John Douillard, DC
Are you doing enough to protect your arteries from the leading cause of death in most civilized societies?
Atherosclerosis—or “hardening of the arteries”—usually isn’t diagnosed until after the age of 50, but the cause is a lifetime of stress and the wrong dietary choices. If we want to protect our cardiovascular health, the key is to take action long before we qualify for the diagnosis.
While it is not news that eating fresh vegetables plays a major role in cardiovascular health, what may surprise you is that certain nutrients in eggs yolks, dairy products and organ meats may not only protect the arteries from hardening, but may reverse arterial calcification as well (1). But we know that eating these foods in excess can create other health problems. So what do we do?
Join me as we dive into the causes of atherosclerosis, and explore new and exciting strategies to address them.
How Arteries Harden
There are many factors involved in the initiation and progression of atherosclerosis including diet, stress, lack of exercise and genetic susceptibility. These factors seem to lead to the production of free radicals and a degenerative inflammatory process.
Currently there are two blood tests more commonly used to screen for arterial damage: cholesterol and homocysteine. Homocysteine, which is a sulfur containing amino acid, is a more accurate predictor of cardiovascular risk than cholesterol, but still not as well known. While the exact mechanism is unclear, excess homocysteine is possibly due to a high protein, high saturated fat diet and/or a deficiency in B12. High homocysteine levels build up in the blood and create damage to the arterial wall - the first step in atherosclerosis.
Cholesterol’s Famous Role
Cholesterol is very important for many bodily processes like building cell membranes and hormones. Notoriously, it is also intimately connected with cardiovascular health. But knowing your cholesterol levels alone is not enough—we need to look at the levels of lipoproteins.
Lipoproteins are the transporter molecules that carry cholesterol through the blood stream, and come in two forms: HDL (high-density lipoproteins) which carry cholesterol away from the cells and LDL (low-density lipoproteins) which carry cholesterol to the cells, potentially causing toxic build-up.
Thousands of studies have shown that high levels of LDL cholesterol are damaging to the arterial lining and a leading cause of atherosclerosis.
How Your Body Copes
Once the arterial wall is damaged, the body lays down a collagen fiber cap over the injury. The artery is designed to handle such damage by burying the collagen deep into the arterial or capillary wall. In fact, the arteries and capillaries can actually increase their size by ten-fold in an attempt to cope with arterial injury and damage. This process begins in the small capillaries, causing annoying issues like varicose veins, cold hands and feet, and other circulatory issues including cellulite, before it starts causing a life-threatening damage to the coronary arteries.
The collagen cap attracts circulating calcium, platelets and other plaque-forming agents, narrowing the arterial wall. After many years of such damage, the plaque formations begin to calcify, which is why atherosclerosis is commonly called “hardening of the arteries".
In addition to hardening the arteries, another danger of this plaque is that it can break loose, creating a potentially deadly thrombus, the leading cause of heart attack and stroke (3).
As you can see, damage to the arterial wall can have widespread—and surprising—consequences.
Arterial Defense, and Damage Reversal
Of course, in nature there is a vitamin that provides arterial plaque protecting benefits as well as the ability to reverse calcium plaque (4). That is the vitamin K. There are two types of Vitamin K: K-1 and K-2.
It is the vitamin K-2, found only in organ meats, eggs yolks and dairy products like cheese and curd, that has been shown to protect the arteries from plaque formation and, even more amazing, reverse arterial calcium plaque (6).
Vitamin K-1, found in leafy green vegetables, has some very important functions in the body, most notably coagulating the blood. When we have sufficient amounts of it, some of it begins to convert into the K-2, but this process appears to be slow and very inefficient (5).
According to the Rotterdam Study, folks who had the highest amount of Vitamin K-2 in their blood had a 57% reduction in death from heart disease. Those with high levels of K-1 did not have a significant reduction in heart disease related death (7).
In another study, high levels of Vitamin K in the blood reduced arterial calcification by 50%. The same study found that rats who were put at risk for arterial plaque were supplemented with Vitamin K-1 and K-2. Those taking vitamin K-2 had zero arterial plaque formation compared to those taking only K-1. 100% of the rats taking only Vitamin K-1 had the development of calcium plaque in the carotid arteries (8).
How Vitamin K-2 Protects the Arteries
Vitamin K-2 maintains normal coagulation of the blood, preserves bone and prevents calcification of the arteries and muscle in the body. It does this by activating the body's major calcification inhibitor, Matrix GLA Protein, through a process called carboxylation (9).
In one study, Vitamin K-2 supplementation was shown to protect the cardiovascular system from damage, act as a natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, as well as reduce the build up of calcium plaque on the walls of the arteries (10, 11).
Can I Get Enough K-2 from Green Veggies?
Perhaps if we imitated the eating patterns of Gorillas—who have an identical digestive system as humans—and ate close to half our body weight in veggies a day, we might have enough K-1 to then convert into enough K-2 to reverse arterial damage.
However, if you have reason to be concerned about your arteries (the foods you’ve been eating, your age, a history of high stress levels), K-1 conversion may not be enough. There are also obvious problems with including high quantities of K-2-rich foods—such as eggs, dairy, and organ meats—in the diet.
So in addition to making a huge effort to eat more greens, consider supplementing with vitamin K-2.
Supplementing with K-2
There are two major types of Vitamin K-2, Mk-4 and Mk-7. Both have shown to be beneficial in protecting the arteries from calcification, but MK-7 seems to be the type researchers are most fond of. MK-7 has greater bio-availability than MK-4 and K-1, and lasts up to seven-eight times longer in the bloodstream, delivering a more stable and lasting benefit (12).