Breanna Reeves |
Over the last four years Barbara Beckford has experienced waves of low vitamin D levels. Throughout the years, she has been prescribed vitamin D by primary care physicians to bring her levels up.
“It only happens every now and then, but I’ll have to take a certain amount of vitamin D for maybe a couple of months to bring it back up,” said Barbara, who lives in Hemet. “And then once my levels are stable, then I go off of it.”
During a recent trip to her primary care doctor, Barbara showed low levels of vitamin D again. Her new doctor recommended she take vitamin D3 and informed her that doctors are noticing a trend in vitamin D deficiency among African Americans.
Studies have shown that Black people in the U.S. commonly experience vitamin D deficiencies due to darker skin pigmentation and the way the skin absorbs sunlight. One such study released in August 2020, associated vitamin D deficiency in African Americans in general with an elevated risk of severe disease and mortality due to COVID-19.
“There are reasons why African Americans have lower vitamin D and it’s kind of a complex thing, but UV rays from the sun help to change its form and activate it through the skin,” explained Dr. Yvette Cozier, an investigator on the Black Women’s Health Study at the Slone Epidemiology Center. “But we have darker skin so we kind of absorb the sunlight – the UV rays, but they don’t make it to the next stage where they can act on the circulating levels, so we tend to run lower vitamin D (levels).”
Dr. Cozier recently piloted a new research study focused exclusively on Black women. Released in July, it suggests Black women with low levels of vitamin D also had a higher chance of contracting COVID-19. Researchers examined data from Black women, ages 21–69, from the Black Women’s Health Study, initially launched in 1995.
In 2020, an estimated 17,000 participants from the study completed a COVID questionnaire detailing their health history.
The vitamin D hormone has been a point of interest for researchers in relation to immune health and overall health, according to Dr. Cozier who is also an associate professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. With the onset of the pandemic, more general studies have linked vitamin D levels to risk of infection.
This new study, which specifically recognizes Black women’s risk of infection and vitamin D deficiency, is currently the first to examine this relationship.
“We always think of [vitamin D] solely around bone health, but it also helps prime the immune cells within your immune system,” explained Dr. Cozier. “So, you have lots of cells that circulate that are looking for opportunities to remove bad actors, whether it’s a virus or a bacterium or any sort of invading pathogen and it helps effect those systems.”
Barbara’s doctor told her that one of the contributing factors to African American women and men dying of COVID is because they are depleted of vitamin D and it’s difficult to increase their levels once they reach a critical point of infection. Her doctor recommended she encourage family members to get their vitamin D levels checked out and to take vitamin D.
The study concluded there is an association between vitamin D concentration and risk to COVID-19 infection in Black women in the U.S., specifically among obese women. The study did not determine what levels of vitamin D is considered an efficient amount to lessen the risk of infection, but Dr. Cozier encourages healthy eating as a way of increasing vitamin D levels and decreasing overall health risks.
“I think the last point, again, is that it’s most important to try to maintain a healthy diet with healthy vitamin levels throughout our whole life,” said Dr. Cozier.