Fingernails are more than just a carrier for nail polish, they say a lot about our health. Knowing how to have healthy nails is easier said than done sometimes. Nutrients like collagen, biotin, and zinc help make nails their strongest, but there’s a lot more to the story.
What Do Your Nails Say About Your Health?
Virtually every nutritional deficiency can affect the growth of the nail in some manner.
This quote from researchers in a 2010 study published in the Clinics in Dermatology journal pretty much sums it up. Strong, smooth nails aren’t just desirable for cosmetic reasons. Our fingernails are like a roadmap that tell our health story.
Uncontrolled health issues and nutritional deficiencies add up to fingernail problems. A variety of vitamins, micronutrients, and protein are necessary for healthy, strong fingernails.
In fact, scientists can read in fingernails if there are high levels of cortisol indicating stress, or if someone has diabetes. They can even tell if an older woman has had a fracture or not based off of fingernail analysis!
Brittle nails may be a telltale sign of hypothyroidism, and 50% of psoriasis sufferers have nail problems linked to skin inflammation.
Supplements and Vitamins For Healthy Nails
Nails are primarily made of the protein keratin, so sufficient amounts of protein are necessary for healthy nails. Nail health depends on more than just protein though.
Collagen peptides are a form of pure protein that contain necessary amino acids. It’s naturally found in bone broth, but I also use a grass-fed collagen supplement. A 2017 study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology reported that collagen was a major player in strengthening nails. Participants taking collagen found that
- nail growth increased by 12%
- broken nails decreased by 42%
- 64% of participants saw brittle nails improve
- 88% saw an improvement even a month after the collagen treatment.
Next to iron, zinc is the most abundant mineral in our body, yet about one third of all people are zinc deficient according to the World Health Organization.
Zinc helps the body to absorb protein, which is why it’s important in building strong healthy nails. Some excellents sources of zinc are:
- salmon (also has selenium and copper, which aid in collagen production)
- oysters (a whopping 493% DV of zinc per serving)
- beef, crab, and lobster all contain zinc, with chicken not too far behind
Red meat is one of the best sources of bioavailable zinc. It also contains the iron, protein and collagen needed for healthy skin and nails. A study in the Journal of Nutrients found that women who eat less than 40 grams of red meat a day are 4 times more likely to have a zinc deficiency than those who ate closer to 70 grams.
In addition, soaking nuts and grains to reduce phytic acids that block zinc absorption is a good idea.
This water-soluble vitamin is a member of the B-vitamin family. Biotin has been clinically shown to strengthen fingernails in multiple case studies. Biotin-rich foods include organ meats, eggs, fish, meat, seeds, nuts, salmon, and sweet potato.
At least 33% of pregnant and breastfeeding women have a biotin deficiency, even if they’re consuming the normal daily amount of biotin. So this vitamin usually needs to be increased during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Some nails are weak or brittle due to an iron deficiency. Increasing iron-rich foods and supplements along with vitamin C (which improves iron absorption) will help if this is the issue. A condition called “spoon nails,” where the nails curve upward at the sides, is also linked with iron deficiency. Cooking with cast iron, eating red meat (with plenty of veggies), and adding some grass-fed liver into the diet should help.
This nutrient is necessary for strong healthy nails, but it needs to be accompanied by vitamin K2. K2 is found in grass-fed animal products, especially butter. K2 shuttles calcium where it needs to go in the body, including the nails.
Silicon or Silica
This study found that 10 milligrams a day of silicon helped to strengthen weak fingernails. Other researchers have found no difference with silica supplementation in those who are already at optimal levels. Silica is a necessary nutrient for the body, but if we’re getting enough through foods, supplementation may not be needed.
Diatomaceous earth contains silica, as does the herb horsetail. Horsetail is water soluble, so it works best when consumed as a water or vinegar infusion.
Vitamin A helps the body process the protein your body needs to make healthy strong nails, and a deficiency in this vitamin can spell trouble. Animal-based forms of vitamin A (like from grass-fed liver) are much more bioavailable than the beta-carotene found in plant foods like carrots.
Hydrochloric Acid (HCL)
All the nutrients in the world won’t help nails if our body can’t digest them. Poor absorption of nutrients due to a decrease in HCL stomach acid can adversely impact nail health. Taking an HCL supplement or even apple cider vinegar in water will help keep digestive juices at their peak.
Some people with soft, flaky nails may have decreased levels of blood magnesium. Nails that are prone to splitting can also be due to low magnesium levels. Here’s how to tell if you may be low in magnesium.
Healthy Nail Care Habits
In addition to eating a balanced diet, there are some healthy habits to adopt. Certain things dry out the skin on the hands, which in turn damages nails.
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizers dry out the hands, as does chlorine from swimming pools. A homemade hand sanitizer is a better option.
- Frequent hand-washing helps prevent the spread of pathogens, but it also dries out hands. Be sure to use lotion after washing hands, like these convenient lotion bars.
- Gloves can be worn while doing the dishes or cleaning. This keeps hands dry to prevent nails getting soft and tearing.
- Here’s a natural dish soap recipe that’s gentler on hands.
- Dry winter weather takes a toll on nails. Another reason to apply cuticle cream religiously!
- Use a glass nail file instead of an emery board. It’s gentler on nails.
- Cut nails after showering, when they’re softer and less likely to break.
Does Nail Polish Harm or Help?
Nails may look hard, but they’re actually a permeable substance that drinks in nail polish. This can cause the top layers of the nail to dry out, inviting yeast, bacteria, and mold to grow underneath the fingernail plate. Brittle nails can be caused by too many manicures, too much nail polish, or harsh nail polish remover.
The popular gel polish is even more damaging to nails. It’s been reported to cause brittle and thinning nails, even more so than regular nail polish.
So does nail polish spell disaster for nail health then? Not exactly. These tips will help nails stay their healthiest, even with polish on.
- Avoid artificial nails to allow the nail bed to receive necessary airflow.
- Avoid wearing nail polish for extended periods of time to allow the nail to “breathe.”
- Try a natural nail polish remover without acetone. Fresh therapies brand has one that’s non-toxic.
- Use a non-toxic nail polish and avoid the most harmful chemicals.
Nail Infection Home Remedies
According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 200,000 nail infections occur yearly. These may be bacterial or fungal. In fact, 50% of yellow nails are caused by fungal infections.
A 1996 study published in the journal Microbios tested a variety of essential oils against both fungal and bacterial strains. Orange essential oil is gentle on the skin, not phototoxic, and was effective against all 22 bacterial strains tested. Geranium, orange, and patchouli all knocked out the 12 fungal strains in the test. Peppermint essential oil also performed very well in the study, and it’s also a good choice when diluted enough.
Geranium, lavender, and tea tree essential oils have also demonstrated antifungal and antibacterial activity. Be sure to consult with a natural healthcare practitioner though if nails become worse or there’s any concern!
Bottom Line: Healthy Nails Matter!
Healthy nail hygiene is important but only half of the picture. Real health comes from the inside out by eating a real-food diet rich in vitamins and minerals!
Do you have healthy nails? What methods have you tried to strengthen fingernails?
- Böhme, K., Barros-Velázquez, J., Calo-Mata, P., & Aubourg, S. P. (2013). Antibacterial, Antiviral and Antifungal Activity of Essential Oils: Mechanisms and Applications [Abstract]. Antimicrobial Compounds. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-40444-3_3
- Bone, Muscle and Joint Team, Cleveland Clinic (2017, June 26). Why You Should Give Your Toenails a Break from Polish.
- Can vitamin supplements strengthen brittle nails? (n.d.). https://www.consumerlab.com/answers/can-vitamin-supplements-strengthen-brittle-nails/brittle_nail_supplements/
- Colombo, V. et al. (1990). Treatment of brittle fingernails and onychoschizia with biotin: Scanning electron microscopy. [Abstract]. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
- Elias, Nina. ( 2015, January 28). 7 Things Your Nails Say About You. https://www.prevention.com/health/a20468991/nail-health-signs/
- Fingernails Are a Window to Your Health. (n.d.). https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/fingernails-are-a-window-to-your-health/
- Hexsel, D., Zague, V., Schunck, M., Siega, C., Camozzato, F. O., & Oesser, S. (2017). Oral supplementation with specific bioactive collagen peptides improves nail growth and reduces symptoms of brittle nails [Abstract]. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 16(4), 520-526. doi:10.1111/jocd.12393
- Mayo Clinic. (2018, March 06). Nail fungus. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nail-fungus/symptoms-causes/syc-20353294
- Office of Dietary Supplements – Biotin. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2018, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Biotin-HealthProfessional/
- Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin A. (n.d.). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/
- Scheinfeld, N. et al. (2007). Vitamins and minerals: Their role in nail health and disease [Abstract]. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.
- Yaemsiri, S., Hou, N., Slining, M., & He, K. (2009). Growth rate of human fingernails and toenails in healthy American young adults. [Abstract]. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology.