For decades we’ve been told we must consume loads of calcium-rich foods and supplements to grow and maintain strong, healthy bones.
Yet, osteoporosis and low bone density remain prevalent health issues in America.
In fact, studies show over half of adults over the age of 50 are at risk of breaking of a bone1.
Which means the old “plenty of calcium = strong healthy bones” nutritional theory isn’t proving out. Something’s missing.
Thanks to new research and pioneering nutrition experts, we’re learning that one of the missing links to better bone health (and more) isn’t more calcium or even magnesium…
…it’s Vitamin K.
Meet the Vitamin K Group
Vitamin K may sound like a singular vitamin, but it’s actually a group of different fat-soluble vitamins.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the two forms commonly found in foods: Vitamin K1 and Vitamin K2.
Together, these vitamins are responsible for a variety of essential bodily functions, including blood clotting, maintaining blood calcium levels, building and maintaining bone and dentin, cognitive function, and heart health.
It’s important to note, that while they are both part of the same vitamin group, vitamin K2 has been shown to have the most notable health benefits.
The Link Between Modern Nutrition and Vitamin K Insufficiency
While vitamin K deficiency resulting in an inability to clot blood is rare, vitamin K insufficiency—meaning sub-optimal levels of vitamin k—is a common cause of many puzzling health issues.
Why aren’t we getting enough?
The main reason is our modern diet, which doesn’t include many of the vitamin K-rich foods our ancestors enjoyed regularly.
Traditional foods such as meats and organ meats from grass-fed animals provide an excellent source of vitamin K2 (more on this in the next section), and plant-based foods provide ample amounts vitamin K1, of which a portion is converted to vitamin K2 in the gut.
Foods High in Vitamin K1
- Green leafy vegetables, like kale, chard, and lettuces
How much Vitamin K1 is actually converted to Vitamin K2 in the gut?
While experts have their opinions on this, the truth is we don’t know for sure.
It likely varies due to a variety of individual factors including diet, the source of K1, wherever or not K1 foods are consumed with fat, genetics, gut health, etc.
Which is why it’s a good idea to consume a variety of foods rich in vitamin K1 and K2.
Foods High in Vitamin K2
Vitamin K2 requires no conversion in the gut, and is found predominately in animal-based foods (please note that factory-farmed animal foods are NOT high in K2, so choose grass-fed/pastured/wild sources), including:
- Organ meats
- Hard cheeses
- Beef, chicken, and pork
- Egg yolks
- Fatty fish, such as wild-caught salmon
Plant-based sources of vitamin K2 include:
- Fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut, kim chi, and real pickles
- Natto, a traditional Japanese dish of fermented soybeans
The Little-Known Health Benefits of Vitamin K
Vitamin K2 Improves Bone Density
One of the most exciting health benefits of vitamin K2 is its ability to help improve bone density and prevent osteoporosis.
It does this by activating osteocalcin, a protein hormone found in bone and dentin, which takes calcium from the blood and binds it to bone.
Without vitamin K2, osteocalcin cannot perform this essential function4; which is why you can take all the calcium supplements in the world and still wind up with weak or brittle bones.
Vitamin K2 Improves Heart Health
Want a healthier heart and/or are you worried you may have been taking too much calcium over the years?
Then vitamin K2 will be your new best friend.
Here’s how it helps protect your heart.
As you read above, vitamin K helps the body store calcium in the bones (where it’s meant to be) AND it also helps keep it out of your soft tissues (where it doesn’t belong), like your arteries and brain.
It does this by activating the protective protein known as matrix GLA protein (MGP), which blocks calcium from infiltrating your arteries and other organs.
Not only can vitamin K2 help prevent heart disease, but it can also help improve existing cases of atherosclerosis.
In a landmark study of 244 postmenopausal women over 3 years, vitamin K2 was shown to significantly reduce arterial stiffness in women—even in those with advanced cases of atherosclerosis5.
Vitamin K1 and K2 Can Improve Cognitive Function and May Help Prevent Alzheimer’s
New research has revealed that vitamin K1 and K2 play a significant role in cognitive function. This is due to their notable involvement in central nervous system metabolism6.
Vitamin K also plays a role in the development of brain cells, has an antiapoptotic and anti-inflammatory effect, and is involved in what’s known as sphingolipids metabolism—this group of lipids participates in the proliferation, differentiation, and survival of brain cells. An altered expression in sphingolipids profile has been connected to neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration7.
While the science on this is still young, research has shown that higher dietary intake of vitamin K1 was associated with better cognition and behavior among older adults8.
Another study showed that patients diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s consumed significantly less amounts of vitamin K (in either form) than the non-diagnosed control group9.
Vitamin K2 Prevents Tooth Decay and Improves Dental Health
If you have sensitive teeth or are prone to cavities, the answer could be as simple as getting more vitamin K2.
Just like vitamin K2 helps direct calcium to your bones by activating osteocalcin, it also helps direct it to your dentin thus strengthening your teeth and even helping reverse decay. Plus, it activates matrix GLA protein (MGP) mentioned above, to help re-mineralize your teeth and bones10.
How Much Vitamin K (K1 or K2) Do You Need?
I always recommend getting your vitamins from foods whenever possible, which means eating liberally of the K1 and K2 food sources listed above.
However, supplementation can be helpful if you have an existing health issue you wish to tackle or your digestion is compromised. Vitamin K works well in conjunction with Vitamin D and magnesium, so keep that in mind when considering a supplement. Also look for the Vitamin K2-7 form. Vitamin K supplementation is contraindicated for some people, such as those who are on blood-thinning medications. Consult your healthcare provider to see if Vitamin K2 supplementation is indicated for you.