Take Two on K2

When I posted previously about Vitamin K2 I knew enough to say that if we’re not eating natto, we all need a K2 supplement. But how much? What kind? I really didn’t know.

A few months later an exciting new book caught my eye: Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life, by Canadian naturopath Dr. Kate Rheaume-Bleue.

The apparent contradiction the title’s referring to is that a calcium deficiency in the bones often exists at the same time there’s a calcium excess in the arteries of the same people, as osteoporosis and heart disease frequently show up together. There’s really the right amount of calcium, it’s just in the wrong places. The incidence of both these conditions has increased dramatically in the past century. What’s going wrong, and what’s changed?

Rheaume-Bleue points to a deficiency in Vitamin K2 in our modern diet. K2 is very different from the K1 that’s known for clotting. The function of Vitamin K2 is to move calcium around the body, guiding it into the bones and teeth where it belongs, and out of our arteries, where it causes problems.

What does K2 deficiency look like? Osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, varicose veins, wrinkled skin, dental cavities, Crohn’s disease, kidney disease, narrow crowded dental arch, alzheimer’s, arthritis, MS, infertility – all these and more point to a K2 deficiency. And the author goes on to conclude that essentially everyone who eats a standard North American diet is deficient; how the deficiency manifests is the only question.

So what’s changed to cause such a widespread shortage? It was largely the shift from pasture-feeding to grain-feeding animals that happened in the middle of the last century. Until then, farm animals grazed on grasses that were high in Vitamin K1, which they converted to K2 for us, and we then consumed. We can get our own K1 from greens, so a deficiency of K1 is rare in humans, as long as they eat vegetables; but our bodies don’t effectively convert it to K2. Our best sources of Vitamin K2 used to be meat, eggs, and butter from pasture fed animals, but now most animals eat grain, so they are deficient and so are we.

If you’ve ever come across the work of Dr. Weston Price – he was a dentist in the early 20th century who studied the diets of isolated primitive cultures – he identified an ingredient that he named “Activator X” that was responsible for keeping people in those cultures healthy until they left their traditional ways and adopted processed diets. That ingredient is now known as Vitamin K2.

So if you think you’re deficient in Vitamin K2, what can be done? The high road would be to source all your meat, eggs, and butter from pasture-raised animals, thus eating the way our ancestors did. That may be outside your budget.

There is one more food option, the traditional Japanese superfood called natto made of fermented soybeans. In the eastern part of Japan where it’s commonly eaten the incidence of hip fractures is much lower than in the rest of the country, pointing to natto’s major impact on K2 supply. Unfortunately, though, not everyone can get used to natto. It has a strong smell that has been likened to gym bags, and a stringy slimy texture that some people call mucousy.  It’s actually not hard to make – it cultures something like yogurt, with a particular inoculant. I learned to eat it to be polite when I lived in Japan. There it’s said to be the one food a foreigner can never love, and I don’t love it; but I make it and eat it.

If trying new foods with foul smells and disturbing textures is not for you, then Dr. Kate Rheaume-Bleue strongly recommends a Vitamin K2 supplement. It turns out there are two main forms of K2, which are abbreviated MK4 (menatetrenone) and MK7 (menaquinone). MK4 is the form in meat sources, and its supplements are synthesized from a tobacco extract. MK7 is extracted from natto, the soybean food. If you’re sensitive to soy, you won’t want to take MK7.

Here’s where it’s particularly helpful that the author’s Canadian: She explains a dose discrepancy that I hadn’t been able to resolve between studies I’ve read and what’s on the shelves of stores. It seems that Health Canada doesn’t know there is a Vitamin K2, so the limit they’ve put on Vitamin K1 supplements – 120 mcg per dose – also applies to Vitamin K2 sold in Canada. This works quite well if you’re taking the MK7 form, as 120 mcg is an effective daily dose according to many studies. But with MK4, it would take about 38 of the legal Canadian dose pills per day to have a measurable impact on our bodies. The price alone is prohibitive. For those who are sensitive to soy, MK4 is the only form you’ll be able to tolerate, so it might be worth a drive across the border to where you can buy MK4 in therapeutic doses at a reasonable price.

There are some other potential issues with MK7 that the author doesn’t identify. Some people develop heart palpitations when they take it. Personally, I stopped sleeping well after taking it for a while, and the problem went away when I gave up the supplement. Natto doesn’t seem to bother me, though. Of course, as with all these things, your experience may be very different from mine.

The book contains a wealth more information on the interactions between nutrients.  The author firmly believes, as I do, that no one nutrient can solve all our problems, and that supplements can’t take the place of a healthy diet and lifestyle. She devotes a fair bit of time to discussing the interaction between Vitamin D, Vitamin A, and Vitamin K2, as none of these fat-soluble vitamins can work if there’s a shortage of one of the others. She also has sections on magnesium and Vitamin E.

For me, my particular interest in Vitamin K2 has to do with turning around osteoporosis, but my family line is riddled with the other conditions that are linked to a K2 deficiency. I’d started taking a lot more Vitamin D for the sake of my bones, but it’s very helpful to know that all this extra D is useless with inadequate K2.

The author presents an enticing statistic, in case you still need convincing: She quotes studies that showed a 50% reduction in arterial plaque after only six weeks of taking Vitamin K2 as menaquinone (MK7). That’s impressive! Also, she says that K2 supplementation seems to reduce hip fracture rates more than increases in bone density can explain. That is, it appears to improve the strength or flexibility of bones.

You don’t have to have osteoporosis or heart disease to learn something useful from this book. I suggest you read the book. But if you aren’t going to do that, then buy some Vitamin K2 and start taking it.

The elusive K2

It turns out that K2 is an oft used name. I knew it applied to the second highest mountain peak in the world, located between Pakistan and China. And I’m telling the whole truth when I tell you that until just now I didn’t know it is a word whispered between illegal drug users. But did YOU know that it is also a vitamin that your bones must have?

Maybe you’ve heard of vitamin K. Have you wondered how it rated the 11th letter of the alphabet, when the previous vitamins were A-B-C-D-E? Why it isn’t vitamin F? Well, it turns out that the Danish scientist who identified it referred to it as the Koagulationsvitamin because of its role in coagulation, and that starts with a K. Eventually scientists figured out that there are several forms of this vitamin, and this initial variety was renamed K1

Without vitamin K1 we are prone to hemorrhaging because the blood doesn’t clot appropriately. It’s easy to get enough of this, though, because it’s abundant in leafy green vegetables. Kale is an excellent source of K1.

Another member of the family, vitamin K2, has a major effect on bone metabolism by regulating calcium. While directing the calcium to our bones, where it’s needed, it effectively transfers it away from our arteries, preventing arteriosclerosis. So the gain to our bones also benefits our hearts.

But here’s the problem: while some vitamin K2 can be formed in the body from vitamin K1, the most biologically active form can’t, so must be taken from food or a supplement. The best food source of K2 is a traditional Japanese fermented soybean food called natto.

As it happens, my husband and one daughter love natto, so every now and then I make a batch for them, a three-day process that involves soaking, cooking, then fermenting soybeans with a culture hand-carried from Japan. I can tell you more about this if you want to know. But most non-Japanese people have a very hard time eating natto. Whether it’s the smell reminiscent of stinky socks, the mucous-like threads that hang from a spoonful, or the overpowering taste – chances are it would take you some time to acquire the taste for this food.

So in the case of vitamin K2, for the sake of your bones I strongly suggest you buy a supplement. To help absorption, take it with a bit of fat because K is fat-soluble.