Most nail problems
stem from abuse – everything from picking and biting to overuse of polish
removers, glues, and other harmful chemicals. In some instances, however,
unhealthy nails actually reflect a nutritional deficiency or an underlying
Normally, nails grow about 1/8 in. (3 mm) a month, although illness, age,
and even cold weather slow the rate of growth. nails are composed of
keratin, the same hard protein that forms the outer layer of skin (the
epidermis) and hair. The visible portion, called the nail plate, rests over
the tips of the fingers and toes and grows out of the lunula, the pale
half-moon at its base. The cuticle acts as a protective seal between skin
and nail. Only the lunula is living tissue; the rest is made of dead cells.
Even though nails are mostly dead tissue, they are an important indicator
of a person's state of health; this is the reason a doctor carefully
examines them for clues to many diseases. Soft spoon-shaped nails that curve
upward, for example, point to iron-deficiency anemia. Rounded, club-shaped
nails indicate either impaired circulation or a serious lung disorder;
thickened, discolored nails may be due to a fungal infection; psoriasis can
cause pitting; and horizontal ridges may indicate a systemic infection or
Healthy nails are strong and smooth, with a pinkish cast. Like hair, they
need moisture for flexibility; without it, they become yellowish and break
or ship easily. In order to maintain healthy growth and strength, nails
require a steady supply of oxygen and other nutrients. But because the body
is very efficient in delivering nutrients to its areas of greatest need, and
the nails are not vital organs, they are one of the first parts to be
short-circuited if there is greater demand elsewhere in the body.
Many of the nail problems that reflect diseases and nutritional
deficiencies disappear when the underlying condition is corrected. In order
to make keratin, the body needs high-quality protein from lean meat,
poultry, fish, seafood, and other animal products; a combination of grain
products and legumes will also supply complete protein.
You may need iron-rich foods.
A more common nutrition-related
problem involves iron-deficiency or other anemias, in which the blood does
not deliver adequate nutrients to the nails. Increasing the consumption of
iron-rich foods – lean meat poultry, fish, seafood, fried apricots, and
enriched cereals and breads – may be enough to cure mild iron-deficiency
anemia. A doctor should be consulted however, to determine whether the
anemia is due to other nutritional deficiencies or to chronic hidden
bleeding. (Never self-treat with iron supplements; they can lead to toxicity
and many other serious problems.) Vitamin C helps the human body absorb iron
from plant sources; thus, a balanced diet should include citrus fruits and a
variety of other fresh fruits and vegetables.
Some types of anemia that affect
the nails are caused by a deficiency of folate, an essential B vitamin.
Whole grains, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, peas, nuts, and orange
juice are good sources of folate and other important B vitamins.