Fingernails are handy when it comes to scratching itches and peeling oranges. More importantly, nails on fingers and toes provide clues to one’s overall health.
“Each part of the body communicates with every other part, working together to function as a whole,” says Leonard Torok, MD, with Trillium Creek Dermatology in Medina, Ohio. “A symptom in our nails can indicate not just one condition, but many. And two people could have the same symptoms for different reasons.”
Why do nails speak so loudly? “They’re the farthest away from the heart, so they get less blood flow. So they show symptoms as the body breaks down,” explains Julie Keiffer, NMD, with East Valley Naturopathic Doctors in Meza, Arizona.
Nails are formed from laminated layers of a protein called keratin, which grow from under the cuticles. As new keratin cells develop, they push out the older cells, now hardened and compacted into nails.
Signs of Concern
Healthy nails flaunt a rich supply of blood by being uniformly pink, smooth and strong. Some vertical ridges are harmless, as are white lines or spots caused by injuries. But consider consulting with your healthcare provider if you notice changes in nail color, shape and thickness; if the surrounding skin is red, swollen or bleeding; or if there’s pain. And don’t ignore these symptoms:
Brittle nails: The keratin layers dry out and crack, possibly due to an underactive thyroid or a diet too low in iron. Brittle nails that are also thickened, crumbly and distorted may be infected with fungus.
White spots: When not caused by injury they recur, warning of a possible iron or zinc deficiency, or as signs of psoriasis or eczema.
Pitting: Small dents often accompany psoriasis, reactive arthritis (from a bacterial infection) or alopecia areata (a condition causing hair loss).
Clubbing: Nails curve around enlarged fingertips because of low oxygen in the blood, organ diseases, inflammatory bowel disease or AIDS.
Spoon nails: Soft, scooped-out nails may signal a deficiency or overabsorption of iron, as well as heart disease or hypothyroidism.
Terry’s nails: A dark band following the tips of the nails due to aging, liver disease, diabetes or congestive heart failure.
Beau’s lines: Horizontal indentations caused by diabetes, vascular disease, high fevers or a zinc shortage.
Nail separation: Loose nails could result from thyroid disease or psoriasis, or from the use of nail hardeners or adhesives.
Yellow nail syndrome: Thick, slow-growing yellow nails could be due to respiratory disease, such as chronic bronchitis.
Nail problems “can only be treated in a curative manner when one’s entire health is evaluated,” says Torok, who looks “deeper, past the symptoms to their causes.”
Naturally Healthy Nails
“Foods and herbs high in minerals strengthen nails,” says Stephanie Tourles, herbalist, esthetician and author of Hands-on Healing Remedies: 150 Recipes for Herbal Balms, Salves, Oils, Liniments and Other Topical Therapies (Storey Publishing).
She suggests eating mineral-rich broccoli, kale, beet and turnip greens, and spinach. For calcium and magnesium turn to dairy (or calcium-fortified milk alternatives), walnuts and almonds, and to macadamia nuts for zinc. Get boron from apples, grapes and raisins. You can supplement your diet with MSM, a natural form of sulfur, glucosamine, better known for joint support, and the amino acids L-cysteine and L-methionine.
Drink mineral-rich herbal teas, one heaping teaspoon for each cup of boiling water, “three cups a day for a month, to harden nails and encourage growth,” says Tourles. Her list includes stinging nettle, alfalfa grass, horsetail, dandelion leaf and oat straw, as well as kelp and blue-green algae. “Because they come from plants, they’re easy for the body to break down and absorb,” Tourles notes.
Green tea helps ease inflammation and works as an antibacterial and antifungal agent. So does the herb cat’s claw.
Tea tree oil rubbed onto your nails attacks fungus, too. “Use a spray to also treat your shoes, or you expose yourself all over again,” advises Keiffer. Some nail-care products include other plant extracts, such as those taken from aloe vera, calendula, cucumber and lavender.
Tourles suggests applying jojoba, castor or macadamia nut oil, or shea butter, to moisturize nails. Massaging them enhances circulation, as does strengthening the muscles in the hands and feet, “especially by gripping weights, and doing lunges and squats,” she says.
Keep nails clean, dry and trimmed, carefully clipping hangnails; cut toenails straight across to avoid having them become ingrown. Don’t bite or otherwise abuse your nails, and wear gloves when handling chemicals or rough materials. Finally, help avoid nail infections by bringing your own tools to the manicurist.
Take care of your body and it will show in your nails.