I see many patients with nail complaints rather than skin issues. Especially my patients over 40. As you get older, your nails may not grow as well. They may break, peel easily, or have other physical characteristics that can tip your doctor off to underlying nutritional deficiencies or health conditions.
That’s why I want to tell you about 3 critical nutrients that can help restore your nail health as well as protect your overall health. In addition, I’d like to caution you about certain nail care practices that may actually be undermining both your nail and general health.
Protect Your Nails, Protect Your Health
You may not know this but your nails are actually an extension of your skin. They just contain more keratin in them which makes them much harder than your body skin. They protect the tips of your fingers (and toes) from injury and help you perform daily tasks.
That’s why when people have nail health issues, they (should) see a dermatologist rather than a nail esthetician. In the case of your nails, beauty is not just skin deep. Their appearance can tell a lot about what’s going on much deeper in your body. That’s why a doctor need only look at your nails to get a pretty good idea of certain illnesses you may have.
Nutritional deficiencies are one of the first things that show up in your nails (and hair – another extension of your skin). They not only affect your nail appearance but they affect the rest of your health. Here are 3 important nutritional deficiencies that your nails can show:
1. Protein. Nails that don’t grow, or grow very slowly, and break easily could mean a protein deficiency. As people get older, protein is one nutrient that often goes lacking in diets. It’s also one of the most needed nutrients in aging as you start to lose muscle. Vegetarians who don’t eat animal meat, and aren’t careful about adding alternative protein sources, almost always have protein deficiencies.
With low protein diets, not only do your nails grow poorly and break easily but your muscles will lose their bulk, tone, and strength and your hair will become thin and weak. Be sure you eat 1 gram protein per 1 pound of body weight per day of high quality protein sources like beef, fish, tuna, and poultry. Also, additional sources can come from dairy – like high protein cheeses – and vegetable sources like legumes. Supplementing with protein powder shakes once or twice a day can also help you get enough. Read labels and keep track of your protein intake. You may be surprised at how little you’ve actually been eating.
2. Iron. If you’re iron deficient, you’ll see it first in your nails. In fact, many doctors will look at the nails first before they run blood tests. Nails become thin, have an unusual curve, and frequently have vertical ridges with low iron. Chronic anemia can also wreak havoc with your heart, lungs, brain, and just about every part of you. Heart palpitations, foggy thinking, chronic headaches, irritability, and shortness of breath are just a few of the general symptoms that can accompany the nail appearance.
You can become low in iron if you’re a woman who is still menstruating, or you have certain bowel disorders like celiac disease, ulcers, hiatal hernias, colon polyps or B12 absorption deficiencies. Men over 40 should be getting about 18 mcg a day. For nonmenstruating women over 40, it’s recommended that you get about 9 mcg. Add more iron rich dark, leafy green vegetables, like kale and spinach, to your diet. Also, include red meat, eggs, iron fortified foods, or be sure your multivitamin contains the correct amount.
3. Zinc. Do you have white spots on your nails? Are they weak and not growing? You could have a zinc deficiency. Approximately 2 billion people around the world have zinc deficiencies and Americans are a large part of that number with their high sugar content diets. Sugar robs zinc from your body. But zinc deficiencies don’t just affect your nails. As you get older a zinc deficiency can set you up for developing serious diseases, like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer, as it fosters chronic, deadly inflammation. For that reason, getting enough zinc is also seen as a potent anti-aging measure. It’s present in good quantities in oysters, red meat, pumpkin seeds, lamb, and oats.
Your Nail Care Can Put You at Risk Too
You might think that nail care only addresses the beauty of your nails. But, recent research out of the University of Nottingham, UK, has found that too rigorous nail care can actually set you up for not only serious nail conditions but general illness. Why?
As I mentioned earlier, your nails offer a first line of defense against infection. If you work with household chemicals, or do a lot of gardening, you should protect your nails from exposure by wearing gloves. Chemicals seep into your nails the same way they do through your skin. And fungal nail infections, which are very difficult to get rid of, are much more common in people who frequently have their hands in dirt.
Additionally, cutting your nails too short will expose the surrounding skin to bacteria and viruses that can get into your skin. When the nail starts to re-grow, a sharp edge can cut into surrounding nailbeds and create ingrown nails and infection.
Too frequent trimming can stress the nail and cause deformities such as spoon-shaped and pincer-like nails that set the stage for serious nail conditions. Instead, opt for a once a week, or once every 2 weeks, trimming of your nails, in a straight or natural curve, to prevent damage to them.
And, if you get your nails done professionally and have lacquer applied, let them air dry rather than under a UV light speed drier. New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that these UV nail lamps up your risk of developing skin cancer that starts in the nail.
Nails can be a little trickier to look attractive as you get older. But, if you wear gloves when necessary, groom them responsibly and get enough of the correct nutrients, you’ll have better success at keeping them, and the rest of you, healthy.
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.
Iron Deficiency, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/basics/causes/con-20019327
The Modern-Day Zinc Deficiency Epidemic, http://knowledgeofhealth.com/modern-day-zinc-deficiency-epidemic/
Physicists Sound Warning to Nail Beauty Fanatics, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141017093122.htm