Supplements, doctors and the K connection

Doctors in general do not practise preventative healthcare. Almost all the so-called ‘age-related’ diseases take from 10 to 20 years to surface as tangible life-threatening illnesses – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia. That’s equally true of life-diminishing illnesses like chronic tiredness and erectile dysfunction .

Magic bullet drugs are too late

Because doctors are faced with the visible end-point of what is a patient’s decades-long developing illness, they inevitably have to turn to the ‘magic bullet’ drugs of the pharmaceutical industry. It’s largely what they were trained to do. But that’s too late in the sequence and is mostly just tackling the symptoms not the original cause. That’s why critics unkindly have called it the National Illness Service!

As a result of the over-emphasis on pharmaceutical solutions in their training and in ongoing professional development, there are still doctors who maintain that people do not need to take supplements. They claim to practise evidence-based medicine but far too many ignore – or mostly don’t know about – the mountain of evidence for supplementation.

Supplements that ARE recognised by doctors

Most doctors do accept the case for folate (folic acid) supplementation before and during pregnancy; others are aware that iron depletion anaemia is a common cause of fatigue and poor immunity, particularly in women of child-bearing age. Some have heard of widespread hypo-vitaminosis D (vitamin D deficiency), and that this might increase the risks of heart disease, cancer and auto-immune disease.

But what about other vital micro-nutrients?

Few doctors, however, understand that our low energy lifestyles make it possible for many of us to get by on 2,000+ calories a day, which is idling rate. Less food inevitably means less nutrients and a more restricted range of nutrients. The consequence is that almost all of us are depleted in many vital micro-nutrients, no matter how ‘balanced’ a diet we apparently consume.

Lessons from the mid-Victorian diet

Hardly any doctors are aware that in mid-Victorian 19th century Britain, at a time when life expectancy (after the first 3 years) equalled or exceeded ours, people’s high calorific throughputs and super-Mediterranean diets made degenerative and allergic diseases rare (Clayton & Rowbotham ’09).

The importance of the historical evidence is that it proves that the degenerative diseases that dominate public health today, such as coronary artery disease, osteoporosis, dementia and – broadly – the cancers, are nothing to do with ageing, and everything to do with bad lifestyles and sub-optimal nutrition.

As these diseases have multiple and mainly nutritional causes it is hardly surprising that they cannot be cured by drugs, which – apart from the antibiotics – do no more than suppress the symptoms of diseases.

The example of Vitamin K

Helping prevent bone loss, certain cancers – and wrinkles!

As an example of how we could create a better balance between drug-based medicine and a preventative approach using nutritional knowledge, let us consider vitamin K.

It has long been known that K is essential for Koagulation. For many years the only medical application of this vitamin was an injection, given to newborns, to prevent K-deficiency haemorrhage.

More recently, however, K has been found to be essential for the maintenance of healthy calcium levels in connective tissues such as bone, cartilage, skin and artery walls. Furthermore it appears to protect against certain cancers, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease also. This would not be medically relevant if we were consuming enough vitamin K, but we don’t.

Bone Loss

According to a body of research (Cranenburg et al ’07), many if not most apparently healthy adults are vitamin K deficient, and thus more at risk of vascular, bone and other diseases. The Dutch research team monitored two proteins, osteocalcin and Matrix Gla protein, which are involved in the calcification of bone and the prevention of calcification of soft tissues such as arteries, respectively. Both proteins can only function once they have been activated by a K-dependent enzyme; the team found substantial levels of non-activated proteins in ‘healthy’ subjects, proving that they were K-deficient.

This is an important finding because K deficiency is a serious risk factor for increased post-menopausal bone loss in women (Douglas et al ’95, Nakamura et al ’10) and for artery calcification, notably in diabetes, end-stage renal disease and ageing (Sugimoto et al ’02, Schurgers, Spronk et al ’07, Gast et al ’09, Okura et al ’10).

It is obvious that we should be urgently considering ways to supplement our diets with vitamin K (and with many other micro- and phyto-nutrients), rather than waiting for serious illness to emerge and then falling back on ineffective and toxic pharmaceutical products.

Current drug treatments for coronary artery disease and osteoporosis are bad enough; but when we consider cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, they are truly awful. In these two indications in particular, dietary prevention out-scores drug treatment by a country mile. Vitamin K plays a role here too.


There is evidence that K supplements protect against a range of cancers. One of the first findings came from a small Japanese study which was set up to see if K could prevent bone loss in 40 patients with viral hepatitis. Such patients have a high risk of liver cancer, and the researchers found, to their surprise, that while the rate of liver cancer was 50% in the placebo group, it was a mere 10% in the K-supplemented group (Habu et al ’04).

This result, plus the knowledge that K was intimately involved with the regulation of cell growth and survival (ie Saxena et al ’01) led to further research. Within a few years, a large prospective study found that higher intakes of K2 were associated with a 63% reduction in the risk of advanced prostate cancer (Nimptsch et al ’08); and a reduction of 28% in total cancer mortality (Nimptsch et al ’09).

According to the researchers:

‘Current dietary recommendations are based on levels to ensure adequate blood coagulation, but failing to ensure long-term optimal levels of vitamin K may accelerate bone fragility, arterial and kidney calcification, cardiovascular disease, and possibly cancer’.


The case here is not as strong as for cancer, but there is a correlation between low K status, the gene APOE4, and an increased risk of dementia (Allison ’01, Presse et al ’08).

There is a plausible mechanism. Inflammation and oxidative stress leading to nerve cell death are key components in Alzheimer’s; Vitamin K has both anti-inflammatory effects (Shea et al ’08), and the ability to inhibit oxidative nerve cell death (Li X et al ’09).

Appearance too

Finally, two more indications which are not medically serious, but fit with much of the story as outlined above.

Reducing varicose veins

In one study (Cario-Toumaniantz et al ’07), the same protein that plays a crucial role in preventing the calcification of artery walls was also found to be strongly linked to the risk of developing varicose veins. This indicates that degradation of collagen in the vein walls is a key factor in driving varicosities, and that K supplements should help to prevent this largely cosmetic condition.

Protecting against skin ageing

The second piece of research shows that vitamin K plays a role in protecting skin elasticity, and may help protect against skin aging and the development of wrinkles (Gheduzzi et al ’07). When skin loses its elasticity, one factor is the degradation of collagen and elastin micro-fibres in the dermis. Calcification of the collagen and elastin degrades the fibres, and vitamin K plays a role in preventing this (Vanakker et al ’07, Li Q et al ’09).

Vitamin K1 AND K2

Dietary intakes of vitamin K are very low. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 1 microgram per kilogram of body weight per day, which – as with vitamin D – is far too low to support good health. To make matters worse, K1 (the most common form of vitamin K) does not stay in the body for long; in experimental animals, once K has been removed from the diet the symptoms of K-deficiency appear within a few days.

Vitamin K1 is contained in green leaf vegetables but is the least well absorbed and is the least effective form of this vitamin. K2, the form of vitamin K found in fermented foods such as blue cheese or the Japanese food natto, is better absorbed and is stored and handled more effectively by the body (Schurgers, Teunissen et al ’07), making it the ideal candidate for supplements.

But Vitamin K is only one example of the power of supplementation

This article has used vitamin K only as an example of how supplements can make a real difference to your health. It’s NOT a recommendation to rush out and buy one vitamin. There are many other nutrients that need to be combined in a truly protective supplement to achieve an optimum daily nutritional intake. They include vitamin D3, Omega 3, lycopene, lutein, curcumin, the vegetable-derived flavonoids, selenium, zinc and many more.

I believe that the internet and the free availability of nutritional information will, in the end, help us to improve our health with a better balance between drug-based medicine and a preventative approach using nutritional knowledge. The medical profession is slowly catching up.

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