Woman sitting on the bench getting vitamin D from the sunshine to be protective against breast cancer

Race & Vitamin D: Breast Cancer Risks to Watch For

Race & Vitamin D: Breast Cancer Risks to Watch For

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Vitamin D is well-known for being a star player in whole-body health. It supports calcium absorption, bone health, cognitive performance and so much more.

It's no surprise that low levels of vitamin D are associated with a higher risk for a myriad of health concerns. But what may be surprising is that there seems to be a correlation between race groups, low vitamin D levels, and breast cancer risk.

According to a new study from the National Institution of Environmental Health Sciences, African American and Hispanic women with low vitamin D levels may be more likely to develop breast cancer than those with sufficient vitamin D.

"Together with prior studies on this topic, this article suggests that vitamin D may be associated with reduced risk of breast cancer," the authors said.

Vitamin D and breast cancer: What’s the link?

Researchers collected blood samples from 1,960 Black and non-White Hispanic women, who were a subgroup of the Sister Study—a cohort study of 50,884 women with a family history of breast cancer.

The results showed that over a follow-up of nine years, women who had sufficient circulating vitamin D levels—D concentrations of at least 20 ng/ml—had a 21 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women with less than adequate levels. The strongest association between vitamin D levels and breast cancer risk was seen in non-White Hispanic women. Those with adequate vitamin D levels had a 48 percent lower risk of breast cancer.

These findings suggest that vitamin D could confer protective effects against breast cancer, possibly because it helps maintain a healthy DNA profile and prevent the growth and spread of invasive breast cancer cells.

What's more, the results seem to confirm that vitamin D deficiency appears to be directly linked to breast cancer risk and sheds light on race and ethnic groups with a higher risk of this form of cancer. Black Americans, for example, have a higher prevalence of severe vitamin D deficiency (15 to 20 higher) than White Americans.

While the research didn't suggest what vitamin D levels would be most beneficial, the information does emphasize the importance of vitamin D intake and having sufficient levels of vitamin D. The takeaway? Whether Black, Latina, White or another race, ensuring we have sufficient levels of this crucial vitamin is imperative for staying healthy and maybe even lowering the risk factors for breast cancer and other types of cancer, which include colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, bone cancer and more.

Breast cancer risk factors: Which are the most common?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), being a woman and getting older are the main factors for breast cancer incidence.

As we age, our cells can get less efficient at replicating DNA—a complex process needed to make new cells and maintain your health from the inside out. If something goes wrong during this process, it can lead to genetic mutations resulting in cancerous cells or other diseases.

Still, clinical trials show that breast cancer can develop due to a combination of factors. While many risk factors may be inevitable, some can be addressed by making lifestyle changes, which could be as simple as complementing a balanced diet with a vitamin D supplement.

Pro tip: Be proactive about breast health. Analyze your breast conditions (do you have dense breasts?) daily. Use your hands as a non-invasive way to check your breasts. Look for lumps, breast tissue disparities, and feel for breast density. If your breasts feel disproportionately different, or you notice dense breast tissue, speak with your doctor immediately.

Six most common cancer risk factors

  1. Aging

    —Okay, this one is inevitable. There's a higher risk of breast cancer as we age—most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50.
  2. Genetics

    —People who inherit genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2 have a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. But while genes increase the likelihood of you getting breast cancer, it doesn't mean that you will.
  3. Being female

    —Breast cancer is the second-most-common cancer among women in the US. But having the risk factor is not a sure indication that someone will be diagnosed with the disease.
  4. Couch potato vs. busy bee

    —Systemic reviews and meta-analysis show that leading a sedentary lifestyle is associated with breast cancer risk. However, this is a risk factor you can empower yourself to change. Look for ways you can incorporate more movement into your day. Take the stairs, walk more often, play with your kids or fold your laundry while standing up.
  5. Obesity

    —Observational and case-control studies have suggested that having a high-fat profile is also linked to breast cancer (as well as other types of cancer), especially in postmenopausal women. The good news is that you can speak with your doctor to find ways to help your body reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  6. Excessive alcohol use

    —Studies show that people's (and women in particular) risk for breast cancer increase with higher alcohol consumption.

Breast cancer risk by race

The lifetime time risk of breast cancer varies by race and ethnicity in the US.

Race Lifetime risk of breast cancer
White American 13%
Black American 12%
Asian and Pacific Islander 11%
Hispanic 11%
American Indian and Alaska Native 8%

The reason for racial disparities could be that some risk factors are more prevalent in women of certain ethnic groups than in other women. We don't know for sure if it's that there is a genetic reason why a White woman would have a higher risk of breast cancer than a non-White Hispanic woman, or if there are other factors at play—or a combination of multiple factors.

Vitamin D against breast cancer: How does it work?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it can easily cross cell membranes and be available for cells to use. The sunshine vitamin attaches itself to vitamin D receptors, influencing mechanisms involved in calcium balance, gene expression, bone health and more.

Keep in mind that while sufficient D levels are necessary for staying healthy, vitamin D by no means replaces medical care and should not be considered as a treatment for breast cancer. Instead, think of vitamin D as an essential piece of an intricate biological puzzle that encompasses head-to-toe wellness, necessary for adequate calcium absorption, healthy cell performance and DNA reproduction.

Pro tip: Whether you have the BRCA1 gene or not, empowering yourself with the right information will help you stay in top-notch health. Speak with your doctor or nutritionist to include a supplement or two in your wellness routine.

Vitamin D2 vs. vitamin D3: Which one is best against breast cancer?

In nature (or in dietary nutrient form), vitamin D is available as vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Neither form has been extensively studied in cancer incidence. However, vitamin D3 raises serum levels more effectively, potentially offering more protective effects against breast cancer and other cancer types such as prostate cancer and ovarian cancer.

What group is least likely to develop breast cancer?

Some people may be at lower risk of breast cancer, but remember that it doesn't mean they are exempt from the disease.

  • Younger women
  • Non-smokers
  • People who identify as Native American and Alaska native
  • People without a family history of cancer and other diseases
  • People who maintain an active lifestyle
  • People who maintain a healthy weight

Research and clinical trials in the US have found that breast cancer risk among Asian-American women is higher in US-born women than among women born outside the United States.

Pro tip: Speak with your doctor if cancer family history is a concern to you.

Three ways to help prevent breast cancer

There's no surefire way to ensure cancer prevention, but being proactive about staying healthy is a step in the right direction. Don't know where to start? Here are three ways to help you stave off the risk of developing breast cancer.

  1. Regular checkups

    —The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women of 50-74 years of age, who are at average risk for breast cancer, get a mammogram every two years. And women ages 40-49 who have a family member with breast cancer should discuss mammogram screening with their doctors.
    • The CDC's National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program provides screening and diagnostic services to low-income, uninsured and underinsured American women across the United States.
    • You can also check your vitamin D status by doing regular lab work and looking at your vitamin D3 (25-hydroxy vitamin D) blood levels.
    • Premenopausal and postmenopausal women who use hormone replacement therapy can also do mammogram screening and blood work to check their estrogen levels; research has linked high levels of estrogen (and other hormones) with an increased breast cancer risk.

    Pro tip: It's never too early to start caring for your health. If you have a family member who has breast cancer, especially before 50, or if you had genetic testing that shows you carry the BRCA1 gene, you should discuss your personal history with your doctor about cancer screening.

  2. No smoking, less drinking

    —Research shows that chronic smoking and cancer are strongly associated. Deciding to quit smoking is an excellent step toward warding off the risk of breast cancer. The same comes with excessive alcohol consumption. Wondering if drinking wine is good for you? The short answer is yes, but moderation is key.
  3. Health is about your daily choices

    —Everything from your vitamin D to what you eat to how much you move, how well you rest, and how you manage stress are the cornerstones of good health.
    • Eat the rainbow—Choose balanced meals that include plenty of leafy greens and vegetables (rich in calcium), mushrooms, healthy fats, lean protein and complex carbohydrates. These foods are rich in nutrients, like vitamin D and antioxidants your body needs to thrive.
    • Stay active—Incorporate regular physical activity into your daily routine. And no, you don't have to spend hours at the gym. Aim for 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week, of mid-to high-intensity activities (the kind that gets you breathing and sweating heavily). Pro tip: Target and tone group muscles with resistance and weight training twice a week.
    • Sleep well, stress less—Prioritize quality sleep and make sure you get at least seven hours of uninterrupted shuteye. By getting the sleep your body needs, you also help support your stress response.
    • Spend time in nature—Enjoying your time outdoors is an easy (and affordable) way to get more vitamin D, move your body, and boost your overall health and well-being.



About Our Story Sources

The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.