of herbs shown to be helpful in treating impotence. One is yohimbe, which comes from the bark of an African tree. The other is horny goat weed (Epimedium brevicornum), a Chinese herb. Italian researchers have found that this natural product has Viagra-like activity.

Drug has no estrogen

Q. Does Pycnogenol contain estrogen? I would like to try it for my hot flashes, but my doctor said I shouldn't take it if it contains estrogen.

A. There is no estrogen in Pycnogenol. This extract of French maritime pine bark has been shown to relieve hot flashes in one study. Another study concluded that Pycnogenol does not have estrogenic activity.