Vitamin D Deficiency Is an Overlooked Source of Health Disparities for Black Americans
97% of Black Americans and 90% of Latinx people have insufficient levels, and experts say public health guidelines are leaving them in the lurch
Deneen Sherrod knew something wasn’t right. “I was having pain in my joints, and I was aching all over,” said the 56-year-old IT specialist who lives near Baltimore. A two-time breast cancer survivor, Sherrod saw her doctor right away. Tests for lupus, Lyme disease, and rheumatoid arthritis all came back negative.
Then the results of her blood panel came back. “She said, ‘Your vitamin D is severely low,’” said Sherrod, who is Black. She was surprised when D2 supplements eased her pain. “I was like, really? Vitamin D [deficiency] is going to be causing pain like this?” she said. “At first I didn’t believe it because I had never heard that before.” She’d thought only babies needed vitamin D supplementation for bone development.
For more than 100 years, conventional medical wisdom held that people only needed the “sunshine vitamin” for building healthy bones and avoiding diseases like rickets. It doesn’t take much vitamin D to do that, and for some people, that’s where vitamin D’s usefulness ends. For other people, however, the standard vitamin D recommendations are insufficient and can result in serious health consequences.
Though a handful of large vitamin D supplementation studies have had inconclusive results, scientists now can point to many studies demonstrating that vitamin D has wide-ranging health effects. Supporting immune function and preventing chronic, nonskeletal diseases seems to demand a higher blood level of vitamin D. “There has been an explosion of data about the adverse consequences of vitamin D deficiency,” said Walter Willett, MD, DPh, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Willett points to a slew of studies linking low vitamin D status with a higher risk for breast, prostate, and colon cancers as well as Type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, low birth weight, and dementia — conditions that also disproportionately affect Black Americans.