Carmela Pengelly is a dietary therapist and nutritional therapist, trained in the UK.
She now lives in Perth, Western Australia, where she practices as a nutritionist, specializing in SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), methylation issues, and vegan/vegetarian diets. She also offers consultations outside of Australia, via Skype.
We mainly associate vitamin K with bone health, but few people are aware of its wide-ranging benefits and its crucial role in our health and longevity. In today’s post, we will look closer at vitamin K’s role in the body and how to identify and address signs of vitamin K deficiency.
What Is Vitamin K?
Vitamin K was originally known for its coagulating (blood clotting) properties, which is why scientists called it K for the German word, ‘koagulation’. Since its discovery, scientists are learning more about the benefits of this unassuming vitamin.
As all the Ks have similar chemical structures, they have very similar actions in the body.
The MK-7 (menoquinone-7) version of K2 is considered the superior form as it is better absorbed than the others. It also has the longest half-life, which means it remains active in the body much longer, and can be used several times over in a kind of recycling process.
Unlike other fat-soluble vitamins, K is not stored in the body, so we need to keep our levels topped up with diet and supplements.
Vitamin K plays a key role in bone metabolism. Its main actions are:
- Enabling calcium to ‘stick’ to proteins in the bone matrix. This binding of calcium gives bone its mass and strength.
- Inhibiting the breakdown of bone.
This vitamin is essential for every age. It plays an important role in:
- Building healthy bone.
The first 35 years of our lives are the bone building stage. After that, we still make new bone, but we start to lose more than we make.
So, it is very important, particularly for children, and women – for whom bone loss accelerates in menopause - to capitalise on this stage by providing our bodies with the right raw materials.
There is limited research on the effect of vitamin K on children’s bone health. However, one study found that bone fractures had increased in children over a 30-year period. This coincides with a significant drop in children’s intake of vitamin K over the last 50 years.
So, there may well be a link between reduced dietary vitamin K and bone strength in children.
- Preventing osteoporosis.
Inadequate vitamin K intake is seen as a significant risk factor for developing osteoporosis.
- Helping osteoporosis.
Vitamin K can improve bone mineral density in those who already have the disease.
- Reducing the risk of fractures.
In a well-known study, called the Framington Heart Study, scientists tracked the health of nearly 900 mature-age men and women over a 7-year period. They found that participants who had a healthy intake of vitamin K had a 65% lower risk of hip fractures than those who had very little vitamin K in their diet.
Dentin, which is the layer beneath tooth enamel, acts in a very similar way to bone, in that it is constantly rebuilding and renewing. As with bone, it needs vitamin K to bind calcium into the tooth.
Why You Should Always Take K2 With Your Calcium
As we’ve said earlier, vitamin K plays a crucial role in enabling the uptake of calcium into bones and teeth. If this doesn’t happen, excess calcium can be deposited in the wrong places, including arteries and kidneys, contributing to cardiovascular problems and kidney stones.
Most people are unaware that calcium supplementation on its own carries the risk of calcium dumping. Therefore, you should always team your calcium supplement with a K2 supplement.
What Else Does Vitamin K Do?
Studies Show Dramatic Heart Health Benefits
The relationship between vitamin K and calcium is very important in heart health. Vitamin K helps to regulate calcium deposits in arteries, and reduces calcification and stiffening of blood vessels - calcification of blood vessels has been shown to triple your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Large-scale studies have shown a strong link between vitamin K and reduced incidence of heart disease.
One study lasting 10 years and involving nearly 5000 participants found that those who had an adequate intake of K2 had 50% less arterial calcification than those on a low intake of the vitamin.
It also found that adequate intake halved the risk of cardiovascular disease. Promising research shows that, even if you are already experiencing the stiffening of blood vessels, long-term use of K2 (MK7) may improve this condition.
Scientists are discovering other potential health benefits of vitamin K.
Potential Cancer Killer
Vitamin K could have useful applications in helping destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli. Antibiotic treatment appears to be potentiated by vitamin K supplementation.
Vitamin K acts as a natural anti-inflammatory and works by downregulating gene expression of inflammatory chemicals.
Vitamin K has been found to be typically low in multiple sclerosis sufferers. It also protects the mitochondria, the energy producing components of a cell – mitochondrial damage is a feature in MS.
There is hope that in the future vitamin K may help to slow the progression of the disease.
Who Is Deficient?
As vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin, anyone on a low-fat diet for long periods of time will be deficient.
Supplementing with vitamin K plus the other fat soluble vitamins, A, D, and E is advisable if you do have to follow a low-fat diet.
You need a healthy gut to be able to absorb any nutrient properly.
Pancreatic insufficiency, where your pancreas is not producing enough digestive enzymes will also reduce absorption. You can boost pancreatic function by eating bitter foods before a meal. Try bitter foods from the list in the chart below.
Also consider taking a probiotic every day as gut flora can sabotage absorption of fat soluble vitamins if there is an imbalance.
Potato Chip Diet
Anyone who lives off a diet of junk food, lacking in green leafy vegetables is likely to be deficient.
This can be especially true for vegans, who don’t include these vegetables in their diet, as they will not have any meat or dairy sources of vitamin K.
Gall Bladder Problems
If your gall bladder has been removed or is under functioning, bile production can be compromised, and you may have trouble breaking down fats (and fat-soluble vitamins) and absorbing them.
You’ll probably know if you aren’t digesting fats properly – you will feel sick and bloated after eating a fatty meal, or you may experience diarrhea or fatty stools.
Warfarin is a common blood thinning medication. The side-effect is that it does inhibit the action of vitamin K, leading to increased risk of calcification of the arteries and compromised bone health.
There is an argument for teaming vitamin K with blood thinning drugs to protect bones and blood vessels, but this must be carefully monitored and you must consult your doctor first if you’re thinking of supplementation.
Can We Get Vitamin K from Food?
We can get vitamin K from our diet, but there are very few foods that contain the superior MK-7 version of K2.
Natto is the best food source of the potent MK-7 version of vitamin K. This traditional Japanese food is a sticky mass of soy beans which have been fermented using specific bacteria, Bacillis subtilis.
Natto is an acquired taste mainly because of its challenging texture, but if you can grow to like it, you will be doing yourself a big favour in terms of long-term health.
K2 - MK7
Fermented cheeses including Gouda and Brie
K2 - MK9
Eggs, meat and liver
K2 - MK4
Leafy green vegetables e.g kale, parsley, spinach, broccoli
Soybean oil and rapeseed oil
Whether you suffer from some of the potential signs of Vitamin K2 deficiency listed in this article or are working to support your long term health, it’s a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, alongside the calcium needed for proper absorption.
For those who struggle with proper ingestion of foods rich in vitamin K, supplementation is an alternative option. Because K2 is harder to get from food, a supplement like Nu U Nutrition Vitamin K2 can be beneficial. Learn more about Vitamin K2 MK7 supplementation in our shop: