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Lesser known Vitamin K plays vital role in health

by Doris Penner

Vitamin K is not as well known as its cousins vitamins A, B, C and D—even E has received notice in recent years—and yet, it plays several vital roles in the body. No one should minimize a nutrient that has key functions in regards to blood and bone health, and thus we dare not push vitamin K to the back burner. So what part does this vitamin play in the health of the body, and how do we ensure intake is sufficient? Should one be worried about a deficiency?

Vitamin K is actually a group of compounds, known not surprisingly as K1, K2 and K3. However, lay people are generally not given detailed information about various forms of nutrients since this can become very complicated, so unless it is important to make a differentiation, we simply say vitamin K.

The vitamin is best known for its role in the blood clotting process, named after the German word koagulation (coagulation or thickening). For many people, “blood clot” has negative connotations since it is associated with clogging arteries and causing strokes and heart attacks. However, blood clotting is imperative when skin or vital organs are punctured, and blood begins to flow from the body. Without clotting, a person would bleed to death in minutes (depending of course, on the size of the wound).

Plaque build-up

Perhaps you have sometimes wondered why supposedly healthy individuals acquire a blood clot. Even here we see the marvellous way the body works—one reason clots form in blood vessels is in response to a rupture due to plaque build-up. The clot prevents blood from flowing into body cavities.

Research has shown that vitamin K also plays a significant part in bone support. Studies indicate that individuals with a vitamin K deficiency are at a greater risk for fracture. Vitamin K appears to be involved in at least two basic mechanisms taking place in bone: the first one involves regulating the number of osteoblasts (bone cells) that pass in and out of bones. Osteoblasts leave bone to perform functions throughout the body, but too many cells leaving would mean demineralization which weakens bones.

Secondly, vitamin K is involved in a process called carboxylation which has to do with chemically altering a protein in the bone (osteocalcin) linked to bone density. When too few of the proteins are carboxylated, bones have an increased risk of fracture. It seems to be particularly evident when it comes to hip fracture—perhaps because it is an active part of bodily movement. Vitamin K is becoming increasingly more the focus in research on bone protection—low levels of the vitamin are emerging as dietary risk factors for osteoporosis (the focus has been more on calcium and vitamin D).

There is ongoing research to determine if vitamin K may have a further role in heart and bone health, and recently the vitamin has been shown to help improve insulin resistance.

Adequate intake

You will find it reassuring to know that serious deficiency of vitamin K is not common, which means that it is possible to have adequate intake from diet. Fresh green vegetables are the best source of the vitamin, in particular kale, spinach, Swiss chard and mustard greens. One cup of any of these would provide you with five to 10 times the recommended daily amount of vitamin K (90 mcg for adult females and 120 mcg for adult males). Other excellent sources are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, romaine lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, green beans and kiwi (blueberries and grapes are also very good sources). Herbs such as parsley, cilantro, sage and oregano, too, are rich in vitamin K, but as a rule they are not consumed in adequate quantities to be considered excellent dietary sources. As you will recognize, the plant-based foods on the list also offer a myriad of other health benefits to protect the heart and help metabolism.

It is interesting to note that one of the components of vitamin K (K2) is mostly found in fermented soy products such as miso or tempeh, as well as yogurt and cheese. It appears in this case that microorganisms have converted vitamin K1—appearing naturally in plant foods—into K2. Some animal foods fed on grass (including pasture-raised chicken and eggs, as well as grass-fed beef and milk from grass-fed cows) contain measurable amounts of vitamin K.

While vitamin K deficiency is not common, studies have shown that the adult population as a whole is eating just below the recommended daily level. This could easily be rectified by incorporating vitamin K-rich foods in the diet. Although not often recommended, a vitamin K supplement is available. Those on drugs such as blood thinners, antibiotics, aspirin, medicines for cancer and high cholesterol should consult their physician before taking a supplement since these drugs interefere with the effects of vitamin K.