Sunshine Health Foundation
14 Health Conditions Affected by Insufficient Sun Exposure
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
You can also watch on YouTube or listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Did you know there’s a connection between the melanin in our skin, racial health disparities, and sun exposure? Modern science provides evidence for the following claims.
Much of the health disparity between White and Black Americans might be linked to the amount of melanin in the skin.
More sun exposure in Black Americans might play a significant role in reducing health disparities across a variety of diseases and health conditions.
From asthma to Alzheimer’s, Black Americans suffer from the ill effects of insufficient sun exposure far more than White Americans.
Abundant melanin in the ancestors of Black Americans protected them from the strong tropical sun in Africa, but is not acclimated to the weaker sun of most of the United States.
Darker skin has a larger amount of melanin, and melanin blocks some of the sun’s rays. With melanin blocking the sun’s rays, it is not surprising that Black Americans need more sun exposure than White Americans to reap the health benefits.
Studies show that there is a connection between limited sun exposure, vitamin D deficiency, and the enormous health disparities we see between White and Black Americans.
At the Sunshine Health Foundation, we believe that if more Black Americans were aware of the existence and power of this science, individuals and the population, as a whole, would be empowered to improve our health and increase life expectancy.
The easiest way to do this is to get your vitamin D levels tested and get outside to get more sunshine. Your vitamin D levels should be up to 30 ng/mL, which is something that can be accomplished relatively quickly.
To clarify, sun exposure is not the only factor that will eliminate all, or even most, health disparities. Many health disparities are the result of inequities across the social, behavioral, and environmental determinants of health. However, it is an obvious one with a simple solution.
Much of this messaging has been intentionally kept out of public health messaging, and blocked by dermatologists, sunscreen companies, cosmetic companies and others with an economic interest in perpetuating fear of the sun.
Sadly, while other countries are sharing this information with their Black citizens, the U.S. federal government is not bringing this knowledge to Black Americans. They should include this science in their Healthy People initiatives, or even just displayed in the health information section on their website.
Take a look at the 14 diseases and health conditions affected by insufficient sun exposure, which all have a disproportionate impact on Black Americans. Let’s explore the state of racial health disparities and the role that sun exposure might play in reducing them, and in improving health outcomes for Black Americans.
#1. Multiple Sclerosis
In 2003, scientists found that insufficient sun exposure increased the risk of multiple sclerosis by 100%.
This is a significant health disparity issue because we know that the incidence of multiple sclerosis is 47% higher in Black Americans than in White Americans.
In fact, minority populations from various backgrounds in the United States have a higher incidence of multiple sclerosis compared with their ancestral countries of origin. Insufficient sun exposure has been proven to play a role in this racial health disparity.
#2. Colon Cancer
Insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of colon cancer by 104%.
The incidence of colon cancer in Black Americans is 19% higher than White Americans. Studies show that Black Americans are 145% more likely to die from colon cancer than White Americans.
#3. High Blood Pressure
In 2009, scientists found that insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of high blood pressure.
This has a significant impact on Black American health because the incidence of hypertension is 37% higher in Black Americans than in White Americans.
Hypertension related death is 4 to 5 times more likely in Black Americans than in White Americans. Black women are also 60% more likely to have high blood pressure than White women in America.
Sufficient sun exposure could be critical in shrinking that racial disparity gap.
#4. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
In 2013, scientists discovered an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in pregnant women and infants who are vitamin D deficient.
Racial health disparities are apparent in SIDS rates, too. The SIDS rates in Black infants are more than twice those of White infants.
#5. Type 2 Diabetes
In 2013, scientists discovered that insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of type 2 diabetes by 35%.
This is important for Black Americans because statistics show that the incidence of type 2 diabetes is 56% higher in Black Americans than in White Americans. Black Americans are also twice as likely to die from type 2 diabetes.
#6. Risk of Stroke
In 2013, scientists discovered that insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of stroke by a staggering 82%. Why does this matter when it comes to health disparities?
This is crucial because Black Americans are 50% more likely to have a stroke than White Americans. Black women are twice as likely to have a stroke as White women, while Black men are 70% more likely to die from a stroke than White men.
#7. Rheumatoid Arthritis
Insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis by 27%.
This relates to health disparities because the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis in Black American men is 70% higher than in White American men. It’s 100% higher in Black American women than White American women.
#8. Life Expectancy
Insufficient sun exposure shortens life expectancy.
Black Americans already have a 3½ year shorter life expectancy than White Americans. For Black men, life expectancy has decreased by an additional year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A 2014 study that found the correlation between life expectancy and sun exposure discovered that 12.8% of U.S. deaths (approximately 340,000 deaths per year) were attributable to insufficient sun exposure.
Not surprisingly, this study did not break down this figure by race. The lack of race specific health data is also a significant contributor to racial health disparities in America.
But, like most health conditions, it is probable that these deaths associated with insufficient sun exposure disproportionately impacted Black Americans.
#9. Risk of Alzheimer’s
In 2014, scientists discovered that insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 122%.
The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in Black Americans is 100% higher than in White Americans.
#10. Risk of Asthma
Insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of asthma, which occurs in Black Americans at 40% higher than White Americans.
The mortality rate for Black Americans with asthma is 200% higher than for White Americans, and Black children are 5 times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma than White children.
#11. Risk of Obesity
Insufficient sun exposure also increases the risk of obesity.
And, for Black Americans this matters because the incidence of obesity is 18% higher for us than for White Americans.
#12. Risk of Preterm Birth
In 2016, scientists discovered that insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of preterm birth by more than 130%.
This contributes to the fight to end racial health disparities because among Black American mothers, the preterm birth rate is 64% higher than White American mothers.
In fact, infants born to Black mothers are 3x more likely to die from complications related to low birthweight than infants born to White mothers.
#13. Stomach Cancer
In 2017, scientists discovered that insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of incidence and mortality from stomach cancer.
Black American men are 1.7x more likely to have stomach cancer as White American men, and are 2.5x more likely to die from it.
Black American women are 2x more likely to have stomach cancer as White women, and are 2.2x more likely to die from it.
Recent studies show that insufficient sun exposure increases the risk of incidence and mortality from COVID-19.
We know that Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and the numbers serve to highlight the disparities. Black Americans are 2.8x as likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 as White Americans, and 2x as likely to die from it.
What if simply getting more sun exposure could reduce these racial health disparities? Studies show it can.
Certainly, sun exposure is only one of many determinants of our health. Yet, it’s a significant one.
To eliminate racial health disparities, we cannot only encourage sun exposure. We must also create fair and just opportunities for all of us, not just some of us, to be healthier.
This requires removing obstacles such as racism, discrimination, poverty, and their consequences— including disenfranchisement, lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, equitable health care.
It requires addressing and removing biased, inequitable messaging around sun exposure. Messaging that is meant to protect White Americans, but is misguidedly applied to Black and White Americans, alike.
So how can we apply this science and data on a practical level? How can we use this information to empower ourselves and our families to get sufficient sun exposure for our health?
The solution is for all Black Americans to get enough sun exposure to get our vitamin D levels up to 30 nanograms per milliliter on the standard vitamin D blood test.
Currently, 95% of the Black American population have lower rates than that. So, the first step is to get a standard vitamin D blood test from your doctor.
If your vitamin D level is below 30 nanograms per milliliter, you need more sun exposure to avoid the poor health resulting from insufficient sun exposure.
This may require you to lie out in the sun whenever you can, in addition to spending as much time outdoors as you can. It helps to expose as much of your skin as possible to the sun.
If you are concerned about getting too much sun exposure on your face, when lying out in the sun, just cover your face with a white towel.
Keep in mind the benefits of the sun are proportional to the area of your skin exposed to the sun, so covering your face is OK if your legs and arms are exposed.
But get back to nature and get some sun.
As we have learned here, sun exposure has a profound effect on health outcomes and huge potential to reduce racial health disparities.
This means that there is potential for thousands of lives to be saved by sharing the knowledge of modern science, and by encouraging Black Americans to get daily, sensible sun exposure for our health.