Dear People's Pharmacy: Do blueberries have any bad side effects for cardiac patients? I put some fresh berries in my yogurt every day.

Answer: Blueberries are rich in fiber and antioxidants. Rats fed a diet rich in blueberries had better blood-vessel function, so that bodes well for heart patients (Journal of Medicinal Food, Spring 2005).

Q: People often complain about the side effects of statin drugs they take for high cholesterol. My former doctor prescribed each of the statin drugs for me. They all caused soreness, muscle weakness, joint pain and an extreme reaction to sunlight.

When I went to a new doctor, he asked why I had been given all five statin drugs. I told him each drug caused bad side effects, but then the doctor would try another.

The new doctor said such reactions are common among fair-haired, fair-skinned people. He suggested red yeast rice capsules instead. It lowered my cholesterol 60 points (220 down to 160), with no side effects. What do you know about this supplement?

A: Red yeast rice is a Chinese flavoring agent and botanical medicine. It often lowers cholesterol quite well, in part because it contains statinlike compounds.

Some people experience side effects even with this natural medicine. One reader wrote: "I cannot take conventional statin drugs. I've tried three different brands and got achy muscles from all of them. So I tried red yeast rice. Within a few weeks, I got the same muscle pain, although not quite as severe."

Q: My husband has had problems with blood sugar. When he had to go on prednisone, I worried because this drug can make blood-sugar problems worse. The doctor didn't seem concerned, but as a retired diabetes educator, I knew this could become a serious problem.

Soon after my husband started taking prednisone, his blood glucose level went over 200. Then he started taking nopal cactus, and it dropped to 150 and then to 132. We're pleased with the results but would like to know more about nopal. What do you know about this supplement?

A: The leaves of prickly pear cactus (opuntia) have been eaten as a vegetable for centuries. Nopal, as it is known in Mexico, has also been used there to lower blood sugar in type 2 diabetics.

There is some preliminary animal research to suggest that this botanical product may be effective, but there is not much human data to support its use. Anyone who might consider such an approach needs to be under medical supervision and to monitor blood glucose carefully. Capsules of nopal can be found in health-food stores or on the Internet.

• In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. E-mail them at their Web site: www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.

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