About 61% of otherwise healthy minority adolescents had low vitamin D levels, a recent study found. Photo by PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay
Vitamin D, the "Sunshine Vitamin," boosts the immune system and helps prevent cancer, among other health benefits, but a significant number of Black and Hispanic teens have low levels of this nutrient, according to a new study.
"This paper calls attention to the need to raise awareness among clinicians regarding social determinants of health and culturally sensitive dietary practices to improve vitamin D levels and prevent long-term complications," said lead author Shainy Varghese, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Houston.
Her team examined health records from a suburban clinic in Southeast Texas for 119 minority-group youths, ages 12 to 18. About 61% of these otherwise healthy adolescents had low vitamin D levels, the study found. And their vitamin levels dropped as they aged.
"Black and Hispanic populations have a markedly high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency and higher incidence and worse outcomes for cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes and renal disease, all of which have been linked to vitamin D levels," Varghese said in a university news release.
In addition to well-known benefits such as boosting a person's mood and lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes, research has also found that among COVID-19 patients, those with low vitamin D levels had more severe respiratory symptoms than those with normal levels.
The body naturally produces vitamin D in response to sunshine. But absorption is more challenging for people with darker skin tones. Melanin, the substance responsible for skin pigmentation, absorbs and blocks UV light from reaching the cells that produce vitamin D.
The nutrient can also be found in foods like salmon, trout, tuna, eggs and fortified dairy products. Choosing sugar-sweetened beverages instead of milk can lower vitamin D levels.
Varghese said social determinants of health must be considered in improving vitamin D levels. Food insecurity and lack of access to healthcare and health education can be barriers to healthy nutrition and have an impact on communities of color, she said.
"Nurses are many times the first healthcare provider an adolescent may encounter, like school nurses," said Kathryn Tart, founding dean of the UH College of Nursing. "This study can help nurses and healthcare providers assess the need adolescents may have for vitamin D supplements."
Varghese recommended standardizing screening of dietary habits and identifying nutritional deficiencies at well-child checks.
"We understand vitamin D levels are low across the board -- 7 out of 10 U.S. children have low levels, raising their risk for various acute and chronic diseases," she said. "But the relationship of ethnic diversity and vitamin D levels is understudied and limited in adolescents."
She said it's imperative for primary care providers to understand risk factors for low vitamin D levels among different ethnic groups.
The study findings were recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Health Care.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on vitamin D.
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