Clues to Your Health May Be at Your Fingertips
Most of us take our nails for granted. We polish them, use them to pry open stubborn jar lids or soda cans, and scratch that special spot behind our fur baby's ear. Of course, playing rough with our nails can make them brittle, split and peel, but poor nail health can result from other problems, too.
"Examining someone's fingernails can tell you a lot about their health," said Michelle Rauch, a registered dietitian at The Lillian Booth Actors Home, an assisted-living facility in Englewood, New Jersey. "In addition to revealing clues to one's medical history, dermatological issues or even occupation, the fingernails can disclose nutritional deficiencies."
Before you ask your nail tech to buff out those ridges, take a moment to consider what they might be telling you about what's going on inside your beautiful machine.
Brittle or soft nails
External causes of brittle nails include harsh, dry weather, prolonged exposure to cleaning fluids and detergents, and being wet for extended periods. However, more seriously, they can represent thyroid disorder or malnutrition.
Disordered eating usually deprives the body of B-complex vitamins, iron, calcium and essential healthy fats like omega-3, all of which contribute to healthy nails. Deficiencies in these necessary vitamins and minerals cause nails to become soft and thin.
Healthy and unhealthy colors
"Color is another characteristic of the nails that can give you clues to your health," said Meg Mill, Pharm.D., a functional medicine health practitioner, clinical pharmacist and CEO of Enlightened Wellness in Indiana, Pennsylvania.
"Healthy nails are pink in color where it's attached to the tip of your finger and white once it grows off the nail bed," Mill explained. "Changes in that color can point to a number of issues. For instance, blue nails can be a sign of Wilson's disease, a rare inherited disorder that causes an accumulation of copper in your body. In contrast, nails that are white at the bed can indicate an iron or zinc deficiency."
Reading between the lines
Vertical lines and ridges in the nails are often a natural result of aging, but they can also be caused by more serious issues.
White lines or dots on the nail, known as leukonychia, sometimes develop due to a lack of zinc and selenium. Selenium is a trace mineral found in foods like crab, fish, poultry and wheat that increases antioxidant effects in the body.
Deep, horizontal ridges, known as Beau's lines, can have both minor and major implications. While they can result from picking at cuticles or an infection around the edge of the nail, they can also signal acute kidney disease, thyroid disease or syphilis.
DIY nail repair
Luckily, all kinds of things can guard or rehabilitate our nails from the abuse we heap upon them. Here are four essential strategies your fingers will thank you for:
- Use a moisturizer. Apply a lotion or cream every time you wash your hands. Take particular care to work the moisturizer into your nails and cuticles.
- Glove up. Use waterproof gloves for household chores such as cleaning or dishwashing and find a nice warm pair of knit, cloth or leather gloves to wear when the temperature drops. And don't forget the gardening gloves for when you're digging in the dirt.
- Try not to treat them as tools. Stop using your nails to open cans, peel labels from jars or scrape that schmutz off the counter—there are tools and household items that'll do the job just fine. Use the pads of your fingers to type and text.
- Give them a little TLC. Use a fine emery board to shape your nails and file in one direction only. Resist the urge to pick or tear your cuticles. Use a nail polish remover that does not contain acetone.
It's time to call the professionals
Even after adhering to the advice above, there will still be times when all the self-care in the world fails to rejuvenate your nails. If your at-home work does not improve the health of your nails, talk to your healthcare practitioner, especially if you are experiencing any of the following much more serious symptoms:
- Weight loss
- Inflamed skin
- Heart palpitations
- Symptoms of depression
Those unsightly nails are not just unpretty—they could be a sign that something serious is afoot.