By Dr. Mercola
Dietary fats are an important nutritional component not only because your body needs them for building healthy cells and producing hormones—fat is also required for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
This includes vitamins A, D, E, and K, all of which perform a variety of important functions in your body. Vitamins A, D, and K cooperate synergistically, not only with each other but also with essential minerals like magnesium, calcium, and zinc.
This level of synergy is a reminder that your best bet is to cooperate with the wisdom of nature by eating a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods, and in the case of vitamin D, by getting appropriate sun exposure.
Optimizing your vitamin D levels could cut your risk for cancer in half. One study shows it may also slash your risk of heart attacks by 50% - and sunshine is free.
It can be rather tricky to fine-tune all the ratios of individual vitamins, minerals, and fats if you primarily rely on dietary supplements. That said, in some cases supplementation may be a wise choice, and I’ll review some of the basics to consider if you think you need more than your diet can provide you.
The Synergy Between Vitamins A, D, and K
Both vitamins A and D contribute to immune function by binding to their respective receptors, thereby directing cellular processes that promote healthy immune responses.
However, studies in isolated cells suggest that vitamin D may only be able to activate its receptor with the direct cooperation of vitamin A,1,2 and other studies have raised questions about vitamin A’s ability to negate vitamin D’s benefits if the ratio between them favors vitamin A too much...
One of the simplest ways to ensure an appropriate and beneficial ratio between these two vitamins is to make sure you’re getting your vitamin D from sensible sun exposure, and your vitamin A or beta-carotene from your diet, in the form of colorful vegetables.
The reason this works is it’s the retinoic acid (retinol) form of vitamin A that is problematic. Not beta carotene. Beta carotene is not a concern because it is PRE-vitamin A. Your body will simply not over-convert beta carotene to excessive levels of vitamin A.
Taking beta carotene supplements also will not interfere with your vitamin D, so that’s another option if for some reason you cannot get enough veggies in your diet. Chlorella is also loaded with natural beta carotene and can be very useful for optimizing your vitamin A levels. Vitamins A and D also cooperate to regulate the production of certain vitamin K-dependent proteins.
Once vitamin K2 activates these proteins, they help mineralize bones and teeth, protect arteries and other soft tissues from abnormal calcification, and protect against cell death. Magnesium, calcium, vitamin D3, or vitamin K2 also work in tandem, so if you’re considering taking one, you need to take all the others into consideration as well.
Study Predicts Vitamin A Supplements for Kids Could Save 600,000 Lives a Year
While vitamin D has received plenty of attention over the past decade, other vitamins, such as A, have receded into the background. But that doesn’t make them any less important.
Vitamin A3 is important for healthy vision, immune function, and proper cell growth, and according to previous research, preventing vitamin A deficiency in children could save an estimated 600,000 lives each year. As reported by Science Daily:4
“[A] team of researchers... analyzed the results of 43 trials of vitamin A supplementation involving over 200,000 children aged 6 months to 5 years...
They found vitamin A supplements reduced child mortality by 24 percent in low and middle income countries. It may also reduce mortality and disability by preventing measles, diarrhea and vision problems, including night blindness.
The authors say that, if the risk of death for 190 million vitamin A deficient children were reduced by 24 percent, over 600,000 lives would be saved each year and 20 million disability-adjusted life years (a measure of quantity and quality of life) would be gained.”
Vitamin D—One of the Simplest Solutions to Wide-Ranging Health Problems
Researchers have now realized that vitamin D is involved in the biochemical cellular machinery of all the cells and tissues in your body. When you are deficient, your entire body will end up struggling to operate optimally.
Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is still rampant around the world, even in sun-drenched areas, as many shun the sun for fear of skin cancer, or simply spend most of their daylight hours working indoors.
Research suggests that increasing levels of vitamin D3 among the general population could potentially prevent chronic diseases that claim nearly one million lives throughout the world each year. Incidence of several types of cancer and heart disease could also be slashed in half.
Vitamin D also helps fight infections of all kinds, including colds and the flu, as it regulates the expression of genes that influence your immune system to attack and destroy bacteria and viruses.
Optimizing your vitamin D levels should be at the top of the list for virtually everyone, regardless of your age, sex, color, or health status, as vitamin D deficiency has been linked to an astonishingly diverse array of common chronic diseases, including:
Cancer Hypertension Heart disease Autism Obesity Rheumatoid arthritis Diabetes 1 and 2 Multiple Sclerosis Crohn's disease Cold & Flu Inflammatory Bowel Disease Tuberculosis Septicemia Signs of aging Dementia Eczema & Psoriasis Insomnia Hearing loss Muscle pain Cavities Periodontal disease Osteoporosis Macular degeneration Reduced C-section risk Pre eclampsia Seizures Infertility Asthma Cystic fibrosis Migraines Depression Alzheimer's disease Schizophrenia
General Vitamin D Guidelines
To maximally benefit from vitamin D, you need a vitamin D level of at least 40 ng/ml, and to get there, you may need around 5,000-6,000 IUs of vitamin D3 per day or more, from all sources, and that includes appropriate sun exposure, food, and/or a vitamin D3 supplement. Research suggests the ideal range for optimal health is between 50-70 ng/ml, and if you have cancer or heart disease, the ideal may be even higher.
Ideally, test your vitamin D level at least twice a year to ensure you maintain a clinically relevant level year-round. Keep in mind that if you take a vitamin D supplement, you also increase your body’s need for vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 deficiency is actually what produces the symptoms of vitamin D toxicity, which includes inappropriate calcification that can lead to hardening of your arteries.
Both Vitamin D and A Need Magnesium and Zinc to Work Properly
Vitamins A and D carry out most of their functions by regulating gene expression, but to do this, they also need magnesium, both directly and indirectly. For starters, your cells can only produce vitamin A and D receptors with the assistance of magnesium. Even fully activated vitamin D (calcitriol) is useless in the absence of magnesium. Magnesium also helps digest the fat needed for their absorption.
As noted by Christopher Masterjohn in a previous article on my site, magnesium contributes to more than 300 chemical reactions, including every reaction that depends on ATP, the universal energy currency of your cells. It also activates the enzyme that makes copies of DNA, as well as the enzyme that makes RNA, which is responsible for translating the codes contained within your genes into the production of every protein within your body. This process of translating the DNA code in order to produce proteins is called “gene expression.”
Unfortunately, industrial agriculture has massively depleted most soils of beneficial minerals like magnesium, so many are not getting sufficient amounts from their diet. An exception might be if you eat organic foods (grown in soil treated with mineral fertilizers), in which case you may still be able to get a lot of your magnesium from your food.
Seaweed and green leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard are excellent sources of magnesium, as are some beans, nuts and seeds, like pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame seeds. Avocados also contain magnesium. Juicing your vegetables is a great way to ensure you're getting enough of them in your diet.
Zinc is another mineral that plays an important role in the function of fat-soluble vitamins. There are well-documented interactions between vitamin A and zinc. Vitamin A supports the intestinal absorption of zinc, and zinc, in turn, supports the formation of vesicles involved in transporting vitamin A and the other the fat-soluble vitamins across your intestinal wall. If you have low zinc, supplementing will support vitamin A’s role in eye health. Zinc also interacts with vitamin D, and it appears they promote each other’s intestinal absorption.5
Vitamin E Is Important for Vision and Cancer Prevention
Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant and immune-system booster that—like vitamin D—has been shown to have a number of cancer-fighting properties.6,7,8 It may also be helpful in the treatment of obesity-related fatty liver disease and Alzheimer’s.9 Vitamin E is also important for eye health, and can help lower your risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD),10 a leading cause of vision loss in the elderly.
"Vitamin E" actually refers to a family of at least eight fat-soluble antioxidant compounds and, ideally, vitamin E should be consumed in the broader family of mixed natural tocopherols and tocotrienols, (also referred to as full-spectrum vitamin E) to get the maximum benefits. Avoid synthetic vitamin E (tocopheryl), as it will not provide your body with the benefits that natural full-spectrum vitamin E will. According to Dr. Evan Shute,11 a physician who has worked with vitamin E for over three decades, healthy women need around 400 IUs of vitamin E per day, while men need around 600 IUs daily.
The best way to ensure you’re getting the full spectrum of vitamin E in a form your body can use is to make smart dietary choices. Tocopherol and its subgroups are found in certain nuts and green leafy vegetables, for instance. Sources of tocotrienols include palm oil, rice bran, and barley oils.
However, since there are relatively few healthy dietary sources of vitamin E, a natural supplement may be necessary for some. If you're interested in increasing your dietary sources of vitamin E, try eating more raw organic nuts, such as hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, and pecans, legumes, and green vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli.
Vitamin K2 for Optimal Heart and Bone Health
Vitamin K1 is most well-known for the role it plays in blood clotting. In fact the “K” in “vitamin K” stands for “koagulation,” the German word for blood clotting. From its discovery in the 1930s through the late 1970s, we knew of no other roles for vitamin K. Since researchers throughout the twentieth century saw the two forms of the vitamin as interchangeable, they ignored vitamin K2 as though its scarcity made it irrelevant.
The realization that vitamin K is not just for blood clotting, however, led us to discover that vitamins K1 and K2 are not interchangeable after all: vitamin K1 more effectively supports blood clotting, while vitamin K2 is also essential for building strong bones, preventing heart disease, and it plays a crucial part in other bodily processes as well. In fact, vitamin K2 is sometimes referred to as "the forgotten vitamin" because its major benefits are often overlooked.
Like vitamin A, vitamin K2 is an important adjunct to vitamin D, and if you are deficient in one, neither will work optimally. According to one of the worlds top vitamin K researchers, Dr. Cees Vermeer, most people are deficient in vitamin K. Most of you get enough K from your diet to maintain adequate blood clotting, but NOT enough to protect you from a variety of other health problems, such as:
Arterial calcification, cardiovascular disease, and varicose veins Dementia. Recent research12,13 suggests adding vitamin K-rich foods such as spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens to your diet can slow cognitive decline. Seniors who ate one to two servings of leafy greens per day were found to have the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who consumed none Osteoporosis Tooth decay Prostate cancer,14 lung cancer,15 liver cancer,16 and leukemia Infectious diseases such as pneumonia
There are three types of vitamin K:
- Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone), found naturally in plants, especially green vegetables; K1 goes directly to your liver and helps you maintain healthy blood clotting
- Vitamin K2 (menaquinone), made by the bacteria that line your gastrointestinal tract; K2 goes straight to your blood vessel walls, bones, and tissues other than your liver. The biological role of vitamin K2 is to help move calcium into the proper areas in your body, such as your bones and teeth. It also helps remove calcium from areas where it shouldn’t be, such as in your arteries and soft tissues
- Vitamin K3 (menadione) is a synthetic form I do not recommend; it's important to note that toxicity has occurred in infants injected with synthetic vitamin K3
Vitamin K2, which is made in your body and also produced by bacteria in fermented foods, and is a superior form of vitamin K2. It’s the one I recommend for supplementation, as it’s natural and non-toxic, even at 500 times the recommended daily allowance (RDA). Increasing your K2 by consuming more fermented foods is the most desirable way to increase your levels. The food highest in natural K2 is natto, which is a form of fermented soybeans.
You can obtain all of the vitamin K2 you need (about 200 micrograms) by eating 15 grams of natto daily, which is half an ounce. By using a specially formulated starter culture you can also dramatically boost the vitamin K2 content of your homemade fermented vegetables.
Fat-Soluble Vitamins Need Healthy Fats to Work
Obviously, in order for your body to actually absorb all of these fat-soluble vitamins (and other fat-soluble nutrients) you need to eat them with some fat. Dietary fats are also needed for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, for mineral absorption, and for a host of other biological processes. A simple way to boost absorption of these vitamins is to drizzle some olive oil over your salad, or eat your veggies with some raw organic butter.
Coconut oil is another excellent choice, and has been found to improve absorption of antioxidants and other nutrients better than other fats. Coconut oil earns even more "points" because it's rich in lauric acid, which converts in your body to monolaurin – a compound also found in breast milk that strengthens immunity. When choosing a coconut oil, make sure you choose an organic coconut oil that is unrefined, unbleached, made without heat processing or chemicals, and does not contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Avoid processed vegetable oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, and canola. Corn and soy is typically genetically engineered and tend to be contaminated with glyphosate, which has recently been classified as a probable carcinogen. They also have a skewed ratio of omega fatty acids, being high in damaged omega-6s and low in healthy omega-3s.
In addition to that, vegetable oils in general are unstable, and when heated, they degrade into highly inflammatory oxidation products. More than 100 dangerous oxidation products have been found in a single piece of chicken fried in vegetable oils.
The following tips can help ensure you're eating the right fats for your health:
- Use organic butter (preferably made from raw milk) instead of margarines and vegetable oil spreads. Butter is a healthy whole food that has received an unwarranted bad rap.
- Use coconut oil for cooking. It is far superior to any other cooking oil and is loaded with health benefits. (Remember that olive oil should be used COLD, drizzled over salad or fish, for example, not to cook with.)
- Following my nutrition plan will automatically reduce your modified fat intake, as it will teach you to focus on healthy whole foods instead of processed junk food.
- To round out your healthy fat intake, be sure to eat raw fats, such as those from avocados, raw dairy products, and olive oil, and also take a high-quality source of animal-based omega-3 fat, such as krill oil.