Guest article by Kathy Mankofsky, Rd, LD.
All those calcium pills you’re taking could be a waste of money…or worse, could be hurting you. Find out how Vitamin K2 can help.
Calcium can prevent osteoporosis. Nothing new there.
But if we are all taking calcium, why are our bones still brittle?
Bones are mostly calcium, so all those calcium pills should help, right?
This happens because calcium builds up in the blood vessels causing blockage.
Why is calcium blocking arteries and causing heart attacks instead of going into your bones?
The answer is that we are not getting enough Vitamin K2.
Vitamin K2 helps calcium to go to the right places. It directs calcium to go into your bones and teeth instead of your arteries.
When your diet is low in Vitamin K2, calcium builds up in the arteries and valves. It also attaches to plaque. This can cause hardening of the arteries, heart attacks and strokes.
While it seems like bone loss and heart disease are two totally different problems, they are related because they both depend on adequate levels of Vitamin K2.
You’ve probably heard of Vitamin K…
The one that’s in green leafy veggies and helps in blood clotting. It turns out there’s more than one type of Vitamin K.
This one is called Vitamin K1 and it doesn’t work on your bones and it does not prevent heart disease. Vitamin K1 is involved in blood clotting.
[If you are on Coumadin/Warfarin, talk to your doctor before taking Vitamin K supplements.]
Vitamin K2 and your heart
Vitamin K2 tells calcium to go into bones and not into blood vessels.
There are a few types of K2, but these are the important ones:
- MK-4 (Menaquinone-4)
- Found in animal based foods such as meat, chicken, cheese, egg yolks and butter
- Higher amounts of K2 are found in grass fed versions of these foods. (It turns out that animals can convert grass to Vitamin K2)
- MK-7 (Menaquinone-7)
- Found mainly in a popular Japanese food called Natto. Natto is derived from bacterial fermentation of soybeans.
- Also found in other fermented foods such as sauerkraut.
Vitamin K2 is a fat soluble vitamin. It’s usually found in the fatty part of foods. You have to have some fat in your meals for Vitamin K2 to be absorbed. If your meals are all low in fat, you won’t absorb much Vitamin K2.
Vitamin K2 and Probiotics
This makes eating foods containing K2 even more critical.
Studies show Vitamin K2 may prevent heart disease
In the Rotterdam study 4807 subjects were studied for 7 years. Those with the highest levels of Vitamin K2:
- Had 57% lower risk of dying from heart disease
- Had 26% reduction in dying from all causes
- Had 52% lower risk of calcium build up
The study found that Vitamin K2 protects against heart disease by inhibiting calcium hardening in the arteries.
The Epic study followed over 16,000 women for 8 years. This study found that for every additional 10 mcg (micrograms) of Vitamin K2 consumed there is a 9% reduction in the risk of developing heart disease.
This study shows a high intake of Vitamin K2 reversed calcium build up in the arteries in rats. (Proof that the same happens in humans is still building.)
Another study showed the higher the Vitamin K2 intake the less coronary calcification there was.
Do I still need Vitamin K2 if I’m already taking statin drugs for lowering cholesterol?
Yes. Statin drugs won’t break up the calcium plaque.
Research shows that lipid-lowering drugs such as statins, have failed to reverse existing arterial calcification.
Actually, some studies (this one and this) show that using statin drugs increases calcium deposits in your arteries. These observational studies don’t prove that statins cause increased calcium deposits. It could be that since Vitamin K2 is found in animal fats and animal fats are often removed from the diets of those on statin drugs. So the root cause could be Vitamin K2 deficiency rather than taking statin drugs.
Warfarin and Vitamin K
Blood thinners like Warfarin can save lives. But few people realize that Warfarin works by inhibiting the effect of Vitamin K.
Rats given Warfarin quickly build up calcium blockages. The same rats, if given high levels of Vitamin K2, had 37% less calcification. This study has not been duplicated in humans. [Do not discontinue taking any prescription medication without talking to your doctor.]
Can Omega-3 reduce calcium plaque?
No – there is no evidence of this.
How does Vitamin K2 prevent heart disease?
It activates a protein called matrix GLA protein (MGP).
What is matrix GLA protein?
- It is a protein that prevents calcium crystals (bone cells) from forming in the arteries
- Vitamin K2 is essential to activate this protein
- If you are low in Vitamin K2, then this protein cannot do its job
- Calcium can harden in the arteries in the same way that calcium hardens in the bones.
Without enough Vitamin K2 bones form in the wrong places. Like your heart.
Indicators of low Vitamin K2 status
- Heart disease
- Low-fat diets
- Antibiotic use
- Not eating fermented foods like Natto, sauerkraut etc.
There are no simple, inexpensive tests for measuring your Vitamin K2 status. So this may be a case where supplementation is appropriate.
Since Vitamin K2 is a fat-soluble vitamin, it is easier to find in fatty or animal-based foods like egg yolk, hard cheese and butter. K2 deficiency is often an unintended result of going on low-fat diets.
Fermented foods like Natto are unavailable to most Americans. And when introduced to Natto, most Americans find it offensively stinky and slimy. Regular consumption of fermented vegetables like sauerkraut or beet kvaas is rare, even among vegans.
A note to vegans:
Vegans who take extra calcium pills to make up for not getting calcium from dairy may be headed for trouble…especially if you do not eat fermented veggies or Natto. You’d have to eat a pound of sauerkraut a week to get enough Vitamin K2. But there’s good news for vegans in part 2 of this blog.
Back to calcium supplements…
TV commercials for calcium supplements would have you believe that one calcium pill per day will fix your osteoporosis for good. The truth is a bit more complex. You need a lot more than just calcium to cure osteoporosis. You need Vitamins K2, D3, magnesium and a long list of nutrients from a variety of whole foods.
Taking those big calcium pills may not cure your bone problems…instead, it may have you rushing to the cardiologist.
In part 2 we will discuss:
- Role of Vitamin K2 in keeping our bones strong and healthy
- How much you need
- Where to get it
Till next time…
Bolland, M.J. et al. Calcium supplements with or without vitamin D and risk of cardiovascular events: reanalysis of the Women’s Health Initiative limited access dataset and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2011 Apr 19;342:d2040
Rheaume- Bleue, Kate. Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox : How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life, Mississauga, Ontario. John Wiley and Sons Canada, Ltd., 2012.
Raggi, P. et al. Aggressive versus moderate lipid-lowering therapy in hypercholesterolemic postmenopausal women: Beyond Endorsed Lipid Lowering with EBT Scanning (BELLES). Circulation. 2005 Jul 26;112(4):563-71.
Cawood, AL, et al. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from highly concentrated n-3 fatty acid ethyl esters is incorporated into advanced atherosclerotic plaques and higher plaque EPA is associated with decreased plaque inflammation and increased stability. Atherosclerosis. 2010 Sep;212(1):252-9.
Masayuki Ueeda, et al. Serum N-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Levels Correlate With the Extent of Coronary Plaques and Calcifications in Patients With Acute Myocardial Infarction. Circ J 2008; 72:1836 – 1843.