Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids are now in the spotlight for their potential ability to prevent disease. Many Americans, especially African Americans, are not getting enough of these nutrients, according to data from national surveys. Both nutrients can be found in fish, some fortified foods, and supplements, while vitamin D can also be produced from sunlight (ultraviolet-B light).

The insufficiency of these nutrients among segments of the U.S. population has the potential to grow into a public health concern, as some research suggests that vitamin D and omega-3s may help prevent chronic conditions such as cancer and heart disease.

“We hope that vitamin D supplementation may be able to reduce the health gap related to race and ethnicity,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). “But more research on vitamin D and omega-3s needs to be done before definitive conclusions can be drawn about the protective effects of these nutrients.”

That is why Manson and Dr. Michelle Albert, a cardiologist and clinical investigator at BWH, and colleagues are conducting the largest ever clinical trial seeking to investigate whether diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and autoimmune disorders can be prevented by taking a moderate to high dose of vitamin D and omega-3s. Positive findings could mean a low-cost option for reducing the public health burden of these conditions worldwide.

The five-year vitamin D and omega-3 trial–or VITAL for short–is being sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The study will enroll 20,000 participants nationwide. Men (50 and older) and women (55 and older) without a history of cancer, heart disease, or stroke are eligible.

Participants will be divided into treatment and control groups, with the treatment groups receiving the nutrients and the control group receiving placebo. The study participants will be followed up primarily by mail during the trial period.

Twenty-five percent of the study participants will be African American, as certain diseases such as diabetes and some types of cancer occur at a greater rate in this population and might be related to the vitamin D deficiency observed in this ethnic group. “African American participation in this vitamin D study is critically important since as a group, African Americans are most prone to vitamin D deficiency. Therefore, the findings of this study could have serious implications for the health of African Americans,” said Albert. To learn more or to see if you are eligible to participate, call 1-800-388-3963 or visit www.vitalstudy.org.

[In another study, author Emily Allison-Francis, a nutritionist, librarian and educator, has written a book dealing with vitamin D deficiency titled “Correcting the Vitamin D Deficiency: Strategies to Fight Disease and Prolong Life for Black People” (ISBN 978-0-912444-49-9)].