Acute hepatitis caused by a natural lipid-lowering product: When “alternative” medicine is no “alternative” at all

Institute of Internal Medicine, Catholic University of Rome, 8 Largo A. Gemelli, 00168 Rome, Italy.
Journal of Hepatology (Impact Factor: 11.34). 04/2009; 50(6):1273-7. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhep.2009.02.021
Source: PubMed


The general public's growing mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry and its perception of the lack of adverse effects of "natural" therapy have lead to the increasing use of "alternative drugs" for hypercholesterolemia.
A sixty-three year old woman presented with severe hypertransaminasemia that had developed progressively over a few weeks. For six months she had been taking Equisterol, an over-the-counter lipid-lowering product containing guggulsterol and red yeast rice extract. The product had been prescribed for hypercholesterolemia because the patient had developed hepatotoxicity while on lovastatin.
Liver biopsy revealed severe lobular necroinflammatory changes with an eosinophilic infiltrate. The episode was regarded as an adverse drug reaction after exclusion of other possible causes of acute liver disease and the prompt normalization of liver function tests after Equisterol had been discontinued. Red yeast rice extract's cholesterol-lowering properties are largely due to fungal metabolites known as monacolins, one of which--monacolin K--is identical to lovastatin.
The choice of an alternative medicine approach in this case subjected the patient to "re-challenge" with the official medicine agent that had previously caused mild hepatotoxicity. Physicians should keep in mind that "alternative" medicine is not always the safest alternative and sometimes it is not even "alternative."

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