African Americans Have Higher Rates of Diabetes: Vitamin D May Be a Key Player
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, pH Labs Founder
Back in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry encouraged African Americans to increase their intake of vitamin D. Through social media, where Perry has millions of followers, he stressed that although it is not a cure for COVID-19, taking a vitamin D supplement may help fight the virus. He shared that his vitamin D level was low and said that this is actually common in Black people.
The human body produces vitamin D
when skin is exposed to sunlight. Darker skinned people are at a greater risk of having a vitamin D deficiency. Darker skin contains more melanin (which is essentially pigment), which provides more of a barrier from absorbing sunlight and being able to make vitamin D (compared to lighter skin).
“What I read in a study out of Spain, Italy and China is that a lot of people who died from COVID were low in vitamin D,” Perry said, according to this story from Essence magazine.
“Listen to me, I think that if America, this entire nation, was keeping [a] recording of who was dying and if they were low in vitamin D or deficient in different areas, we would know it—but apparently no one is keeping a record, which is insane to me.”
Research has shown that vitamin D may help fight respiratory infection.
This vitamin is, after all, one of the most important nutrients to our overall health and wellness. In addition to helping the body maintain strong bones by assisting in the absorption of calcium, this nutrient helps our muscles move by encouraging nerves to carry messages between the brain and every body part.
Getting severely sick from COVID-19 may be less of a concern now, but African Americans particularly may have another major reason to make sure that they are not deficient in vitamin D: diabetes.
Two recent studies,
conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine, found evidence suggesting that low levels of vitamin D in African Americans is connected to insulin resistance and, therefore, a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, the evidence also suggested that “higher levels of body-fat alter the relationship between vitamin D and diabetes risk,” according to this Medical Xpress report discussing the studies.
“In the U.S., black adults are nearly twice as likely as white adults to develop type 2 diabetes. This racial disparity has been rising over the last 30 years,” reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
There are many potential reasons for this disparity, such as racial bias in healthcare and socioeconomic factors, however, obesity appears to be one of the main culprits.
“Obesity is driving these differences,” said Dr. Mercedes R. Carnethon, who was quoted by the NIH and led a study that investigated the reason for this particular health disparity.
“The findings surprised us, because for the past 20 years there was a narrative that there must be something we haven’t found that was causing this higher rate…. We now know there is no mystery to these higher rates. Our efforts to control the traditional risk factors can work to reduce the disparities we observe in diabetes incidence.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health (OMH), African American women have the highest rates of obesity or being overweight compared to other groups in the United States (approximately 4 out 5 of African American women are overweight or obese).
As mentioned, being overweight appears to affect vitamin D levels.
Combine that with also having more melanin and more of a barrier from absorbing sunlight, then you really have a recipe for vitamin D deficiency and, as it appears, a higher risk for developing diabetes. Of course, being overweight or obese is also associated with a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes in addition to many other serious health issues such as cancer, hypertension, depression, heart disease and dementia.
Regarding the two earlier studies, previous research had shown that there was a connection between low vitamin D and the development of diabetes in non-Hispanic White and Hispanic American populations. However, this had not been investigated until recently in the African American population despite being the group most impacted by diabetes.
“Our studies suggest that higher levels of vitamin D in African Americans may protect against the development of diabetes,” said Dr. Joshua J. Joseph, one of the lead researchers referenced in the Medical Xpress report.
What remains to be seen is if taking vitamin D supplements
will lower diabetes risk in those who already have a vitamin D deficiency. My take on this is that it is best to assess your vitamin D level ASAP through nutrient testing and supplement (if necessary) per the advice of a competent healthcare professional.
In order to help prevent diabetes and so many other diseases (heart disease, hypertension, cancer and more) that plague millions of Americans, it is important to make sure you maintain nutritional balance and avoid any nutrient (calcium, magnesium, vitamin C and so many others) deficiencies. The only way to do this is through routine testing and making the necessary dietary changes along with proper supplementation if necessary.
Diet is Invaluable.
I call type 2 diabetes ‘diet-related diabetes.’ All of the sunlight and vitamin D supplements in the world will not counter the effects of a poor diet (a diet that is high in calories, low in nutrients and full of processed, pro-inflammatory foods). It might be necessary to eat a mainly plant-based diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed sugar and foods as much as possible. Of course, maintaining an active lifestyle (which will help with maintaining a healthy weight) is key.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the strong connection between diabetes and kidney disease. African Americans are also at a greater risk of developing chronic kidney disease (CKD). It is evident that all of these issues (diabetes, obesity, kidney disease, poor diet, nutritional deficiencies) are all connected and that we must address our health starting with our personal proactive health regimens. Ask yourself:
- What am I eating on a daily basis?
- Am I moving every day?
- Am I getting sunlight every day?
- How am I sleeping?
- How much alcohol am I drinking?
- Do I need to quit smoking?
- How am I managing my stress?
- When was my last physical?
- Have I ever had a nutrient test? If so, am I getting them often enough in order to maintain nutritional balance?
Be honest with yourself.
If you see some areas that need improvement (and, of course, most of us will), take the necessary steps to get better no matter how small a step may seem. You could start with something as simple as parking further away from the door when you go grocery shopping in order to get more steps in. Steady improvement and consistency (not perfection) can make a big difference over time. Remember, you have to start somewhere.
Enjoy your healthy life!
About Joy Stephenson-Laws
Stephenson-Laws is the president and founder of Proactive Health Labs where she utilizes the information that she has gained as a health care professional over the past 30 years to educate consumers about their health. In addition to her day-to-day leadership role with pH Labs, she is also the founding and managing partner of Stephenson, Acquisto & Colman (SAC) the health care industry’s premier litigation law firm. In addition, she is the co-founder and president of MoJo Marketing & Media, a boutique creative agency specializing in brand development and content creation, and of The Bili Project Foundation, a nonprofit organization that creates awareness of bile duct cancer and raises funds for research relating to this cancer.
*Bio photo courtesy of Joy Stephenson-Laws