Do you think racism has an impact upon health? Research validates what many Black Americans have known for a long time: that racism is still very prevalent in daily life, and it dramatically impacts the approach to healthcare, wellness, and preventative care.
The wellness community is in a unique position to see the detrimental effects of racism upon health, and the barriers to health that people of color experience.
How can a society that champions civil rights still neglect the health of so many of its citizens, and what will happen to society if we continue to overlook the burden of racism on our medical system?
Holistic Health & Wellbeing
One of the biggest misconceptions about health is that well-being is dependent purely on personal choice. And while it’s true that each of us is responsible for performing actions that either support or contribute to the breakdown of our own health, this isn’t the whole story.
Our health is dependent upon the personal environment in which we live, and situations we’re faced with on a daily basis. Factors like:
- Air quality
- Water contamination (lead, mercury, PCBs, other heavy metals)
- Proximity to grocery stores
- Physical environment/safety.
Race and ethnicity are heavily intertwined with every single one of these already well-established determinants of overall health.
Holistic Medicine Combats Stressed Out Bodies
Racism, discrimination, and negative social attitudes continue to be pervasive within a spectrum from overt to micro-level aggressions.
Levels of stress can then trigger biological mechanisms which increase inflammation, and worsen health outcomes for most, if not all, medical conditions from heart disease to the common cold. Stress can also trigger:
- Decreased immune function
- Poor sleep
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Hair loss
Hair loss in women and stress are so closely linked, that I designed an entire course around how to restore hair growth with holistic methods.
Stress depletes nutrients–notably B vitamins and magnesium–both of which we need for energy production, detox, and brain health, and you can find both of these in Boost.
When environmental or social stressors trigger the sympathetic nervous system–or what we more commonly call the fight-or-flight response–the behavior of our genes is altered.
This means that something like socio-economic disadvantage can trigger pro-inflammatory and stress signaling genes that negatively impact health. Additionally, the connection between inflammation and disease risk is well-documented across all ethnicities (6).
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Notably, African Americans bear a heavier burden of heart disease, late-stage breast cancer, dementia, and, the silent killer, hypertension (7).
It’s All In Your Genes
Researchers have looked for genetic causes for these devastating health disparities, but have had minimal success (8). The most significant evidence points to social-environmental factors like poverty, access to healthcare, and discrimination (9).
So if people of color are experiencing poorer health and greater impacts of disease, why aren’t they seeking healthcare or access to more preventative screenings?
What If You Didn’t Trust Your Doctor?
More than forty percent of Americans are people of color, and this group faces higher rates of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than whites. Black people have a 77% higher risk of diabetes, while Hispanics 66%, for example (7).
This comes as a result of less preventative care, lower quality care, and less accessibility to medical care in general.
One study involving emergency room records shows that Black patients were more likely than whites to receive lower triage scores for the same complaints (10). Which means that their symptoms were rated as less serious. Less serious conditions in the emergency room translates to longer wait times, even for potentially deadly conditions like stroke where time to treatment is crucial.
When a Black patient finally sees a doctor, another study shows that doctors were less likely to believe a patient was being truthful when talking about their symptoms (11).
And even before a patient enters the waiting room, their care is heavily influenced by race and ethnicity. Many Black patients don’t trust their providers to act in ways that serve their best interest (12). And this isn’t unfounded in reality…
A Convenient Cover-Up in Medicine
In one grim story that would shock most contemporary women, people of color have an unfortunate reminder that when developing hormonal birth control, doctors elected to inform Puerto Rican women only that they were taking a pill that prevented pregnancy, not that it was an experimental trial, or that there was a chance for potentially dangerous side effects.
Three women died during the trial, and another 20 percent experienced headaches, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and dizziness. Legal action was never pursued against the doctors involved (13).
Questions about the ethics of this trial are relevant to this day, and are only one example of the history of distrust people of color feel toward medical intervention.
A Toxic History
People of color are more likely to experience higher exposure to environmental toxins.
Harmful compounds like heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, and other industrial compounds harm human health and especially development in children.
In 1978, even though the EPA required we discontinue all uses of lead in staples like paint and gasoline, it’s still present in many homes, and communities of color are more affected (1).
Lead exposure costs our children almost 23 million IQ points collectively–almost as if we’re harming the next generation’s ability to function at their full potential and optimal health (2).
Lead made headlines in recent years for being a major problem in the town of Flint, Michigan (whose water is still undrinkable 6 years later). But unfortunately, lead contamination in city pipes is not unique to Flint.
Lead Is Still a Major Concern in Urban Houses
Surprisingly, nearly 2 out of every 5 houses belonging to African Americans in the city of Baltimore still have lead-based paint, and as it starts to deteriorate, can contribute to the levels of lead present in drinking water and soil (3).
Almost all 37,500 children with lead poisoning in the U.S. between 2003 and 2015 were African American (4).
To make matters worse, lead can deposit in our tissues–the brain, or muscles, and bone (5).
Detoxification is a continual process in our body, helping to excrete heavy metals, pesticide residues, and other endocrine disrupting compounds. It’s one main component in the Belly Fix course, where you can find individualized meal plans, shopping lists, and everything you need to support the body’s natural detox pathways, heal the gut–and kick stubborn belly bloat in the process.
The Grocery Gap
When comparing similar poverty levels, Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer large supermarkets, but more small grocery stores, and Black neighborhoods have the fewest number of supermarkets or grocery stores when compared with white or Hispanic neighborhoods (14).
Smaller grocery stores are less likely to stock fresh produce, quality dairy, meat, and eggs that provide significant nutrient dense foods, while generally providing more processed, packaged, and convenience foods at a more affordable price.
Considering Black people are at the same risk of unemployment since 1960, the majority of grocery shopping can be influenced heavily by price, and sugar-laden processed foods meet several primary needs: they’re highly satiating, inexpensive, and accessible (15).
If you rely on public transportation or not, traveling to a distantly located grocery store to buy more expensive (albeit healthier) food is much more difficult than feeding your entire family for a less expensive price tag, quicker, and more easily. These decisions of personal decision around buying healthy food suddenly become much more complicated than making the choice between canned or fresh produce.
Sugar by Design
Junk food ads disproportionately target Black and Hispanic communities with foods that are low in nutrition but high in fat and sugar, which are at the very root of the diseases that wreak havoc in these communities–like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (16).
What’s more, food marketing can impact education performance. Research shows that breakfasts high in sugars (which is what flour breaks down into) cause difficulty concentrating. As a result, kids perform poorer on tests, and can have markedly reduced memory (17).
How do we cut sugar and support our kids during uncertain times? Reach for the Healthy Child Guide for actionable steps to reduce harmful additives and provide the healthy alternatives they need.
Healing Unconscious Biases and Racism
What can society do to collectively work against the effects of racism? There are a vast amount of industries, collaborations, and strategies that need to be discussed, but the world of integrative medicine by nature works to understand the patient as a whole–taking into account each patient’s story and how their unique risk factors affect their health.
This means seeing a patient as more than a sum of their parts–but as an entire system, which I talk about in the Super Woman Rx, whose experiences, physical place in the world, and energy work together synergistically to create or detract from health.
From a grassroots perspective, healing the effects of racism begins for many of us in the home, by having meaningful conversations with children, family members, and friends about being more inclusive, standing up for what we believe is right, and demolishing biases that no longer serve us.
We can each be the reason someone feels supported, heard, validated, and loved–but it will be a long road to healing
- Washington, Harriet. A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and It’s Assault on the Human Mind. New York. Little, Brown Spark.