What do we mean when we say someone looks ‘healthy’? Usually it is a general sense of vitality that radiates from a person, something shining in their eyes, but as perceptive human beings we also take in at a glance many of their physical attributes. Complexion, the shade and tone of skin, the lustre of hair, their posture and the way they walk. Sometimes we can’t quite put our finger on it, but we can perceive subtle changes in the health and wellbeing of someone we are close to from a combination of all of these factors.
Observing the outward signs of health has always been an important part of assessing someone’s health status. When looking at any person, a physician will look at ‘symptoms’ (what the person themselves reports they feel), and ‘signs’ the things which can be clinically measured or observed. People who come into my clinic often show me their nails and say “what does this mean?”, they know instinctively that their nails are a sign they can read and hope to discover what the possible meanings might be.
Nails can be viewed as reflection of the health of the body, and may show up possibile insights into nutrient status or gut health and absorption. The appearance of nails and their rate of growth changes with age, weather, and work. For example, nails usually grow faster in summer, faster for those who use their hands a lot (eg. massage therapists), and faster when we are younger. Nail growth slows and their appearance changes as we age. All this shows that nail health reflects our general health, and the presence of splitting, peeling or weak brittle nails are possible signs of imbalance.
Much as we might all like to think “this specific sign equals this specific imbalance”, it is not so simple when it comes to nails. Many people for example have white spots on their nails. It is tempting to say “oh, that’s a zinc deficiency”, but it isn’t necessarily so simple. White spots simply show that there has been some small trauma to the nail bed and it hasn’t been able to heal quite as fully as it might. This in turn may reflect a low zinc level, because zinc is so essential for tissue healing. It may also mean there are low levels of minerals such as calcium available for nail repair. As with many ‘signs’ that we read, nail signs must be taken in the context of a person’s other signs, symptoms, and history.
- Nutrient deficiencies, especially low levels of iron, zinc, boron, magnesium and calcium can have an impact on the health of the nails, both toes and fingers.
- Low protein intake or poor protein absorption also can show up in the nails, as protein is such an important building block for the keratin that makes up our nails.
- Ridging (vertically) of the nails would always alert me to one of the issues outlined above. Often poor absorption shows imbalances in digestive function, and leads to low levels of nutrients being available for nail growth. All naturopaths like to say “good health begins in the gut!”.
- Fungal infections of the nails cause discoloration and thickening of the nail.
- Antibiotics can also sometimes cause discoloration of the nails.
- Beau’s lines are horizontal indentations which appear on all nails a few weeks after an acute illness. This shows that the body was weakened and had to mobilise its resources for other things (like the immune system) rather than put energy into nail growth.
- Observing nails can also give clues to how good someone’s circulation is. The colour of someone’s nail bed may give pointers about iron status.
- Many medical conditions have corresponding signs in the nails that are very specific, which is why it is always worth mentioning nail signs to your healthcare provider. ‘Pitting’ or little pin-prick indents in the nails, for example, often accompany the skin condition psoriasis.
- Ragged cuticles and hang-nails are often a sign that someone is run-down. If you get these, notice when it is that they come. For some people it is a few weeks after a very stressful time, or when they are especially tired and stressed. For others it it when they haven’t been eating so well, or when their digestion isn’t so flash.
The beautiful simple truth is that the best way to have great nails is to look after your general health.
Your nails will naturally reflect changes in your overall well-being.
What helps improve nail health?
- 2T ground linseeds (flaxseeds) or LSA (linseed, sunflower and almond mixture, ground) daily on food. Many clients report a change in the strength and lustre of their hair and nails after doing this for a month or two.
- Essential Fatty Acids in the diet or supplementally, ie. fish oils, flaxseed oil, oily fish etc
- Ensuring optimal nutrient absorption by addressing any digestive discomfort or dysfunction
- Identify any food reactivities which may be reducing nutrient absorption
- Identify and address any specific nutrient deficiencies or imbalances
- Ensure protein intake is adequate
- Ensure good circulation to the fingers with exercise and if necessary warming herbs and nutrients that support good capillary function
- Massage and moisturise your nails and cuticles daily, you may even want to give your hands a bath!
- Reduce stress. Always! Because nails are not the most important aspect to our body’s survival, chronic stress is a signal to the body not to put any energy where it isn’t absolutely needed.
- Nourishing the body and mind nourishes the nails too, they are literally an extension of our body and being!