Vitamin D is quickly becoming the "go-to" remedy for treating a wide range of illnesses, from osteoporosis to atherosclerosis. However, new evidence from a Wake Forest University School of Medicine study suggests that supplementing vitamin D in those with low levels may have different effects based on patient race and, in black individuals, the supplement could actually do harm.
The study is the first to show a positive relationship between calcified plaque in large arteries, a measure of atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries," and circulating vitamin D levels in black patients. It appears in the March issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
"In black patients, lower levels of vitamin D may not signify deficiency to the same extent as in whites," said the study's lead investigator, Barry I. Freedman, M.D., John H. Felts III Professor and chief of the section on nephrology at the School of Medicine "We should use caution when supplementing vitamin D in black patients while we investigate if we are actually worsening calcium deposition in the arteries with treatment."
Vitamin D is widely used to treat patients with osteoporosis and/or low vitamin D levels based on a medically accepted normal range. This "normal" range is typically applied to all race groups, although it was established predominantly in whites. It is thought that as low vitamin D levels rise to the normal range with supplementation, protection from bone and heart disease (atherosclerosis) may increase, as well.
Blacks generally have lower vitamin D levels than whites, partly because their darker skin pigmentation limits the amount of the vitamin produced by sunlight. Blacks also consume fewer dairy products and ingest less dietary calcium than whites, said Freedman, an affiliate of the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity, part of the School of Medicine. Despite these lower vitamin D levels and dietary calcium ingestion, blacks naturally experience lower rates of osteoporosis and have far less calcium in their arteries. Studies further reveal that black patients with diabetes have half the rate of heart attack as whites, when provided equal access to health care. This shows that lower levels of calcified atherosclerotic plaque in blacks are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. However, blacks in the general community have higher rates of heart attack than whites, potentially due to unequal access to medical care, Freedman said.