The Underappreciated Benefits of Vitamin K1 (And How To Get It)
Vitamin K1 is best known for its blood clotting factors. And while this plays a critical role, vitamin K1 and its benefits go further.
Vitamin K1 Benefits And What Happens When You’re Too Low
So the scientific name for Vitamin K1 is phylloquinone, and it’s called this because it’s made by plants. Now phyllo is Greek for leaf and the quinone part of phylloquinone refers to the chemical structure of this compound. Phylloquinone is found in the greatest amounts in green leafy plants where it plays a major role in the plant’s photosynthesis, which is the way that plants make energy for themselves. In our bodies phlloquinone plays, at least, two essential roles. It’s required for our blood to clot and it is also a potent anti-inflammatory nutrient.
As I’ve mentioned before, anything that promotes chronic low-grade inflammation increases both the activation and activity of the specialized cells that break down bone, the osteoclast, and therefore promotes bone loss.
Helping our blood to clot is Vitamin K1’s most critical role because without enough K1 we would simply bleed to death from even a tiny paper cut or a shaving cut.
For this reason, any K1 that we get from the foods we eat, mainly the plants, leafy greens that we eat or if we take some in a supplement, goes immediately to our liver where it is used to activate the clotting factors just in case we need them. Vitamin K1 does this by being the co-factor in an enzyme called gamma-glutamyl carboxylase and without Vitamin K1 this enzyme doesn’t work. And we have to have it work because when K1 serves as its co-factor, it activates some of the Gla or G-L-A proteins specifically the Gla proteins that are involved in the blood clotting cascade.
And these involve Factors II, VII, IX, and X and the proteins C and S. When K2 serves as the co-factor for gamma-glutamyl carboxylase, it activates or carboxylates other Gla proteins, two of which determine where calcium that we absorb from the food or supplements we consume, particularly when we take calcium along with Vitamin D, gets sent. And these proteins are called osteocalcin which brings calcium into bone and matrix-Gla protein which prevents calcium from depositing in soft tissues, like our arteries.
We’ll talk more about K2 later, but for now I’m bringing this up because I sometimes hear from people who are concerned that taking Vitamin K will make their blood more likely to clot, and this is not a concern for two reasons.
- First, once the proteins that are involved in blood clotting are activated by Vitamin K1, no matter how much more Vitamin K1 is around no more blood clotting proteins are going to be available to get activated. If we have extra K1, we do not make more blood clotting proteins in response to it.
- Secondly, K2, the other form of Vitamin K, doesn’t activate the blood clotting proteins at all. It activates very different proteins, the ones that regulate where calcium goes in our bodies. If we eat lots of the leafy green plant foods that are the best source of Vitamin K1, then any extra K1 that we don’t need, once our blood clotting proteins have been activated and so we’re protected against bleeding out and dying, those extra K1s will be used to lower the production of pro-inflammatory signaling agents that our bodies produce.
Vitamin K1 greatly lessens the body’s production of a wide range of these pro-inflammatory signaling compounds including compounds like interleukin 6, tumor necrosis factor, and C-reactive protein and by doing so Vitamin K1 lowers overall inflammation. This is really important for bone health because when inflammation increases, particularly when it’s chronic, this signals the body to also increase the production and activation of the specialized cells that break down bone, the osteoclast.
Before menopause, estrogen will also put a damper on women’s production of these pro-inflammatory compounds. But as estrogen levels drop with menopause, the body’s production of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules gets higher so Vitamin K1 is especially important for us post-menopausal women since it helps keep inflammation and therefore the production of osteoclast under control. If we really eat a lot of K1 rich leafy greens, then not only will we have enough K1 to produce clotting factors and to lessen inflammation in our bodies but a little bit can still be left over and in that case the extra K1 gets sent to our intestines where health promoting bacteria will use it, will convert it into a form of K2 called MK4.
We’ll talk more about the MK4 versus MK7 forms of K2 later, but I just wanted to mention this now because you need to know that mainly the K1 that we consume is going to be used to produce clotting factors and to lessen inflammation. Very little of it will be left to go to the intestines and if you have healthy bacteria there to convert it into the MK4 form of K2. In terms of our bones, K1’s anti-inflammatory actions are the main ways that this nutrient protects us against osteoporosis, but K1’s anti-inflammatory actions do even more for us. They’ve also been shown to protect us against Type II diabetes and even obesity, and both Type II diabetes and obesity increase bone loss and increase our risk for osteoporosis.
Vitamin K1 and Its Role on Inflammation
People who eat lots of Vitamin K rich plant foods have much lower levels of the inflammatory biomarkers that are associated, not just with osteoporosis, but also with Type II diabetes and obesity.
And this has been confirmed in large studies conducted both in the U.S. and in Europe. In one of the large studies conducted in the U.S. data on participants was taken from the Framingham Offspring study. You may have heard other mentions of the Framingham study. Well, it started out way back in 1948 as a study of heart disease risk factors in 5,209 adult subjects who were living in the small town of Framingham, Massachusetts.
Now it’s on its third generation of participants, so it’s now called the Framingham Offspring Study, and data has been collected on lots of potential contributing factors to heart disease, one of which is insufficient Vitamin K intake. Researchers looked at data collected from 1997 through 2001 on 1,381 people whose average age was 59 years. Fifty-two percent of them were women, and 48% were men.
The researchers measured blood levels of Vitamin K1, and they also had participants fill out dietary questionnaires so they could estimate how much Vitamin K1 they were getting from their diet.
What did they find?
The amount of K1 circulating in the blood and the amount being consumed in the diet was inversely associated with the circulating inflammatory markers, both as a group and with several key inflammatory biomarkers that really caused problems for people.
The more K1 in the bloodstream, the less inflammation in the body.
Research showing K1’s anti-inflammatory actions has also been conducted in Europe, specifically in Spain, as part of a very large ongoing study called The Predimed Study. This research, as some of the findings were published in 2013, followed 510 elderly participants for one year. In this report they looked at what these 510 older men and women were eating. And older, by the way, means over age 65. So I qualify and you may as well.
So they looked at what these 510 older men and women were eating, and then they figured out how much Vitamin K1 or phylloquinone, they were getting from their food. And then they ran blood tests to see what their levels of inflammatory cytokines which are signaling molecules that promote inflammation and other risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease were.
What did the researchers find?
Those whose diets provided the most Vitamin K1 had much lower levels of a number of risk factors, including ghrelin, which is also called the hunger hormone because it increases appetite and makes us eat more, interleukin 6, and tumor necrosis factor which are cytokines that increase inflammation. They also found cystatin which is an enzyme that promotes the production of immune cells was higher in people who had less K1 circulating in their blood. Cystatin specifically activates B cells, and these are immune cells that are pre-programmed to deal with already recognized threats.
So the fact that cystatin was elevated in people with low levels of Vitamin K1 means that their bodies were on high alert and ready to be inflamed. After seeing the significant drops in levels of numerous pro-inflammatory biomarkers in the older folks whose diets provided the most K1 in the study, the researchers suggested that K1 should provide significant protection against chronic inflammatory diseases. And I want to emphasize for you here that chronic inflammatory diseases include not just diabetes, not just cardiovascular disease, but osteoporosis as well.
The same group of Predimed researchers then went on to show in 2014 when they published another paper that analyzed data from 7,216 participants in the Predimed Study on who were found an average of 4.8 years. So the data that they collected on these people clearly showed that the dietary intake of K1 was inversely associated with mortality risk, which translated into English means:
the more K1 that your diet provides, the lower your risk of death from all causes.
So how much K1 do you need and where do you get it? Do you need to take a supplement for Vitamin K1?
How Much Vitamin K1 Do You Need And How To Get It
- Dietary recommendations for Vitamin K1,
- Which foods are richest in K1,
- And why refined oils do not contain usable K1.
- I’d also like to talk to you about how much vitamin K1 you need,
- And where you can get it.
So if you eat a healthy diet that includes lots of leafy greens, your needs for K1 can be easily met.
K1 is present in high amounts in leafy greens, like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collards, and parsley, and broccoli, and it’s also found in oils derived from plants.
In the standard American diet, aptly called the SAD, Standard American Diet, S-A-D. However, few folks are eating leafy greens, instead they’re eating packaged highly processed foods, most all of which contain soybean or canola oils.
So canola and soybean oils are the primary source of Vitamin K1 in the American diet, not leafy greens.
The kicker here is that when these oils are processed as they are in packaged foods, they are often at least partially hydrogenated. And hydrogenation changes the K1 in these oils from phylloquinone, it’s natural form, into an unnatural form called dihydrophylloquinone. Not only is dihydrophylloquinone not as well absorbed as phylloquinone, dihydrophylloquinone has much lower biological activity and it is thought to be more rapidly metabolized and excreted than is phylloquinone, which is the natural form.
When dihydrophylloquinone is consumed, activation of the liver proteins needed to form clotting factors is greatly reduced, and even when large amounts of dihydrophylloquinone are consumed, so some is left over, and gets sent to the intestines, where healthy bacteria would convert it, if it were phylloquinone, into Vitamin K2, any dihydrophylloquinone that makes it to the intestines is ignored by these bacteria. It does not get converted into the MK4 form of K2.
Data collected on 2,544 people, whose average age was 58.5, and who were participants in the Framingham Offspring Study, which we talked about a little bit in the preceding videos, showed that:
subjects with the highest intake of Vitamin K1 from hydrogenated oils, the type of oils typically used in processed and fast foods, in other words, those with the highest intake of dihydrophylloquinone, had the lowest bone mineral density at the neck, hip, and spine.
Earlier research that was published in the American Journal of Nutrition in 2001 had also looked at the effects of dihydrophylloquinone on bone formation and bone resorption or bone breakdown. This research showed higher levels of a protein called P-I-V-K-A, PIVKA-II, that appears in the blood when Vitamin K is absent, or even deficient. PIVKA-II is an abnormal version of the coagulation protein, prothrombin.
If you listen to our earlier videos on Vitamin K, (above) you may remember that Vitamin K1’s first job is to activate the proteins responsible for helping our blood to clot so that we don’t bleed out, just from a paper cut. PIVKA-II is an abnormal version of one of these proteins, and it is detected in the blood of people with a deficiency of Vitamin K due to poor nutrition or malabsorption, or if they’re taking warfarin or some other medication that inhibits the actions of Vitamin K.
When people consume dihydrophylloquinone, rather than the natural, normal form, phylloquinone, PIVKA-II appears in their blood, and it’s not a good sign. Hydrogenated oil is, unfortunately, everywhere in the U.S. food supply in processed foods. During the hydrogenation of phylloquinone rich oils, phylloquinone is converted to dihydrophylloquinone. Even short term dietary restriction of phylloquinone has been shown to increase several measures of bone turnover, or bone resorption. In other words, inflammatory signaling molecules called cytokines increase, and these increased osteoclast activity, and thus bone resorption and turnover.
In studies, short term phylloquinone repletion lowers measures of bone turnover, but dihydrophylloquinone doesn’t do this. It has absolutely no beneficial effects on bone, so the take away here, eat leafy greens, and use unrefined, not even partially hydrogenated oils to get your K1. The K1 in partially hydrogenated oils and the hydrogenated oils that are found in processed foods, is not going to help your bones.
Vitamin K is most commonly known for its blood clotting ability. Although, vitamin K is also essential to bone health, preventing heart disease and other bodily functions.
What food sources are rich in vitamin K1?
The top food sources of vitamin K1 include green leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, broccoli and spinach. However, canola and soybean oils are the primary source of vitamin K1 in the American diet.
Are there any drug interactions of vitamin K?
Yes, if you are on a blood thinner such as Warfarin, you should consult with your doctor about taking vitamin K supplements and restricting vitamin K rich foods in your diet.
Shea MK, Dallal GE, Dawson-Hughes B, et al. Vitamin K, circulating cytokines, and bone mineral density in older men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Aug;88(2):356-63. PMID: 18689371
Mundy GR. Osteoporosis and inflammation. Nutr Rev. 2007 Dec;65(12 Pt 2):S147-51. PMID: 18240539
Shea MK, Booth SL, Massaro JM, et al. Vitamin K and vitamin D status: associations with inflammatory markers in the Framingham Offspring Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Feb 1;167(3):313-20. Epub 2007 Nov 15. PMID: 18006902
Juanola-Falgarona M, Salas-Salvadó J, Estruch R, et al. Association between dietary phylloquinone intake and peripheral metabolic risk markers related to insulin resistance and diabetes in elderly subjects at high cardiovascular risk. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2013 Jan 8;12:7. doi: 10.1186/1475-2840-12-7. PMID: 23298335
Juanola-Falgarona M, Salas-Salvadó J, Martínez-González MÁ, et al. Dietary intake of vitamin K is inversely associated with mortality risk. J Nutr. 2014 May;144(5):743-50. doi: 10.3945/jn.113.187740. Epub 2014 Mar 19. PMID: 24647393
Troy LM, Jacques PF, Hannan MT, et al. Dihydrophylloquinone intake is associated with low bone mineral density in men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Aug;86(2):504-8. PMID: 17684225
Booth SL, Lichtenstein AH, O’Brien-Morse M, et al. Effects of a hydrogenated form of vitamin K on bone formation and resorption. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Dec;74(6):783-90. PMID: 11722960
Vegetable Oil photo via Pixabay