In this three-part series, I’ll focus on a vitamin often overlooked, but that has some significant health benefits. On top of being an essential nutrient, that is. This is an introduction to vitamin K, which is closely connected to blood’s capacity to clot.
Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin discovered in the early 1930s by a Danish biochemist, Henrik Dam, who won the Nobel Prize 13 years later. The letter “K” comes from the German word “koagulation,” which has to do with blood clotting.
The vitamin consists of many different but related chemicals. Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone) and vitamin K2 (menaquinone) are the two natural forms. Both are found in a variety of foods, which I’ll discuss in part three of the series.
Vitamin K is essential for the key proteins in our bodies, including some that are critical for the following functions:
- Blood clotting
- Bone growth
- Blocking the formation of blood clot
- Cell growth
Blood clots block the blood flow to major organs, including the heart, brain and lungs, and can lead to heart attacks, strokes and pulmonary embolism. In these patients, physicians often prescribe warfarin, which blocks the clotting process by antagonizing the action of vitamin K.
Vitamin-K deficiency is rare in adults, because many foods contain this vitamin, plus the fact that our own intestinal bacteria can make some. Individuals who are at risk of deficiency are mainly those taking warfarin, who are on prolonged antibiotic treatment (killing the intestinal bacteria that make vitamin K), or those with severe liver damage.
However, newborn breast-fed babies are at an increased risk of vitamin-K deficiency since human milk is low in vitamin K, as compared to formula milk, and the intestines of the newborn are not capable of making vitamin K. Vitamin-K deficiency bleeding in the newborn is potentially life-threatening and preventable by injection of vitamin K1 to all newborns, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.