Vitamin K Benefits And Disease Prevention 

We all know that eating well, and especially eating vegetables, helps to prevent future disease.

One reason for this has to do with a little-known vitamin: vitamin K.

Vitamin C and vitamin D get more airtime in the nutrition world, especially for their immune boosting and bone strengthening properties. But did you know that you need vitamin K for these benefits too? 

Today we are going to dive into the details about this essential nutrient and uncover what we are continuing to learn about the different forms of vitamin K and their benefits. 

Keep reading to answer these questions:

  • What is the difference between vitamin K1 and vitamin K2?
  • What foods are high in vitamin K?
  • How much vitamin K do you need each day?
  • What health benefits are associated with vitamin K?
  • What role does vitamin K play in heart health?
  • How do you optimize your vitamin K levels?

Let’s jump in! 

What Is vitamin K? – Vitamin K1 And Vitamin K2

Along with vitamin A, vitamin E, and vitamin D, Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin.

It is essential to obtain from the diet and is best absorbed in the presence of fat. The body has a limited capacity to store vitamin K, and so it is recycled for reuse. 

There are two main forms of vitamin K: vitamin K1 and vitamin K2

Vitamin K1, also known as phylloquinone, is the main dietary source of vitamin K. Vitamin K1 is essential for blood clotting. 

You might be familiar with the vitamin K (K1) shots or drops given to babies at birth to prevent bleeding.

Vitamin K is poorly transported across the placenta and babies are born in a vitamin K deficient state. A deficiency in vitamin K1 may lead to bleeding or hemorrhage. 

Another example of vitamin K’s role in blood clotting is related to anticoagulant medication. When someone is taking some of these medications, such as warfarin, designed to prevent clotting, they need to be consistent with their vitamin K1 intake. Otherwise, natural vitamin K can work against the intention of the medicine. 

Vitamin K1 is mainly found in plant foods, and especially chlorophyll-rich leafy green veggies.

The foods highest in vitamin K1 are:

  • Collard greens
  • Turnip greens 
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Broccoli 

Of note, all of these vegetables (except for spinach) are cruciferous vegetables containing important sulfur compounds, like sulforaphane, needed for hormone balance and detoxification. 

Vitamin K2 is a family of compounds known as menaquinones. You’ll see them denoted as MK-4 through MK-13. 

MK-4, MK-7, and MK-9 are the most well studied, with MK-7 being the most bioavailable and most well-absorbed. 

Unlike vitamin K1 that comes from plants, vitamin K2 is derived from bacteria and found mainly in fermented foods and animal foods. 

Food sources with high vitamin K2 include: 

  • Hard cheese
  • Natto
  • Liver
  • Butter

Natto, a type of Japanese fermented soy, is the food containing the highest amount of vitamin K at 850 mcg per serving. Natto contains primarily MK-7. 

Vitamin K2 is also made by bacteria in the microbiome for absorption into the body, another reason why gut health is so foundational for overall health. 

Vitamin K In The Diet

The adequate intake (AI) for vitamin K in adults is 90 mcg per day for women and 120 mcg per day for men. 

The AI is set at the amount needed to prevent deficiency, although it doesn’t represent optimal intake. In addition, these values are based on vitamin K1 and there are currently no guidelines around the optimal amount of vitamin K2 to obtain from the diet. 

As we learn more about vitamin K2, it is clear we need both vitamin K forms in the diet, from plant foods and animal foods. 

Vitamin K Health Benefits

There are several vitamin-K dependent proteins in the body.

These include:

  • Prothrombin – a protein required for blood clotting
  • Matrix – Gla – a protein found in smooth muscle (including the arteries and GI tract), bone and cartilage
  • Osteocalcin – a protein found in bone that is required for bone mineralization

Research shows that these proteins can use either vitamin K1 or vitamin K2, but vitamin K1 is more associated with prothrombin and vitamin K2 is more associated with bone and heart health. 

Evidence suggests vitamin K, including vitamin K2, has the following benefits for both health and disease prevention:

  • Prevention of cardiovascular disease (more on this below)
  • Improves bone quality and reduces bone fracture risk
  • Reduces risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity
  • Inhibits cancer cell growth and proliferation
  • Improves renal artery function and calcification in chronic kidney disease

Vitamin K And Cardiovascular Disease

A population study of over 53,000 people in Denmark was recently published in the Journal of the American Heart Association looking at the correlation between vitamin K consumption in the diet and heart disease. 

Atherosclerosis describes the process of inflammation and calcium buildup within the arteries that leads to heart disease.

Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death worldwide. It is also largely a lifestyle disease that can be prevented.

We already know a lot about preventing heart disease through a whole foods diet, glycemic control, exercise and stress reduction. 

Inflammation, calcification, and metabolic disease drive heart disease, and vitamin K may be one reason that a whole foods diet is so protective. Both vitamin K1 and vitamin K2 play a role. 

The study found that those who eat diets that are the richest in vitamin K, experienced a lower risk of atherosclerosis-related heart disease, including:

  • Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Ischemic stroke
  • Peripheral artery disease

The lowest risk was seen in peripheral artery disease with vitamin K intake lowering the risk by 34 percent. 

Further, those eating the most vitamin K1 were 21 percent less likely to be hospitalized for heart disease. Those with the highest vitamin K2 intake were 14 percent less likely to be hospitalized. 

The authors of the study suggest that vitamin K may be protective because of its role in homeostasis, inflammation reduction, and inhibiting calcification of the arteries.

While current dietary guidelines only focus on vitamin K1, vitamin K2 is also important and needs to be included in guidelines. 

How To Optimize Vitamin K

Paying attention to vitamin K now may prevent osteoporosis and heart disease down the road.

If a disease process is already underway, increasing vitamin K has the potential to play a role in treatment. 

Here are some ways to optimize your vitamin K levels:

1. Eat a Paleo diet. Not just any Paleo diet will do, it’s important to include an abundance of green leafy vegetables daily along with animal foods, including organ meats like liver. 

If you are getting started down the path of eating real food, check out these recipes and resources: 

2. Include fermented foods. Fermented foods, as condiments or beverages, were a regular part of an ancestral diet. Fermentation allows for food preservation, but also enhances the nutrition of these foods.

As bacteria ferment the sugars in the food, they produce a variety of nutrients and beneficial compounds, including vitamin K2. 

Some favorite Paleo fermented foods include: 

  • Sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented vegetables
  • Fermented relishes, chutneys, and other condiments
  • Kombucha 
  • Unsweetened coconut yogurt
  • Fermented cashew cheese 

3. Optimize your microbiome. It’s common in today’s stressful, modern world to have poor microbiome health. Luckily, Functional Medicine offers a personalized approach to repairing and healing the microbiome by increasing the diversity and proliferation of beneficial microorganisms.

Some of these probiotics increase the amount of vitamin K2 available to your body. 

Read more about the benefits of gut healing and the 5R framework in this article: How to Improve Digestive Symptoms and Restore Gut Health

4. Supplement with Vitamin K. Vitamin K1 is likely still the most common form of vitamin K found in supplements; however, as we learn more about vitamin K2, this crucial form is increasingly found in supplements too.

It is important to supplement with vitamin K2, especially if you don’t eat many of the dietary sources. 

Here are some recommended supplements that contain vitamin K:

  • Osteo Support Plus K – Includes vitamin D3, vitamin K2 (as MK-7) and important minerals for bone health.
  • Vitamin D3 plus Vitamin K2 – The preferred way to take vitamin D is in conjunction with vitamin K2. Think of vitamin D as helping with calcium absorption and vitamin K2 as helping to put the calcium in your bones. 
  • Prenatal Pure Pack – Prenatal vitamins, minerals, and omega-3s that contain vitamin K1 and easily pair with extra vitamin D plus K2 to meet daily needs for both forms of vitamin K. 

Vitamin K may not be at the top of your list when you think of important nutrients for health and disease prevention, but it should be.

Now you can see just how critical it is for maintaining a healthy heart, bones, and brain, especially as we age. 

While there is more to learn and understand about vitamin K, and especially vitamin K2, we know that the standard American diet is failing to provide this and other important nutrients.

It’s time to invest in your future health by increasing the nutrient density of your diet and using well-placed supplements to meet all of your needs.