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Ounce of Prevention: Black Skin and Health

Published:Tuesday | April 21, 2015 | 12:00 AM

AS A black physician practising medicine in Jamaica, where 90 per cent of the population is black, I have often wondered why people of colour living in the western world suffer so much more from a long list of diseases like diabetes, breast and prostate cancer, uterine fibroids, high blood pressure and strokes, to name just a few, than others of paler skin colour.

I found that the popular answers that invoked genetics and socio-economic disparity were unsatisfactory and unconvincing. There must be something more involved. What is it about blackness that increases one's risk of so many diseases when people of colour move out of their original habitat?

The black diaspora

Then I heard of a concept called the diaspora gradient. The word diaspora refers to the dispersion or scattering of a people from their original homeland, and medically, the black diaspora gradient refers to an east to west gradient of increasing prevalence of certain diseases in people of African descent scattered over the world.

In simple terms, the further black people moved away from ancestral Africa, the more lifestyle-related diseases like heart disease, cancers, diabetes and high blood pressure they developed.

As many as 13 million black people were uprooted and shipped from their native Africa and planted into the diaspora in the 400 years after Columbus explored the New World.

These unfortunate victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade have now grown into much larger populations in North America, the Caribbean and South America, and then from there, by secondary migration, to the United Kingdom and Europe. These modern African-Caribbean, African-American and African-European diaspora members continue to suffer disproportionately more from those diseases when compared to other ethnic groups.

Colour skin

I believe that the main cause of this health disparity is staring us in the eye, the difference in our skin colour. Black skin derives its colour from a remarkable pigment called melanin. It allows people of colour to enjoy the several health benefits of sunshine while avoiding its potential dangers. The prevailing medical recommendations that everyone should avoid sunshine and wear sun-screening creams or lotions should apply only to unprotected skin.

But black skin is extremely well protected. Melanin in the skin can absorb and neutralise over 99 per cent of potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. This melanin very effectively protects black skin from photo-damage and skin cancer. Black people actually need more sunshine, but, as usual, the medical establishment pays scant regard to the special needs of blacks when making their health recommendations.

Vitamin D

Humans, like many other animals, make a critically important substance, vitamin D, when ultraviolet B radiation from the sun strikes the skin. For most people, sunshine is our primary source of vitamin D. In fact, vitamin D is not a vitamin at all, but a potent group of steroid molecules critically important to human and animal health.

Black skin requires six times more sun exposure than white skin to make the same amount of vitamin D. The darker your skin, the more sunshine you need to manufacture vitamin D. Modern medical research clearly indicates that a deficiency of vitamin D is a major causative factor in many illnesses.

A lack of skin pigment allows fair-skinned people living in sun-deprived areas in the world to make enough vitamin D for optimal health. At the same time, however, the black descendant of slaves in these less sunny climes are much more prone to vitamin D deficiency and to several associated health problems.

But even those black people living in sun-drenched places like Jamaica are at high risk of vitamin D insufficiency. Constant warnings to avoid sunshine, predominant indoors living, artificial lighting, western dress and the widespread use of sun blocks all contribute to the problem. My own research revealed that over two thirds of Jamaicans tested showed low levels of vitamin D. Correcting this deficiency results in a dramatic improvement in several health problems.

Skin bleaching

Not only is the black skin beautiful, but it is also healthy because of the presence of the pigment melanin. Skin bleaching is a disastrous practice as the chemicals used either destroy the melanin itself in the skin and/or kills the melanocytes, the skin cells that make melanin. The 'black is beautiful' slogan of the '60s needs to be heard again! Bleached skin, like that of an albino, is extremely sensitive to damage from sunshine, premature ageing, and is at high risk for skin cancer.

Recommendations for people of colour:

- Do not bleach your skin. This is a very dangerous and unhealthy practice.

- Do not avoid the sunshine. Ideally, I recommend spending half an hour daily in the morning or afternoon sun with 50 per cent of your skin surface directly exposed. This is particularly important if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, arthritis, uterine fibroids, sickle cell disease, depression or autism. If this is not practical then you should take a vitamin D3 supplement.

- If you are sensitive to the sun, this can usually be corrected by the following methods: Eat seven or more servings of fresh fruit and vegetables daily (for their antioxidant and folic acid content). Take 2 grams or more of vitamin C before sun exposure. Drink lots of water before and during sunbathing. Instead of chemical sun blocks, apply aloe vera gel, green tea or a liquid vitamin C solution to the skin. Coconut oil and shea butter make excellent natural skin moisturisers.

My next book, An Ounce of Prevention - For People of Colour will address these and other related issues in greater detail.

- You may email Dr Vendryes at or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER106FM on Fridays at 8:15 p.m. Details on his books 'An Ounce of Prevention - For Women and Men' is available on his website