Why Black People Need More Vitamin D

Linda Villarosa, The Root, June 5, 2009

Vitamin D may be the most important supplement you’re not taking–or not taking enough of. Most of us–and even our doctors–have little idea that taking regular amounts of it may help stave off some of the most common life-threatening illnesses.

Best known for building bones and preventing rickets–a bone disease more common in the days of Charles Dickens than today–vitamin D has recently been shown to lower the risk of diabetes, hypertension, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, memory loss and several types of cancer.

Despite this good news, most Americans don’t get near enough vitamin D. And among African Americans, some experts have called vitamin D deficiency a “hidden epidemic” and have speculated that low levels are to blame for higher rates of diseases such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. The Chicago Sun-Times went even further, linking African-American death rates from aggressive forms of breast and prostate cancer to low levels of vitamin D.

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To help sort through the vitamin D maze, we spoke to Dr. Consuelo Hopkins Wilkins, an assistant professor of medicine and psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who has spent nearly a decade studying this overlooked vitamin.

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[The Root]: Why are African Americans particularly vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency?

[Dr. Consuelo Hopkins Wilkins]: Melanin protects the skin against ultraviolet light. But by blocking the sun’s rays, melanin affects the skin’s ability to activate pre-vitamin D. So the darker the skin, the less vitamin D you produce. In the scientific literature, the difference is striking.

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TR: Can you get enough D from your diet?

CHW: It’s hard; vitamin D is something the body was meant to make. I’m a strong proponent of vitamin D, so I recommend supplements.

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