Vitamin K2 & Heart Health: Foods, Benefits and Dosage
Some nutrients get a lot of attention (we're looking at you, vitamin D and vitamin C). Others deserve a little more awareness, especially when they impact a critical organ like your heart. When it comes to heart health, you may think of fish oil or CoQ10. But are you acquainted with vitamin K2?
Often confused with vitamin K1 or simply overlooked, vitamin K2 is a unique form of an essential micronutrient that plays an important role in heart health. Let’s take a look at how much vitamin K2 you need, where you can get it, and potential benefits and side effects.
Vitamin K1 vs. K2: Food sources
Vitamin K is a fat-soluble nutrient that naturally exists in two forms, K1 and K2. Vitamin K1 is known as phylloquinone, while vitamin K2 is referred to as menaquinone.
The richest food sources of vitamin K1 include green leafy vegetables like kale, collards, spinach, Swiss chard, and turnip greens. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts are lesser known, but excellent sources of phylloquinone too. These diverse greens are nutrient-dense foods that most of us could use more of in our diets.
While vitamin K1 sources are plant-based, vitamin K2 foods come mostly from animals—namely egg yolk, dairy (e.g., butter and particular cheeses), chicken, eel, and organ meats. Vitamin K2 is also found in certain fermented foods, with sauerkraut, kefir, and nattō (fermented soybeans) being the most famous.
Vitamin K and your gut microbiome
An additional and fascinating source of vitamin K2 comes from bacterial synthesis in our gut. The exact vitamin K2 contribution from our gut microbiota is challenging to quantify, and the amount produced varies from person to person. Nonetheless, having a healthy gut supports the synthesis of vitamin K2.
If you have taken antibiotics (and not replenished good gut bacteria through prebiotic and probiotic sources) or have suffered from gut infections or food sensitivities, you may not be producing as much vitamin K2.
Vitamin K: How much do I need?
The daily recommendation for vitamin K1 in adults is 90 micrograms (mcg) per day for women and 120 mcg for men. A truly underappreciated nutrient gap, nationally representative data demonstrates that intake of vitamin K has room for improvement, with 70% of Americans over the age of two not meeting their daily vitamin K needs.
No scientific consensus nor dietary recommendations exist for vitamin K2 (yet). As more research builds, a recommendation specific to menaquinone vitamin K sources may be warranted in the future.
Even though vitamin K is fat-soluble, it turns out that what we consume and synthesize is quickly utilized, metabolized, and excreted by our body. Add in the fact that very little vitamin K is stored, and it becomes clear why consuming the right foods is important to achieve daily vitamin K needs. Targeted supplementation can also be a useful strategy (we'll discuss that later).
Is vitamin K deficiency common?
While classic vitamin K deficiency is rare in the average adult, it can occur. The result is abnormal bleeding caused by impaired blood clotting. Possible symptoms to look out for and report to your doctor include bruising, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, bloody urine or stools, and very heavy menstrual bleeding.
People taking anticoagulant therapy (i.e., blood thinners) and those with liver disease or fat malabsorption disorders are at higher risk of experiencing vitamin K deficiency.
What about vitamin K insufficiency?
While not full-on deficiency, vitamin K insufficiency can occur when people fail to consume adequate vitamin K over time. Blood clotting may remain normal, since there’s enough vitamin K to conserve that vital function. But, more subtle and potentially serious consequences can occur.
Not getting enough vitamin K (and specifically K2) over time may contribute to chronic health conditions like osteoporosis (lower bone mineral density due to bone loss) and cardiovascular disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. And while the condition is known as the “silent killer,” vitamin K2’s important role in heart health should no longer remain silent.
Vitamin K2 and heart health
If you've ever heard of a coronary calcification score, this test checks for calcium buildup in your coronary arteries. A higher score means you're at higher risk of heart disease. While the process of atherosclerosis is complex—involving lipids, inflammation, oxidation, and time—one major feature is vascular calcification.
Calcium plaques in your blood vessels can lead to serious (even fatal) blockages, which can manifest as angina, heart attack, and stroke. So, coronary calcification is something to be aware of and mitigate. Enter vitamin K2, your calcium “usher”.
Vitamin K helps direct calcium to correct and beneficial places for your health (e.g. bones), keeping it away from the wrong places that can be detrimental to your body, particularly soft tissues like blood vessels. In this way, adequate vitamin K:
- Supports normal calcium metabolism for improved bone health and
- Deters dangerous calcium plaque buildup (arterial calcification) for heart health.
How does vitamin K accomplish this? It activates important proteins like matrix GLA protein (MGP). In fact, MGP is dependent on vitamin K for its functions, and this protein keeps calcium from depositing into blood vessels and other soft tissues. Supporting this mechanism, several observational studies have linked higher vitamin K2 intake with lower coronary calcification.
Published in the Journal of Nutrition, the Rotterdam Study (a prospective cohort study of over 4,800 Dutch men and women) demonstrated that, compared to low vitamin K2 intake (less than 21.6 mcg per day), high intake (greater than 32.7 mcg per day) was associated with a:
- 52% reduced risk of severe coronary calcification
- 57% lower risk of coronary heart disease mortality
- 26% lower risk of all-cause mortality
Interestingly, no such heart health findings were observed for vitamin K1 intake.
The clinical trial evidence for vitamin K’s effect on cardiovascular disease is small but growing. While the results are mixed, that’s partially because the study designs are mixed too. Some clinical trials support vitamin K’s beneficial role in combating calcification and atherosclerosis; others do not. Future, well-designed clinical evidence will be valuable to further inform the vitamin K/heart health relationship.
What's a good vitamin K2 dosage?
Whether in a multivitamin or standalone product, vitamin K2 supplements typically deliver menaquinones (MK) as MK-4 or MK-7 individually or in combination. Both are useful ways to augment the menaquinones that your diet and gut microbiome are providing. MK-7 may have better bioavailability than MK-4, but more studies should suss out this potential difference.
While there’s no scientific consensus on the amount of vitamin K2 you need, doses at or around 100 mcg are found in supplements. And, a little vitamin K2 likely goes a long way. The Prospect-EPIC cohort study of over 16,000 Dutch women found that consuming 10 mcg per day of additional vitamin K2 was associated with a 9% reduction in coronary heart disease risk. This is not a causal finding, but informative nonetheless.
Does vitamin K2 have side effects?
Vitamin K has an excellent safety profile, even at high doses. In fact, the National Academies Food and Nutrition Board did not even designate an upper limit for vitamin K1 or K2. That’s because no adverse effects have been documented from either form of vitamin K in humans or animal models when it’s consumed via food or supplements.
Remember that your daily needs for vitamin K are 90 to 120 mcg depending on your gender. To put this recommendation in perspective, one-half cup of collard greens will deliver over 500 mcg of vitamin K1, and three ounces of nattō pack a vitamin K2 punch at 850 mcg. Supplements can deliver a range of vitamin K1 and K2 doses on top of what you consume from your diet.
While safety is excellent for vitamin K2 (and K1), it’s always prudent to discuss any major diet or supplement changes with your doctor, especially if you have a health condition or are taking any medications.
Anticoagulants and vitamin K are a well known drug-nutrient interaction. For this reason, some patients on anticoagulants think they should limit all sources of vitamin K. This is an unfortunate mistake that can create a vitamin K gap or deficiency.
When taking blood-thinning medications, the important thing is to keep vitamin K inputs stable (not low). If a patient on blood thinners wants to incorporate vitamin K-dense foods (healthy foods!) into their diet or take a supplement containing vitamin K1 or K2, they should tell their doctor first. The healthcare practitioner will monitor key blood clotting biomarkers and adjust the medication accordingly.
The bottom line.
Vitamin K is a common nutrient gap and essential fat-soluble vitamin that comes in two varieties: vitamin K1 and K2. While both forms of this micronutrient support normal blood clotting and improve bone health, it’s time to pay more attention to vitamin K2 when it comes to our heart health.
Remember, vitamin K2 is essentially the “usher” that directs calcium to all the right places (bones) while avoiding the wrong places like our arteries (heart). Supporting a healthy gut microbiome, consuming menaquinone-rich foods, and incorporating a vitamin K supplement (look for the K2 menaquinone form) are three practical ways to ensure you’re including this important form of vitamin K into your life.
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