New research suggests that low blood levels of vitamin D may increase a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke, among other serious illnesses such as:
- peripheral artery disease,
- high blood pressure,
- cancer and
- kidney disease.
Vitamin D is found very rarely in unfortified food, and is mostly produced in the body when sunlight interacts with skin cells. This is particularly concerning for people of color, because the darker the skin the less vitamin D that is produced in the body.
This lower level of production of vitamin D usually is not a problem when people of color are exposed to high levels of sunlight (at low latitudes or near the equator), but becomes a problem when people of color live in places of low sunlight (higher latitudes) or get very little sun exposure.
The researchers in the study looked at data on more than 15,000 U.S. adults in a national nutritional study. They found that, overall, the 25 percent of adults with the lowest levels of vitamin D had a 40 percent higher risk of cardiovascular death. When they singled out African-Americans, the report found a 38 percent higher incidence of such deaths than among whites. As vitamin D levels rose, however, the risk of death was reduced.
The jury is still out on this research, but the evidence for a real cause-and-effect relationship between low levels of vitamin D and cardiovascular disease is growing. I think the simplest way to approach this potential health problem for all people and particularly people of color is to have your blood vitamin D level checked by your health care provider; if it is too low, make the proper adjustments to your diet and/or use vitamin supplements to get it within a normal range.
The current recommendation is a daily intake of 400 international units (IUs) of vitamin D for most adults, and 600 IU for those over 70. Some experts are recommending a higher amount for most people — up to 2,000 IU a day — and some are even recommending that African-Americans probably need closer to 3,000 to 5,000 IU a day.
Again, this issue is not yet resolved. But at a minimum, people of color should work with their health care providers to try to get their blood vitamin D level within the current standard of normal limits: 30 to 74 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL); 40ng/mL would be ideal.
As always, be sure to discuss these issues with the primary health care provider who knows your unique health status best. I will continue to keep you posted on this important and evolving issue.
Written by Jeffrey B. Brown, M.D.
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