Vitamin K2 is the only known substance that can stop and reverse soft tissue calcification.
If you didn’t stop at the end of that sentence to say Wow to yourself, you should keep reading.
Soft tissue calcification is one of the most serious health problems we face as individuals, as modern societies, and, on a global scale, as a species. Cardiovascular disease—which leads to heart attacks and strokes, and accounts for nearly half of all deaths in industrialised countries—is a disease of soft tissue calcification: the calcification of our arteries.
Arthritis, of which basically everyone past the age of 40 suffers, and increasingly more with time and with age, is a disease of soft tissue calcification. It is caused by the calcification of the cartilage in the joints: the joints of the knees, but also of the shoulders; the joints of the hips, but also of the wrists; the joints of the elbows, but also of the feet and the toes; the cartilage between the vertebrae of the neck and the spine all the way down the back, but also of the hands and of the fingers.
Soft tissue calcification also causes kidney stones and kidney disease. How many people above the age of 60 don’t have kidney problems? Hardly any. And how many young men and women in their 20s and 30s already have kidney stones and kidney dysfunction? More and more every year.
Every one of the processes generally associated with ageing, from heart disease and stroke, to Alzheimer’s and dementia, to arthritis and kidney disease, to stiffness in the joints and muscles, but also to the wrinkling of the skin, is intimately linked to soft tissue calcification.
And now, let me repeat the sentence with which we opened: Vitamin K2 is the only known substance that can stop and reverse soft tissue calcification. It is really remarkable.
Maybe you didn’t know about calcification. And so, maybe you are wondering why it is such a major and widespread problem, why it affects everyone no matter where we are or what we do. It’s a good question. But because we know that only vitamin K2 can prevent this from happening, we already have our answer: soft tissue calcification is a major and widespread problem because our intake of vitamin K2 is inadequate to provide protection from calcification.
Naturally, the next question is why? Why is our intake of vitamin K2 so inadequate? If it is such a crucial essential nutrient, we would surely not be here as a species if intake had always been so inadequate. Looking at things the other way around, if we are so dependent on adequate K2 intake for staying healthy, this must necessarily mean that we evolved having plenty of it in our food supply. What’s so different now?
To answer this question with some level of detail—meaning with an explanation more extensive than just saying that it’s industrialisation that stripped our food supply of vitamin K2 as it has for all the essential nutrients to a greater or lesser extent—we have to understand what K2 is, how it’s made, and where it’s found in food.
The short answer is that K2 is found in the fat of pastured animals that graze on fresh green grass, and produced from vitamin K1 by certain kinds of bacteria in their gut.
The longer answer is that vitamin K2 is a family of compounds called menaquinones, ranging from MK-4 to MK-13 depending on their molecular structure. These compounds are derived from the plant analog, the sister compound, vitamin K1, called phylloquinone, and found in chlorophyll-rich plant foods. Phylloquinone is consumed by the pastured animal, it makes its way into their intestines, and there it is transformed by the bacteria of the animal’s intestinal flora. The resulting menaquinone is then stored in the fat cells of the animal as well as in the fat of their milk if they are milk-producing. Consuming these animal fats in which vitamin K2 has been concentrated will provide this precious essential micronutrient.
If the grazing animal does not feed on green grass, they get no vitamin K1. If they get no vitamin K1, their gut flora is not only compromised and negatively altered with respect to what it should be if they were consuming the grass they have evolved eating, but it produces no vitamin K2. If their gut flora produces no vitamin K2, their fat and milk will contain no vitamin K2, and neither their offspring nor any person consuming products derived from the animal will get any vitamin K2. Hence, no grass feeding, no vitamin K2 in the animal’s fat.
Maybe you’ve already thought ahead, and wondered since it is bacteria that produces vitamin K2 from vitamin K1 in the guts of grazing animals, can’t we make vitamin K2 without the need for grass-fed animals to do it for us? Yes, it is possible. Fermented vegetables and dairy products like cheese can also contain vitamin K2. In fact, in the case of cheese, there is a lot more in the finished hard cheese than in the milk used to make it. The amount varies widely because it depends on the kind of bacteria. For dairy products, hard cheeses like Gouda have the most, and for plant foods, even if fermented veggies have a little, the Japanese fermented soybean snack natto is the ultimate source of K2.
As we all know, pastured meat and dairy is not easy to come by in our modern world. It’s actually quite hard to find. Our supermarkets and food stores are flooded with industrially produced meat and dairy from animals that have never seen a blade of grass—grass-grazing animals living their entire lives indoors, in stalls, fed and fattened exclusively on grains, corn, and soybeans. This is how we have stripped our food supply of vitamin K2, and this is why is this a modern phenomenon—most of our grand-parents were still eating pastured meats and animal foods.
And if this wasn’t enough of a blow to vitamin K2 status, trans-fats, which are formed when vegetable oils are hydrogenated to be made saturated and stable (for long shelf life), and which most of us consume in great quantities, contain a K2 analog called DHP (dihydrophylloquinone) that displaces the little K2 that might has found its way into our diet.
It is for all these reasons that soft tissue calcification is so widespread. And you have at this point what you need to know in order to first stop the process by which your soft tissues are getting increasingly calcified, and then, in time, to remove the accumulated calcium from these tissues. It’s simple: healthy grass-fed animals produce yellow butter, yellow yolks, and yellowish fat; you need to eat plenty of pastured animal foods, making sure you eat the fat in which vitamin K2 is concentrated, and, to be sure you have enough to reverse the already present calcification, take K2 supplements. And this might be enough for you.
If it is, you can head to your browser to find and order some K2 supplements (I currently get mine, it’s a 500 mcg per tablet, from Phoenix Nutrition). Also, we need to know that the two main forms of K2 are MK-4 (with four double bonds) and MK-7 (with seven). The first is the one generally found in animal fats that haven’t been fermented, while the second is the product of bacterial fermentation. Hence, meat and butter contain mostly MK-4, whereas natto, sauerkraut, and cheese contain mostly MK-7.
There is an important difference between these two forms of K2 in terms of their effects inside the body which has to do with their half-life, not in the sense of radioactivity, but in the sense of duration of biological activity in the body. MK-4 will be in circulation at therapeutic doses for a number of hours, while MK-7 remains in circulation between 24 and 48 hours. Therefore, to be safe, we need to eat grass fed meat and butter, and take MK-7 supplements (I take 1000 mcg), always after a meal with plenty of fat to maximize absorption.
If you are curious to find out more, if you want to know how menaquinone does this, how vitamin K2 does its miracles inside the body, then we need to take a closer look at the biochemistry of calcium metabolism.
There are three proteins found in bone matrix that undergo gamma-carboxylation via Vitamin K-dependent enzymes: matrix-gla-protein (MGP) (Price et al., 1983), osteocalcin (bone gla-protein, BGP) (Price et al., 1976), both of which are made by bone cells, and protein S (made primarily in the liver but also made by osteogenic cells) (Maillard et al., 1992) (Table V). The presence of di-carboxylic glutamyl (gla) residues confers calcium-binding properties to these proteins.
MGP is found in many connective tissues and is highly expressed in cartilage. It appears that the physiological role of MGP is to act as an inhibitor of mineral deposition. MGP-deficient mice develop calcification in extraskeletal sites such as in the aorta (Luo et al., 1997). Interestingly, the vascular calcification proceeds via transition of vascular smooth muscle cells into chondrocytes, which subsequently hypertrophy (El-Maadawy et al., 2003). In humans, mutations in MGP have been also been associated with excessive cartilage calcification (Keutel syndrome, OMIM 245150).
Whereas MGP is broadly expressed, osteocalcin is somewhat bone specific, although messenger RNA (mRNA) has been found in platelets and megakaryocytes (Thiede et al., 1994). Osteocalcin-deficient mice are reported to have increased bone mineral density compared with normal (Ducy et al., 1996). In human bone, it is concentrated in osteocytes, and its release may be a signal in the bone-turnover cascade (Kasai et al., 1994). Osteocalcin measurements in serum have proved valuable as a marker of bone turnover in metabolic disease states. Interestingly, it has been recently suggested that osteocalcin also acts as a hormone that influences energy metabolism by regulating insulin secretion, beta-cell proliferation, and serum triglyceride (Lee et al., 2007).
These are the first three paragraphs of the chapter Noncollagenous Bone Matrix Proteins in Principles of Bone Biology (3rd ed.) which I found it on the web when I was searching for more info on the biochemical action of menaquinone.
And now, here is my simple explanation of how things work:
The players are the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2; three special proteins called osteocalcin, matrix gla protein, and protein S; and an enzyme called vitamin K-dependent carboxylase.
First, vitamin D makes calcium available by allowing its absorption from the intestines into the bloodstream. This is vital for life and health. You know that severe vitamin D deficiency is extremely dangerous and develops into the disease that deforms bones called rickets. Milder forms of vitamin D deficiency are much harder to detect without a blood test, but can and do lead to a huge spectrum of disorders and health problems. However, without vitamin K2, ample or even just adequate levels of vitamin D will inevitably lead to increased soft tissue calcification.
Vitamins A and D make bone-building cells (osteoblasts) and teeth-building cells (odontoblasts) produce osteocalcin (also known as bone gla protein or BGP) and matrix gla protein (or MGP). This is key because it is these proteins that will transport the calcium.
Vitamin K2, through the action of the vitamin K-dependent carboxylase enzyme, activates bone and matrix gla proteins by changing their molecular structure which then allows them to bind and transport calcium.
Once activated, bone gla protein brings calcium (and other minerals) into the bones; and matrix gla protein takes calcium out of the soft tissues like smooth muscle cells of arteries, but also organs, cartilage, skeletal muscles, and skin. Without this K2-dependent activation, BGP and MGP remain inactive, and the calcium accumulates in soft tissues all over the body.
What completes the act, is that vitamin K2 activates protein S which oversees and helps the immune system clear out the stuff of arterial plaques that remains once the calcium making the plaques structurally stable has been taken out. And, amazingly, protein S does this without triggering a large inflammatory response.
Even though it is quite straight forward when explained in this way, this understanding of vitamin K2 and its action in the body is really quite recent: in the last 20 years or so. For one thing, it was only 10 years ago that Chris Masterjohn solved the 60-year old mystery of Weston A. Price’s X-Factor, correctly identifying it for the first time as vitamin K2. (You can read that for yourself here.) And although some laboratory studies and experiments on vitamin K were done several decades ago, the majority are from the last 10 years (take a look at the references in Masterjohn’s paper.)
We’ll stop here for now. But we’ll come back to vitamin K2 because there are so many other amazing things it does for our health.
This article was inspired by Dr. Kate Rheaume-Bleue’s book entitled Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox.
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