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Newsletter: Vitamin D times are changing

Posted on: March 26, 2005   by  John Cannell, MD


The vitamin D “times they are a changing” — but are they changing for all Americans?

What self-respecting, sunblock-slathered American would have thought it a year ago? A press release from the American Cancer Society implying that a little sunshine might be good for Americans. After 20 years of lumping sunshine with cigarette smoke, the American Cancer Society grudgingly admitted that the sunshine and vitamin D evidence is becoming overwhelming. The straw that broke the camel’s back was two studies published in the February issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. One showed that the vitamin D in sunshine reduces the incidence of lymphoma and the other — believe it or not — sunshine increases survival in malignant melanoma!

Even the Cancer Council of Australia, long a promoter of “sunshine is worse than cigarettes,” changed their position on March 8, 2005. Although Australians officials are not telling Australians to throw away their sunblock, they are telling Australians a little sunshine may be a good thing. Instead of concentrating on the several hundreds who are dying from sun-induced skin cancers, the Australians are concentrating on the many thousands who may be dying from vitamin D deficiency related diseases. The math is not complicated.

However, none of this “little sunshine is good for you” news will help African Americans. The reason blacks aren’t included is that a little sunshine does not raise vitamin D levels in blacks. It takes a lot of sunshine. Blacks need ten to twenty times longer in the sun to make the same amount of vitamin D as whites. African Americans with skin type six (the high reflectance shiny deep black skin seen in tropical Africa) may need even longer. Black skin works great in Africa, which gets 20 times more UVB light per year than does North American latitudes. Spending 15 minutes outside, three days a week, exposing your face and arms, may help whites. It will hardly budge black 25(OH)D levels at North American latitudes. African Americans would have to spend up to three to five hours in the sun, three times a week, to get the same benefit as whites.

Because a little sunshine does almost nothing to reduce vitamin D deficiency among blacks, then it will do little to reduce the disparate black mortality from prostate cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and renal disease. All these diseases are associated with vitamin D deficiency and all are major killers in the black community. In fact, the list of diseases that prematurely kill American blacks and the list of fatal diseases associated with vitamin D deficiency are virtually identical. You’d think at least one scientist at the National Institutes of Health or the Food and Nutrition Board would connect the dots.

Does Dr. Zerhouni, director of the NIH, plan to target any research into the striking association between fatal diseases linked with vitamin D deficiency and increased black mortality from those same diseases? His January 24, 2005 letter to the Vitamin D Council (available by request to the press), defending the NIH’s lack of funding of vitamin D research, didn’t even mention the epidemic of vitamin D deficiency in the black community. Furthermore, his letter indicated no research plans to see if correcting vitamin D deficiency in blacks would prevent their early death. Perhaps he is too busy keeping his scientists from accepting more money from the drug companies.

It is too early to know if Lester Crawford, commissioner of the FDA, is in the same club. His failure to reply to the Vitamin D Council’s civil rights complaint of last month may mean he plans to continue supplementing whites with vitamin D, but not blacks. You see, fresh milk is the vehicle the FDA uses to deliver most vitamin D to Americans. However, most blacks won’t, and don’t, consume milk, due to fear of lactose intolerance. The FDA could easily mandate vitamin D be added to fermented milk products like cheese or yogurt, foods that contain less lactose, foods blacks consume in equal quantities as whites. Instead, most vitamin D in FDA sanctioned supplemented foods still come in the form of highlactose milk products. Although the FDA started its current vitamin D food fortification policies long before we knew blacks drink little milk, the FDA’s current policy clearly favor whites. At least what is left of the Klan has something to cheer about.

The vitamin D “times they are a changing”– but for whites only. African Americans are still dying on the back of the bus.

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