Having low levels of vitamin K, while rare, is incredibly dangerous because vitamin K is essential for blood clotting, coagulation, and the calcium content available for our bones. Newborn babies often enter this world with a deficiency of vitamin K, and certain diets and medications can cause this vitamin deficiency in otherwise healthy adults. We have the details regarding who is at risk of vitamin K deficiency, how to identify the symptoms, and how to naturally boost your vitamin K levels.
What Is Vitamin K’s Role in the Body?
Part of a group of fat-soluble vitamins, vitamin K is vital for heart health, bone strength, and blood clotting. Without enough vitamin K available to make blood clotting factors, the smallest cuts and injuries could lead to severe bleeding, especially in exclusively breastfed infants. Vitamin K deficiency bleeding (VKDB), also known as hemorrhagic disease of the newborn, can lead to excessive bleeding, bruising, and sometimes life-threatening injury to the brain. Though thankfully rare, a deficiency of vitamin K can surprise those who don’t know they’re at risk, and lead to long-term conditions like the development of heart disease.
The daily recommended amount of vitamin K intake is around 120 micrograms—not a huge amount, and normally perfectly easy to get from eating just about any amount of green leafy vegetables. However, newborns can’t eat kale, and most cases of vitamin K deficiency have underlying causes preventing vitamin K absorption.
How to Identify a Deficiency of Vitamin K
Here are the types of vitamin K we need, plus the symptoms and potential causes of vitamin K deficiency.
Types of Vitamin K
The two main types of vitamin K are:
- Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone): This vitamin K comes from plants like leafy green veggies (spinach, kale, cabbage, etc.). Despite its abundance in most diets, vitamin K1 is poorly absorbed by humans, with one study estimating that only roughly 10% of the vitamin K1 in plants is absorbed after consumption.
- Vitamin K2 (menaquinone): Vitamin K2 is a more mysterious form of vitamin K, with researchers theorizing that because it’s found in fatty foods, it may be better absorbed than vitamin K1 since both are fat soluble. It’s also created naturally in our digestive tracts.
Consuming fat alongside fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin K allows for better absorption, something to keep in mind when you’re cooking with vitamin K (read on for vitamin-K-boosting recipes). Without enough vitamin K in your system, your blood may not clot properly, causing easy bruising and excessive bleeding that may be your first warning signs that you need more vitamin K. Consult a health care provider to confirm this suspicion, and keep in mind the following symptoms.
The Symptoms of Vitamin K Deficiency
If you notice these symptoms, your vitamin K status may be compromised.
- Excessive bleeding
- Easy bruising
- Small blood clots beneath the finger nails
- Black, tarry stool
- Bleeding of the mucus membrane areas inside your body (like the mouth and nose)
Those are the symptoms for adults, but for newborn infants who are particularly vulnerable to vitamin K deficiency, symptoms may include:
- Bleeding at the area of umbilical cord removal
- Bleeding at the site of circumcision
- Bruising of the skin and bleeding of the nose
- Unseen bleeds in the gastrointestinal tract or brain
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants receive a vitamin K injection shortly after birth, and while parents have the ultimate decision on whether or not their baby is administered a vitamin K shot, it’s especially important for those infants who may be exclusively breastfed, as breast milk has less vitamin K than nutritionally fortified formula. Without the administration of vitamin K, the baby is more at risk of developing VKDB, requiring a blood transfusion, or possibly losing their life.
Risk Factors for Vitamin K Deficiency
While our bodies are normally pretty good at maintaining vitamin K levels, there are some circumstances that can disrupt that balance, including:
- Taking medications for seizures (anticonvulsants) or for blood clotting issues (coumarin anticoagulants like warfarin)
- Having malabsorption syndromes or digestive disorders like Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or cystic fibrosis
- Taking antibiotics or even high doses of aspirin
- Malnutrition or a diet extremely poor in vitamin K sources
Coumarin anticoagulants naturally interfere with certain coagulation factors related to blood clotting, and some antibiotics have side effects that can cause vitamin K to either be less effective in the body or to inhibit the production of vitamin K2. A health care professional will most likely perform a prothrombin time (PT) test to evaluate your blood’s speed of coagulation for diagnosis.
Infants fed breast milk exclusively or who don’t begin producing their own vitamin K2 within the first few days of life are most likely in need of vitamin K supplementation. Again, your doctor can make that determination and provide the proper solution.
Clinical Treatment of Vitamin K Deficiency
To quickly treat a deficiency of vitamin K, doctors often prescribe the drug phytonadione, which is a 1- to 25-milligram dose of vitamin K1 (less if it’s for a patient who is taking an anticoagulant). This can be administered orally or via an intramuscular shot, much like the one given to infants at birth (which is capped at around a maximum of 1 milligram per dose).
How to Naturally Correct a Deficiency of Vitamin K
Preventing vitamin K deficiency or catching it quickly before it requires medical intervention is an excellent way for adults to avoid any dangerous complications. While one small shot can take a newborn out of harm’s way, just one serving of leafy green vegetables can provide an adult with all the vitamin K needed for any given day. Here are the top 10 veggies rich in vitamin K (percentage daily value calculated for 100-gram serving sizes), and a quick recipe for each that will help boost its absorption.
1. Parsley (1,367% DV)
With this simple Parsley and Lemon Pesto recipe from Food Republic, you can make your own parsley-based pesto, meaning you can turn any serving of pasta into a serving of vitamin K. With garlic, bread crumbs, olive oil, spices, and zesty lemon, you can easily prepare this summer favorite.
2. Swiss Chard (692% DV)
Allrecipes has the details on this Sautéed Swiss Chard with Parmesan Cheese dish. Combine onion, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and Parmesan with your Swiss chard, and enjoy your daily dose of vitamin K without feeling like you’re swallowing medicine.
3. Kale (681% DV)
This Warm Keto Kale Salad recipe from Diet Doctor combines the vitamin K of kale with the healthy dietary fats associated with the low-carb keto (ketogenic) diet for optimal absorption. Combine kale with heavy whipping cream, olive oil, mayo, mustard, butter, and blue or feta cheese, and you’re looking at a very rich, seemingly decadent veggie dish.
4. Mustard Greens (494% DV)
Here’s another dish that deliciously combines fats with your vitamin K. This recipe for Simple Southern Mustard Greens from Diana Rattray at The Spruce Eats sautés mustard greens with thick cuts of bacon and delicious flavorings for a classic dinner table side.
5. Beet Greens (403% DV)
Martha Rose Shulman writing for the New York Times details a delectable recipe for Sautéed Beet Greens with Garlic and Olive Oil. It also includes red pepper flakes for an extra flavor dimension.
6. Spinach (402% DV)
Check out VeggieShake’s own compilation of three different spinach recipes: a green medley mix, a rich soup, and a crisp salad. And don’t forget that spinach makes for a wonderful smoothie ingredient for heart health and adds bright green visual appeal.
7. Collard Greens (339% DV)
This Grandma’s Collard Greens recipe from Taste of Home turns your vitamin K into comfort food. With lard (or shortening) and smoked ham hocks for the fat absorption boost, the seasonings and white wine included in this recipe will make your collard greens a delight to eat.
8. Broccoli (118% DV)
How about a recipe for the whole family? This Broccoli with Cheese Sauce recipe from Sara (photographer, blogger, and mother of three) writing at Dinner at the Zoo puts together homemade cheese sauce with a green veggie everyone will want to eat in this rich and tasty presentation.
9. Brussels Sprouts (117% DV)
We’ve compiled a list of 10 tasty Brussels sprouts recipes you’ll want to try—who knew such a simple vegetable could be prepared in so many delicious ways?
10. Cabbage (91% DV)
This Easy Fried Cabbage recipe from Rachel at The Stay-at-Home Chef brings together bacon strips, brown sugar, and paprika to make a quick cabbage dish unlike any you’ve ever had before.
Cook Your Way out of Vitamin K Deficiency
A deficiency of vitamin K doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it can be incredibly dangerous, including causing intracranial hemorrhage and brain damage or death to infants. Consuming a diet rich in vitamin K foods goes a long way towards preventing and correcting vitamin K deficiency long before it puts you or your unborn baby in the hospital. Cook up, eat well, and be strong with these restorative recipes.