Vitamin K2 – A Missing Link in the Western Diet?
Written by Carol Petersen, RPh, CNP – Women’s International Pharmacy
In 1925 an enterprising dentist, Dr. Weston Price, and his wife began traveling the world and documenting their observations of healthy, remote populations. They observed significant changes in tooth arrangement and mouth and facial structure when people of various cultures strayed from their traditional diet and adopted the Western diet. Traditional diets varied greatly, but all consisted of animal protein and fat in the form of fish, fowl, land animals, eggs, milk and milk products, reptiles, and/or insects. The Western diet introduced processed foods, sugar, and grains. Narrowed mouths, crowded teeth, thin faces, and smaller arches appeared in children whose parents adopted the Western diet. Dr. Price suspected that something specific was missing from the Western diet. He called this mysterious factor Activator X. He demonstrated that Activator X was prevalent in the meat and milk products of animals that grazed on green grasses. He even showed that these facial and dental abnormalities could be reversed in the next generation if Activator X was replaced in the diet. Finally, in 2006, Dr. Price’s Activator X was identified to be vitamin K2.
Confusion With the K’s
There are a number of types of vitamin K, but only two natural forms: vitamin K1 and vitamin K2. Vitamin K1 is present in leafy, green vegetables and is most identified with blood clotting. The drug, Coumadin, works to prevent blood from clotting by inhibiting the action of vitamin K1. The effects of excessive Coumadin may be reversed by administering vitamin K1.
Vitamin K2 exists in a number of distinct active forms. The two most commonly seen are designated as MK-4 and MK-7. MK-4 is present in the organs, milk, eggs and cheese of grass-fed animals. MK-7 is most abundant in a bacterial ferment of soy beans called natto. It is also present in lesser amounts in other fermented foods. Vitamin K2 does not appear to share Vitamin K1’s association with blood clotting.
A Calcium Paradox
Nutritional biochemistry is complicated. In order to learn how various vitamins and minerals work in the body, we often look at the function of one single nutrient at a time. However, when we do this, we fail to understand how nutrients work together. For example, we know that bones need calcium, but supplementing with calcium alone is unlikely to strengthen one’s bones. We need to consider how a number of nutrients work together to contribute to bone health. Each of the fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K, works together synergistically. Vitamin D facilitates calcium absorption into the blood stream. Vitamin K2 converts vitamin D into its active form and also activates the hormone osteocalcin to direct the calcium to the bone. A deficiency of any one of these vitamins may cause malfunctions in the body. Specifically, a deficiency of vitamin K2 may cause calcium to be stored in other tissues rather than being directed to the bone. If calcium settles in the arteries, it can lead to atherosclerosis. Calcium may also cause problems by settling in the joints and in soft tissues like the breasts.
The French Paradox Solved?
Many find it surprising that the French eat a lot of cholesterol and saturated fat and have low rates of death from coronary heart disease (CHD). Some think it’s an ingredient in red wine that keeps them healthy. Perhaps these saturated fats laden with vitamin K2 are the protective factor.
Vitamin K2 in All Parts of the Body
- Heart Disease: One of the most powerful tools against calcification of the blood vessels is a vitamin K2 activated protein.
- Osteoporosis: Vitamin K2 activated osteocalcin directs calcium to the bones.
- Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome: Vitamin K2 improves insulin sensitivity thus potentially stalling progression to metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
- Wrinkles and Tissue Laxity: May be due to a vitamin K2 deficiency causing misplaced calcium in the skin and tissues.
- Varicose Veins: May be due to a vitamin K2 deficiency causing calcium to deposit in the veins.
- Arthritis: Joint damage may reflect a vitamin K2 deficiency.
- Dental Health: Vitamin K2 may be useful in treating and preventing dental cavities.
- Pregnancy: Adequate vitamin K2 promotes the healthy development of fetal teeth and facial structure. Also, labor may be easier when vitamin K2 levels are adequate.
- Cancer: Vitamin K2 promotes cell differentiation and may protect against metastasis.
- Nervous System: Vitamin K2 plays a role in nervous system protection, myelin development, and signal transduction.
Vitamin K2 and Hormones
Vitamin K2 has an important relationship with estrogen and bone health. Estrogen and bone density both decline during menopause and postmenopausal women are often markedly deficient in vitamin K2. Bone health may be improved in postmenopausal women by restoring adequate vitamin K2 levels as vitamin K2 acts in the bone loss pathway in a number of areas specific to the loss caused by low estrogen levels. Vitamin K2 also plays a role in estrogen metabolism itself. Additionally, testosterone levels and sperm production may be improved by osteocalcin, the hormone activated by vitamin K2.
It is remarkable that it took decades from Dr. Weston Price’s careful observations and characterization of Activator X to finally identify vitamin K2 and a number of its myriad functions. We are still not sure of the appropriate supplement dose to use or the amount of vitamin K2 rich foods to eat. Tests are being devised to help evaluate our vitamin K2 status. In the near future, we will be able to measure vitamin K2 levels as readily as we test for vitamin D now. Research has only scratched the surface of the potential of this fascinating vitamin!
- Rheaume-Bleue K. Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life. New York, NY: Harper; 2013.
- Price WA. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (6th Edition). New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing; 2003.