The Missing Nutrient to Blame for Heart Attacks and Osteoporosis (Nope – NOT Calcium or Vitamin D)

By Dr. Mercola

Reprint: The past decade has brought an explosion of research revealing the many beneficial roles vitamin D plays in keeping you healthy.

But there’s a new kid on the block that could end up being “the next vitamin D,” and we are finding that some of vitamin D’s benefits are greatly enhanced when combined with this other vitamin.

That “new kid” is vitamin K.

Much new research is now focusing on the synergy between vitamin K (specifically, vitamin K2) and vitamin D3, particularly in terms of bone strength and cardiovascular health.

Before discussing the influence of each of these vitamins, let’s review a bit about vitamins D and K and what their roles are.

Vitamin D: A Brief Review

Vitamin D is a key player in your overall health. The name is misleading — it isn’t actually a vitamin at all but a potent neuroregulatory steroidal hormone that influences nearly 3,000 of your 25,000 genes.

It literally turns on and off genes that can exacerbate — or prevent — many diseases. Vitamin D has been shown to influence dozens of conditions, including:

Cancer Hypertension Heart disease
Autism Obesity Rheumatoid arthritis
Diabetes 1 and 2 Multiple Sclerosis Crohn’s disease
Cold & Flu Inflammatory Bowel Disease Tuberculosis
Septicemia Signs of aging Dementia
Eczema & Psoriasis Insomnia Hearing loss
Muscle pain Cavities Periodontal disease
Osteoporosis Macular degeneration Reduced C-section risk
Pre eclampsia Seizures Infertility
Asthma Cystic fibrosis Migraines
Depression Alzheimer’s disease Schizophrenia

One of the key factors explaining today’s high rates of chronic disease, besides poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, is an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. It is estimated that 85 percent of Americans have insufficient levels of vitamin D.

Sadly, when the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) released their updated recommendations for vitamin D (and calcium) on November 30, 2010, it caused shockwaves of disappointment through the natural health community.

According to the IOM, the new recommended daily allowance (RDA) for pregnant women and adults up to 70 years of age is the same as that for infants and children — a measly 600 IU’s. This despite the overwhelming evidence showing that vitamin D is extremely important for a wide variety of health conditions besides bone health, and that most people need about ten times this amount or more.

For more information about the IOM’s new vitamin D recommendations, please see this recent article in which Dr. Cannell, founder of the Vitamin D Council, and Carole Baggerly, founder of GrassrootsHealth, share their concerns.

The best ways to increase your vitamin D levels, in my order of preference, are by:

Exposing your skin natural sunlight. Vitamin D from sunlight acts as a pro-hormone, rapidly converting in your skin into 25-hydroxyvitamin D, or vitamin D3.

Using a safe home tanning bed like the Sun Splash to achieve similar results as that from natural sunlight exposure.

Taking an oral vitamin D3 supplement whenever natural sun exposure is not an option.

For more about vitamin D and how to get the appropriate test of your blood levels, please listen to my free one hour lecture about vitamin D, and refer to my vitamin D resource page.

Vitamin K Basics

Vitamin K may very well end up being as important for you as vitamin D, as research continues to illuminate the growing list of its benefits for your health. Vitamin K is probably where vitamin D was ten years ago, with respect to its appreciation as a vital nutrient that has far more advantages than originally thought.

And, according to Dr. Cees Vermeer, one of the world’s top researchers into vitamin K, nearly everyone is deficient in it — just like most people are deficient in vitamin D.

Most of you get enough K from your diet to maintain adequate blood clotting, but NOT enough to offer protection against the following health problems — and the list continues to grow:

Arterial calcification, cardiovascular disease and varicose veins Brain health problems, including dementia (the specifics of which are under study)
Osteoporosis Tooth decay
Prostate cancer, lung cancer, liver cancer and leukemia Infectious diseases such as pneumonia

Vitamin K exists in two basic forms, K1 and K2:

Vitamin K1: Found in green vegetables, K1 goes directly to your liver and helps you maintain a healthy blood clotting system. (This is the kind of K that infants need to help prevent a serious bleeding disorder.)

Vitamin K2: Bacteria produce this type of vitamin K. It is present in high quantities in your gut, but unfortunately is not absorbed from there and passes out in your stool. K2 goes straight to vessel walls, bones, and tissues other than your liver.

Making a long story even longer, there are several different forms of vitamin K2: MK4, MK7, MK8, and MK9. The form of vitamin K that has the most significance for our purposes here is MK7, a newer and longer acting form with more practical applications.

Most vitamin K2 supplements are in the form MK7.

MK7 is extracted from the Japanese fermented soy product called natto. You could actually get loads of MK7 from consuming natto as it is relatively inexpensive, and is available in most Asian food markets. Few people, however, tolerate its smell and slimy texture, so most people who find natto unpalatable prefer to take a supplement. You can also get MK7 by eating fermented cheeses.

For a comprehensive exploration of all the research and functions of vitamin K, refer to this article on the Weston Price website.

Now, how do vitamin D and vitamin K play together?

Vitamins D and K: “The Gatekeeper and the Traffic Cop”

One of the undisputed benefits vitamin D provides for you is improved bone development by helping you ABSORB calcium. This is not news — we have known about vitamin D and the absorption of calcium for many decades.

But there is new evidence that it is the vitamin K (specifically, vitamin K2) that directs the calcium to your skeleton, while preventing it from being deposited where you don’t want it — i.e., your organs, joint spaces, and arteries. A large part of arterial plaque consists of calcium deposits (atherosclerosis), hence the term “hardening of the arteries.”

Vitamin K2 activates a protein hormone called osteocalcin, produced by osteoblasts, which is needed to bind calcium into the matrix of your bone. Osteocalcin also appears to help prevent calcium from depositing into your arteries.

You can think of vitamin D as the gatekeeper, controlling who gets in, and vitamin K as the traffic cop, directing the traffic to where it needs to go.

Lots of traffic — but no traffic cop — means clogging, crowding and chaos everywhere!

In other words, without the help of vitamin K2, the calcium that your vitamin D so effectively lets in might be working AGAINST you — by building up your coronary arteries rather than your bones.

There is even evidence that the safety of vitamin D is dependent on vitamin K, and that vitamin D toxicity (although very rare with the D3 form) is actually caused by vitamin K2 deficiency.

Vitamin K, Vitamin D, and Cardiovascular Disease

When your body’s soft tissues are damaged, they respond with an inflammatory process that can result in the deposition of calcium into the damaged tissue. When this occurs in your blood vessels, you have the underlying mechanism of coronary artery disease — the buildup of plaque — that can lead you down the path to a heart attack.

Vitamin K and vitamin D work together to increase Matrix GLA Protein (or MGP), the protein responsible for protecting your blood vessels from calcification. In healthy arteries, MGP congregates around the elastic fibers of your tunica media (arterial lining), guarding them against calcium crystal formation.

MGP is so important that it can be used as a laboratory measure of your vascular and cardiac status.

According to Professor Cees Vermeer:

“The only mechanism for arteries to protect themselves from calcification is via the vitamin K-dependent protein MGP. MPG is the most powerful inhibitor of soft tissue calcification presently known, but non‐supplemented healthy adults are insufficient in vitamin K to a level that 30 per cent of their MGP is synthesized in an inactive form.

So, protection against cardiovascular calcification is only 70 per cent in the young, healthy population, and this figure decreases at increasing age.”

As you would predict, scientific studies confirm that increased dietary intake of vitamin K2 does indeed reduce your risk for coronary heart disease:

In 2004, the Rotterdam study was the first study demonstrating the life-extending effects of vitamin K2. People who had the highest intake of vitamin K2 had 50 percent lower risk of death from coronary heart disease and calcification than people with the lowest intake of vitamin K2.

In a subsequent study called the Prospect study, 16,000 people were followed for 10 years. Researchers found that each additional 10 mcg of vitamin K2 in the diet resulted in 9 percent fewer cardiac events.

Animal studies show that vitamin K2 not only prevents hardening of the arteries but can actually reverse calcification of highly calcified arteries, by activating MGP.

People with severe calcifications have high percentages of inactive osteocalcin, which indicates a general deficiency of vitamin K2.

Let’s take a look at how calcium supplements play into all of this.

Does Your Calcium Supplement Actually Increase Your Risk of Heart Attack?

If you take calcium and vitamin D but are deficient in vitamin K, you could be worse off than if you were not taking those supplements at all, as demonstrated by a recent meta-analysis linking calcium supplements to heart attacks.

This study did indeed find that people taking calcium supplements were more prone to heart attacks. However, that doesn’t mean that it was the calcium supplements themselves that caused the heart attacks.

Please remember that calcium is only ONE of the players in your bone and heart health.

This meta-analysis looked at studies involving people taking calcium in isolation, without complementary nutrients like magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K, which help keep your body in balance. In the absence of those other important cofactors, calcium CAN have adverse effects, such as building up in coronary arteries and causing heart attacks, which is really what this analysis detected.

And the FORM of calcium you take matters greatly, which I will address in a moment.

You simply can’t take isolated supplements “willy-nilly” and expect to optimize very complicated physiological processes.

Vitamin D itself has been found to protect your heart. A study in the Netherlands provides compelling evidence that a high vitamin D status is associated with improved survival in heart failure patients.

If you are going to take calcium, you need to balance it out with vitamin D and vitamin K, at the very least. It is also important that you get adequate magnesium, silica, omega-3 fatty acids, and weight-bearing exercise, which are all important to the health of your bones.

Which leads us to the next important topic: osteoporosis.

Dense Bones are NOT Necessarily Strong Bones

One of the great health concerns for menopausal women is osteoporosis.

The classic way osteopenia (decreased bone density) and osteoporosis are diagnosed is by an x-ray called a DEXA scan, which specifically measures bone density, or the degree of mineralization of your bones.

But bone strength is MORE than bone density — which is why drugs such as biphosphinates have failed so miserably.

Your bones are made up of minerals in a collagen matrix. The minerals give your bones rigidity and density, but the collagen gives your bones flexibility. Without good flexibility, they become brittle and break easily.

So, density does NOT equal strength!

Drugs like Fosamax build up a lot of minerals and make the bone LOOK very dense, but in reality, they are extremely brittle and prone to fracture, which is why there have been so many cases of hip fracture among people taking these damaging drugs.

Biphosphinates are poisons that destroy your osteoclasts, which interferes with your normal bone-remodeling process.

You are much better off building your bones using exercise and nutritional therapies, hormones like progesterone and vitamins D and K.

The Calcium Myth: Revising Our Theory of Bone Mineralization

Countries with the highest calcium consumption have the highest rates of osteoporosis — namely, the U.S., Canada and Scandinavian countries. This is commonly known as the “calcium paradox.”

This is because nutritional guidelines have been based on an incorrect theory of bone mineralization.

When you take the wrong form of calcium, or when your body’s ability to direct calcium to the right places becomes impaired (as when you are deficient in vitamin K), calcium is deposited where it shouldn’t be — like sand in gears.

David Wolfe, raw food “guru” and nutritionist, has extensively studied and written about calcium physiology. In an interview, Wolfe discusses the myth about calcium’s role in bone health:

“Calcium does not build bones, and that is one of the biggest misconceptions ever, and it actually goes to the real core of our problems with science. That is, the human body is a complex biological machine and an unbelievable mystery.

There is strong evidence that if you eat calcium—let’s say it’s calcium from coral calcium, for example, oyster shell calcium—it is almost impossible to get that into your bones to increase bone density. The amount of increased bone density, at best, is 1 or 2 percent. That is not good enough.”

He goes on to explain that many calcium supplements (such as coral calcium, oyster shell calcium, calcium citrate, and calcium carbonate) are not well handled by your body. These forms of calcium can’t be broken down and form miniature “rocks” that get deposited in your soft tissues — kind of like hard water calcium deposits in your showerhead that eventually impede the flow.

According to Wolfe and others, these silty calcium deposits are major contributors and even causative factors in many conditions, including:

Aging Gallstones, colon cancer and Crohn’s disease
Coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis Kidney stones
Dental plaque and gum disease Ovarian cysts
Hypothyroidism Cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration
Obesity and diabetes Bone spurs, stiff joints, osteoarthritis, tendonitis and bone cancer
Alzheimer’s disease Cellulite and scar tissue
Breast cancer and cysts (fibrocystic breasts)

How Vitamin K Prevents You from Turning into a Walking “Coral Reef”

Complicating the problem of calcium deposits are nanobacteria that actually use this bad calcium to their advantage, forming hard shells of calcium phosphate that serve as defensive armor against your body’s immune system, like a clamshell shields a clam.

When the shells harden, toxins such as mercury, pesticides, and plastics are trapped in there, which is why it is so hard for you to get those toxins out of your body. This encapsulated space also forms an excellent hiding area for opportunistic viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Overconsumption of calcium creates other mineral deficiencies and imbalances, and Western civilization vastly overconsumes calcium.

According to Rudolf Steiner, creator of biodynamic farming:

“Most calcium is gravitational and channels or conducts forces which accelerate gravity. The more calcium supplements one takes, the quicker one is dragged back into the Earth for recycling.”

You don’t want to turn into a human coral reef — or be “recycled into the Earth” before your time!

By getting adequate vitamins D and K, your body will work synergistically to escort calcium to where it’s needed, while preventing it from accumulating where it shouldn’t.

So, What REALLY Increases Bone Strength?

As it turns out, you need a combination of plant-derived minerals for strong bones.

Your bones are actually composed of at least a dozen minerals. If you just focus on calcium, you will likely weaken your bones and increase your risk of osteoporosis as Dr. Robert Thompson explains in his book, The Calcium Lie.

It’s more likely your body can use calcium correctly if it’s plant-derived calcium. Good sources include raw milk from pasture-raised cows (who eat the plants), leafy green vegetables, the pith of citrus fruits, carob, and wheatgrass, to name a few.

But you also need sources of silica and magnesium, which some researchers say is actually enzymatically “transmuted” by your body into the kind of calcium your bones can use. This theory was first put forth by French scientist Louis Kevran, a Nobel Prize nominee who spent years studying how silica and calcium are related.

Good sources of silica are cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and a number of herbs including horsetail, nettles, oat straw, and alfalfa.

The absolute best source of magnesium is raw organic cacao. Yes, healthy high quality chocolate is extremely rich in magnesium!

A great source of trace minerals, which are important for many of your body’s functions, is Himalayan Crystal Salt, which contains all 84 elements found in your body.

The bottom line?

The absolute best way to achieve healthy bones is a diet rich in fresh, raw whole foods that maximizes natural minerals so that your body has the raw materials it needs to do what it was designed to do.

Of course, the same can be said for your heart — or any other part of your body.

To Wrap it Up …

In order to achieve the best possible health, you have to devise a plan of attack from multiple angles. These suggestions will synergistically help keep your heart, blood vessels, organs and bones healthy.

Optimize your vitamin D either from natural sunlight exposure or an oral supplement, as described above. Check your blood levels regularly.

Optimize your vitamin K through a combination of dietary sources (leafy green vegetables, fermented foods like natto, raw milk cheeses, etc.) and a K2 supplement, if needed. Although the exact dosing (for oral supplementation) is yet to be determined, Dr. Vermeer recommends up to 185 mcg daily for adults. You must use caution on the higher doses if you take anticoagulants, but if you are generally healthy and not on these types of medications, I suggest 150-300 mcg daily.

Make sure you do weight-bearing exercise, which has profound benefits to both your skeletal and cardiovascular systems. My favorite is the Peak Fitness system but it is also very important to do strength training exercises to produce the dynamic electric forces in your bones which will stimulate the osteoblasts in your bone to produce new bone..

Consume a wide variety of fresh, local organic whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, organic meats and eggs, and raw organic unpasteurized dairy. The more of your diet you consume RAW, the better nourished you will be. Minimize sugar and refined grains.

Consider a high-quality animal source of omega-3 fatty acid supplement—my favorite is krill oil.

Make sure you are getting enough restorative sleep each night.

Handle the stress in your life since it has a significant impact on your physical and mental well-being. My favorite de-stressing tool is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).