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Vitamin K: A key player in heart health

Tuesday December 4, 2018
Vitamin K: A key player in heart health

Atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries, is thought to start in childhood and develop as we age.  The condition involves the accumulation of fats, calcium, clotting factors and inflammatory signalling agents as a mass within the layer of cells that line the blood vessels.  


The rate and severity of the development of atherosclerosis is thought to be associated to environmental exposures, lifestyle and dietary choices, while certain genetic traits also have an influence.  As the calcified fatty mass accumulates it becomes a partial blockage of the vessel and consequently, raises blood pressure.  Over time it has the potential to break free and block smaller vessels.  Subsequently, atherosclerosis is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD).  The British Heart Foundation published statistics that showed that CVD was the second most common cause of death in the UK in 2014[1].  

Vitamin K is not a single substance but a family of structurally similar vitamers.  Both vitamin K1 and vitamin K2 are fat soluble vitamins, of which vitamin K1 is found in plants and dairy.  While vitamin K2 is reliant on bacterial fermentation, therefore, it is found in aged cheeses and fermented foods, especially natto, a revered Japanese fermented soybean dish.  Notably, bacteria in the large intestine can convert dietary vitamin K1 into K2.  


Emerging evidence reports that in Western populations, a suboptimal level of vitamin K is common, especially vitamin K2.  Vitamin K insufficiency is associated with poor blood clotting and the laying down of calcium in the blood vessels, as characteristic of atherosclerosis.  Vitamin K is essential for the activation of a group of proteins named; ‘vitamin K-dependant proteins’ that exert effects in blood clotting and the direction of calcium away from blood vessels and into bone and teeth.  For this reason, vitamin K insufficiency is recognised as a contributor to age-related CVD.   

The acclaimed population studies; the Rotterdam Study and the EPIC study observed the dietary and lifestyle habits of Dutch populations in order to identify their impact on markers of chronic disease.  It was reported that those with greater vitamin K2 intakes had the least risk for severe arterial calcification[2] and peripheral arterial disease[3].  Conversely, it is well recognised in research studies that greater intakes of vitamin K2 are associated to improved bone density[4].  This means that a sufficient intake of vitamin K2 directs calcium into bone and so, contributes to a reduction in CVD risk.  In fact, 45mg daily of vitamin K2 (menatetrenone) has been approved in Japan for those with postmenopausal osteoporosis with a high risk of fracture[5] [6].

The Western diet is naturally low in vitamin K as the culture has moved away from traditional fermented foods in favour of processed foods that are low in nutrients.  Nonetheless circulating vitamin K levels can be improved by reverting to a wholefoods diet.  Green leafy vegetables such as lettuce, rocket, spinach, chard, watercress and sprouted seeds are easily available to add to every meal.  Despite natto being a traditional Japanese meal, it is available in health food stores or Asian stores.  For those who would prefer a supplement or those that CVD is hereditary a Vitamin K2 supplements that are derived from natto using non-GMO soy is preferable.

In conclusion, it can be seen that a population-wide deficiency of vitamin K is due to modern lifestyles, but all is not lost as this can be prevented by reverting to wholefood eating with targeted supplementation to ensure adequacy of the necessary nutrients to support heart health.

Author: Jenny Carson is a Nutritional Practitioner and Technical Advisor at Viridian Nutrition. She holds a BSc honours degree in Nutritional Science.



[1] British Heart Foundation, (2015), Cardiovascular Disease Statistics 2015, British Heart Foundation centre on population approaches for non-communicable disease prevention, Oxford University, UK.

[2] J.M. Geleijnse, et al, (2004) Dietary intake of menaquinone is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease: the Rotterdam Study. J Nutr, 134 (November (11):3100-05.  

[3] Vissers L.E.T., et al, (2016) The relationship between vitamin K and peripheral arterial disease. Atherosclerosis, 252:15-20.

[4] Schurgers, L. H. J. et al, (2007) Vitamin K2 improves bone strength in postmenopausal women, International Congress Series, 1297:179-87.

[5] Palermo, A., et al, (2017) Vitamin K and osteoporosis: Myth or reality?, Metabolism, 70:57-71.

[6] Orimo, H., et al, (2012). Japanese 2011 guidelines for prevention and treatment of osteoporosis—executive summary. Archives of Osteoporosis, 7(1-2), 3–20. 

The information contained in this article is not intended to treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a health practitioner. Please consult a qualified health practitioner if you have a pre-existing health condition or are currently taking medication. Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet.


TAGS: Nutrition News and ViewsCardiovascular health, Cardio


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