Vitamin D: A Hidden Deficiency in Women of Color

  • Post category:News

Alma Cornejo woke up in the middle of the night with a nagging pain on her right upper arm. The ache felt like she laid on her arm all night — she hadn’t. The next night, the ache returned. This time, on her left thigh. During the day, stress from work, homeschooling children due to shelter-in-place orders and the negative news headlines were taking a toll on her mood.

Urged by a friend, Cornejo made an appointment with her doctor. She thought he would surely start her on anti-anxiety medication.

After reviewing her medical history and recent physical and mood changes, her doctor sent her for lab work. He thought she might have a metabolic imbalance — particularly a vitamin D deficiency, given her ethnicity and age. She’s a 40 year-old Latina. Having darker skin, being overweight and predisposed to diabetes put her at risk for low vitamin D levels. Low vitamin D may affect bones, mood and overall health.

Low vitamin D is widespread

Over half of all Americans lack the daily recommended vitamin D intake. Every day, Americans should get between 400 and 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D, depending on age, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements.
 Among Americans of color, the vitamin D deficiency rate jumps to 70%. Pigment in persons with darker skin blocks sunlight absorption, a key process for vitamin D production.

Low vitamin D risk factors

Cornejo met several risk factors that make her more likely to suffer from low vitamin D:

  • Dark skin tone

  • High BMI (Body Mass Index)

  • Lack of direct exposure to sun

Others at increased risk of low vitamin D are older adults and those with conditions that cause reduced ability to absorb dietary fat.

Getting enough vitamin D during coronavirus pandemic

Cornejo, like many others, works from home after state and health department ‘shelter in place’ orders. Staying indoors for long periods of time increases the risk of low vitamin D. Dr. Naveen Alam, an internal medicine physician, says vitamin D supplements can help: “Being indoors definitely increases the risk of vitamin D deficiency. With ‘shelter in place’ orders, it can get worse. So I would recommend taking vitamin D supplements — between 800 to 1000 international units per day along with calcium.”

Vitamin D benefits

Vitamin D is key to absorbing calcium and phosphorous for healthy bones and teeth. Persons taking vitamin D supplements report improved mood. Several studies have linked vitamin D to possibly reducing risk of heart disease, multiple sclerosis and flu. Recently, research shows that vitamin D may be linked to better health outcomes for persons hospitalized with COVID-19.
Cornejo noticed positive changes shortly after taking the vitamin D supplements. “I felt a lot better a few days after taking it,” she says. “My muscle pain went away, and now I have more energy to run and do my daily online Latin dance class.”

Natural sources of vitamin D

After speaking to her doctor Cornejo learned she could boost her vitamin D levels in other ways. She started walking each morning to get more sunlight. And she added vitamin D-rich foods to her diet such as salmon and almonds. Each morning, she adds vitamin D fortified yogurt to her breakfast fruit. The vitamin can also be found in fortified milk and cheese. Since vitamin D levels are low in food, many times a supplement will be recommended by your doctor.