Friday, 10 October 2014

Brain food

I sort of understand the lack of interest in Vitamin K. Mention it to the average human and they’ll most likely think you made it up or suspect it is the latest hippy naturopath cure-all sourced from the summit of one particular mountain in the Andes that nobody’s heard of.
What may be surprising to people who get all their advice from mainstream experts is that it is a real thing and that Dane Henrik Dam and American Edward Doisy were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1943 for “discovering” Vitamin K and its chemical structure.
The benefits of torturing chickens
Dam and his mates were studying chickens in the late 1920s and early 30s and feeding them a synthetic diet void of cholesterol, as you do, and they noticed that some of them developed haemorrhages under the skin and had delayed blood clotting. Scientists and their ability to dream up interesting new ways of fucking up animals is probably worth writing a PhD thesis on, but despite the unpleasantness, they eventually figured out that the poor chicks were being deprived of a previously unknown fat soluble vitamin. The called it K because of the Scandinavian and German spelling of koagulation.
For more on the trip down history lane, Dam’s Nobel lecture is worth a read and can be found here. An interesting quote – “Rabbits have been observed to develop the disease only to a moderate degree. These animals as well as rats eat faeces directly from the anus during the night and thereby partially protect themselves against vitamin K deficiency.”
Vitamin K in recent times
New born humans in many countries now get a K-shot in the first week or so of life and suggestions that K will help those at risk of osteoporosis appear to be creeping into mainstream medicine (sort of – more in countries like Japan than elsewhere).
Over 70 years since Dam’s speech and we still don’t know just how many fields that K likes to play in. It is an evolving area of research that is evolving incredibly slowly. The list of K-dependent proteins and lipids has increased over that time, which would suggest that we've seriously underestimated K as a significant player in human health. Vitamins like C are treated like rock star celebrities and K has the reputation as the ‘weird one, who’s probably quite talented, but also a bit vague and weird, so let’s ignore it’.
Sciencey soporific stuff
Vitamin K is a group of fat soluble vitamins, and for soporofic reasons I’ll be brief and say there are two main types, K1 (phylloquinone) and K2 - (menaquinone). K1 is usually sourced from green leafy plants and animals can, if required, convert this to K2 in the gut or other tissues.
K2 is further classified into subtypes and if we ignore the obscure, these are MK-4 and MK-7, where M= menaquinone, K= vitamin K and 4 & 7 = the number of isoprenoid residues in its side chain.
MK-7 can be found in non-animal foods and in massive amounts in a fermented bean concoction  that the Japanese seem to like. MK-4 is from animal products like butter, eggs, cheese, meat and organs.
ApoE and K
All that is terribly fascinating in itself, however during my travels through one of the many ApoE rabbit warrens, I learned that E4 carriers tend to have lower plasma levels of K, than do E3 and E2 carriers. In fact, just like the relationship for ApoE concentration, the levels of K have been observed as follows:
Why that is, is a little tenuous, but it may relate to E4’s binding preference for triglyceride-rich lipoproteins - the same lipoproteins that are most likely to transport fat-soluble vitamins through the body.
E3 and E2 bind preferentially to cholesterol-rich lipoproteins like LDL. Are the ApoE4 whisking away the chylomicrons and the VLDLs before they’ve had a chance to deliver the K to where it can be utilised? I don’t know, but it’s at least possible.
Does it matter what type you eat?
No one seems to agree consistently on what is the best form of K2 to digest, i.e. MK-4 vs MK-7. Research suggests that 7 stays in your system for longer, but others suggest that may be because 4 is readily taken up by the cells that require it. If 4 is required in the brain, as is proposed below, maybe it takes the quickest and shortest route to your grey matter and doesn’t hang around in your blood for long. Speculating is fun when there are so many unknowns.
K is brain food
Canadian Guylaine Ferland, says K’s role extends past coagulation and into the brain and nervous system. If we take it as a given that any research done on rats is not necessarily going to extend to humans, and then sort of ignore that for a minute (ha ha), the studies Ferland references depict a fascinating association between K status and cognition.

Ferland says K plays an important role in modulating enzymes that are vital to the “sphingolipid biosynthetic paythway”. I’m not sure if she made that up, but it sounds intelligent, so I’ll take her word for it.

Sphingolipids are fats that are crucial to cell membranes and are highly concentrated in our nervous system. Two such sphingolipids are Gas6 and Protein S and the good function of these is related to sufficient supply of K.

The type of K that is most present in the rat brain is MK-4 and low levels are associated with poor brain function. 
Source: Ferland
To suggest that association flows through to humans is of course arguable. To then take a gigantic leap of faith and suggest that diseases of the brain are caused by, or at least significantly associated with, low levels of K would be ridiculously premature and most likely obtuse. But it’s worth doing a few humans trials sooner rather than later considering the list of people that can be included in studies that have dementia is not getting any shorter.
Apparent lack of interest
After writing this post, I found that I’m terribly late to the party and there are a lot of people with similar thoughts on the topic. One such person was about 13 years and probably at least 30-50 IQ points ahead of me and made his argument without resorting to indiscriminate swearing.
Kidding of course - Anthony Allison suggested, way back in 2001 that the link is plausible but as far as I’m aware, the number of decent studies done on humans in that time is quite pathetic – patience is not one of my virtues. I’m hoping that isn’t just because the probability of making truck-loads of money from prescribing K to dementia patients is exactly zero.

Making money out of preventative medicine is important
Tin foil hat on for a minute - even if there does prove to be a link between K and brain health in humans, how pissed off would the pharmaceutical companies (and therefore their quislings, the nutritional authorities) be if the answer to reducing rates of dementia was simply to eat more meat, butter, eggs, cheese and fermented foods like natto?
I think the answer to that is “extremely”. You can’t tell people to eat animal products because they’re full of saturated fat and we all know Mrs Evolution invented that as a sick joke on us all. What a bitch.
Obviously the answer should come in a pill. Preferably one that makes a lot of psychopaths rich and has side effects that can be ignored or blamed on the patient’s eroding brain.
Massive amounts of conjecture on my part
Conspiracy theories aside, ApoE4 carriers like me have some issues to worry about. Wondering whether you’ll slide into dementia before or after developing heart disease is not exactly a nice thing to contemplate. Given there has been no level at which Vitamin K2 has proven to be toxic, I would have thought making sure your intake is high would be worth the effort. Whether that means eating plenty of animal products or supplementing with a tablet each day – the down-side appears to be non-existent.
And while it’s tempting to taunt the anti-meat brigade about the apparent association between mental health and not eating animals (or is that just low cholesterol levels, I can’t remember), that’s probably pushing things, even for me. I’m sure they get plenty of K1 or MK-7, which can be converted to MK-4, but it seems like an inefficient way of doing things. A bit like making pretend bacon out of tofu. Just eat the damn pork.
Is this (skyrocketing dementia rates) yet another item to add to the list of things our wonderful mainstream nutrition experts have given us?
Stuff I haven’t even touched on here
The role of K in preventing heart disease is also important and the association is one that appears to be significant. It has also been suggested that if people are supplementing with vitamin D and/or calcium, they’d want to be taking K as well or ‘nasty stuff could happen’. ApoE E4 carriers have the obvious Alzheimer’s risk, but they also have some worries with bone density, another field in which K likes to play.
In summary, K is a bit of a super star substance that we need to take a much closer look at and spend a lot more money on to watch it perform.
TLDRCGAF summary:
·         Vitamin K is important for a number of reasons
·         The well-known reasons are coagulation and bone density
·         The not-so-well-known reason is brain health
·         I’m obviously late to the topic, but it seems the lab geeks have been sitting on this stuff for decades and doing SFA about it.
·         Further human studies are needed to clarify the link, if any, between K and dementia and/or other age-related conditions.
·       Feeding your body and brain some K on a regular basis is probably decent insurance against forgetting your kids’ names when you’re older.
I have a new phone. It is awesome.
Frogs are out, but they refuse to tell me how long the wet season will take to arrive.