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Q&A: Vitamin D Deficiency in People of Color

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Highlights
  • 82% of Black, 63% of Latinx and 31% of White Americans are vitamin D deficient
  • Darker skin pigmentation limits vitamin D production
  • People of color require more vitamin D per day, a minimum of 1,500–2,000 IU

Vitamin D deficiency has been a recognized epidemic in the United States for over 15 years (yes, that’s right, 15 years!).1 And while most people are not aware of this epidemic, approximately 82% of Black, 63% of Latinx and 31% of White Americans are living with vitamin D deficiency.2 That’s a lot of people, especially people of color! 

So, why does this matter? It matters because our bodies require a certain amount of vitamin D to stay healthy and function at our best. For example, vitamin D deficiency has been linked to complications affecting the immune system, heart, lungs, metabolism, kidneys, and pregnancy.319 Further, statistics show people of color are more likely to experience health complications linked to vitamin D deficiency than White Americans.12,2027

Specifically, people of color are more likely to experience complications affecting the kidneys, blood sugar, metabolism, blood pressure, brain, lungs (and the list continues).20,2529 Women of color are also more likely to experience pregnancy complications and increased fatality from these complications.2123,30

Unfortunately, the lives and health of many have been affected throughout this 15-year epidemic. That is why it’s vital to understand why so many people, particularly people of color, are still not getting the vitamin D they need. Here we address some essential questions to understanding why people of color are more likely to be vitamin D deficient and how to prevent it.

What leads to vitamin D deficiency? 

Too little sun and not enough vitamin D-rich food sources.

Vitamin D is often referred to as the ‘sunshine’ vitamin because our bodies naturally make it when sun rays reach our skin. In fact, it’s possible to make a whopping 20,000 IU (500 mcg) of vitamin D in just 15 –20 mins, if most of your skin is exposed (i.e., you’re wearing a bathing suit) and you have lighter skin tones. For people with darker skin tones, it can take 3-6 times longer to make the same amount of vitamin D.2,3,31

Because we need sun rays to directly reach our skin to make vitamin D, any barrier to direct sunlight contributes to vitamin D deficiency. These include:2,3234

  • Time indoors. Americans spend about 90% of their time inside!
  • Sunscreen. Dermatologists recommend that everyone wear an SPF 30 or higher for skin protection.
  • Clothing. Clothing is required by law in most public spaces around the world.
  • Geography. Living further from the equator decreases the intensity of sun rays.
  • Environmental variables. Cloudy weather, smog, and fog decrease the chances of sun rays reaching our skin.
  • Melanin. Darker skin pigmentation serves as a natural SPF (more on this in the next section).

Ultimately, all of these factors reduce the amount of vitamin D our bodies make by limiting the number of sun rays that reach our skin. And unfortunately, most people can’t compensate by relying on vitamin D rich foods to meet their daily requirements because the foods that have vitamin D—egg yolks, tuna, salmon, mackerel—generally provide only modest amounts.3

Because the sun has evolutionarily been our primary source of vitamin D, getting vitamin D from food alone is neither practical nor particularly healthy.3 For example, most people would have to eat 30 egg yolks a day to get the minimum daily amount of vitamin D. And for those who are vitamin D deficient, even eating large quantities of vitamin D foods wouldn’t be enough.

Why are people of color more likely to be vitamin D deficient?

In short, melanin. 

One major factor that contributes to higher rates of vitamin D deficiency in people of color is darker skin pigmentation. Darker skin is caused by more melanin, a pigment that gives everyone their skin, hair, and eye color. Melanin also acts as a natural sunscreen and protects the skin from sun damage. In fact, melanin protects the skin so well that people with darker skin can have a natural SPF of 15, which is advantageous but also has its downsides.32,34

Just like sunscreen, melanin can reduce a person’s ability to make vitamin D from sun exposure by up to 99%! This means that it takes a person of color 3-6 times longer to make the same amount of vitamin D from sun exposure as a person with lighter skin tones.31 Since exposure to sun rays is the only way our bodies make vitamin D, this difference has major consequences—especially considering that most Americans spend 90% of their time indoors.35,36 Many people of color are simply not getting the extra sun exposure required to produce the vitamin D they need.

How do I know if I am vitamin D deficient?

Get tested.

Considering that 82% of Black Americans and 63% of Latinx are vitamin D deficient, it’s safe to say that most people of color are deficient in vitamin D.2 However, having your vitamin D blood levels tested is the only way to be certain. Vitamin D testing is not part of a standard doctor visit or blood panel, so you must request a vitamin D test from your physician to know your vitamin D levels.

How do I get enough vitamin D? 

Supplement with vitamin D3.

Taking into consideration that Americans spend roughly 90% of their time indoors, the limited number of vitamin D rich food sources, the added skin protection of melanin, and other variables limiting vitamin D production, supplementation is the most reliable way for people of color to get the daily vitamin D they need. 

How much vitamin D should people of color take?

Doctors recommend 1,500–2,000 IU Vitamin D3 per day.37

But it ultimately depends on the individual, so talking to your doctor about your specific requirements is advised. Generally, it is recommended that adults 19 years and older receive a minimum of 600 IU (15 mcg) a day, and a maximum of 4,000 IU/day (100 mcg).37

For those at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency (which is most people of color), doctors recommend taking a minimum of 1,500–2,000 IU (37.5–50 mcg) per day, and not exceeding 10,000 IU/day (250 mcg). That may seem like a lot, but studies show that even doses well beyond 40,000 IU/day (1,000 mcg) are safe.37 Just remember to look for vitamin D in the form of vitamin D3, cholecalciferol. This is the form of vitamin D our bodies absorb the best, and that most doctors recommend. 

Denise John, PhD is a Science Researcher and Writer for Nordic Naturals. A published author, Denise holds a Doctorate in Neuroscience from Florida State University, and is passionate about sharing science to help others make informed choices and live better lives.

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