What Are Your Nails Trying to Tell You About Your Health?

We have an obsession about nails and manicures. More than $768 million was spent on nail polish alone in the United States in 2012, according to WWD. In addition to nail polish, there also is nail art, which includes stick-on patterns, glitter, and unique designs. All of these colorful expressions may be covering up something serious. That is, your nails can reveal a lot about the state of your health, and glossing or painting over the evidence may not be a wise choice. It’s important for to know what your nails say about your health.

You may not realize it, but your nails can tell your doctor (and you) whether you may be harboring cancer, diabetes, and other significant health issues. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “Changes in the nail, such as discoloration or thickening, can signal health problems including liver and kidney disease, heart and lung conditions, anemia, and diabetes.” So what should you be looking for when examining your nails, and what may it be telling you?

Read about 6 foods to give you strong, healthy nails

If you notice any of the following changes in your nails, it is recommended you seek advice from a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

  • Yellow nails. We most often seen yellow nails among smokers. However, yellow nails can be associated with aging as well as the use of nail polish or acrylic nails. Sometimes, yellow nails are related to the presence of diabetes, psoriasis, respiratory conditions, or thyroid disease. When nails are yellow as well as crumbly and thick, a fungal infection may be the culprit.

  • Clubbing. This does not mean your nails frequent the bar scene. Rather, clubbing of nails (i.e., enlarged finger tips and a curved appearance to the nail) can be an indication of lung problems, kidney or liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, AIDS, or heart disease.

  • Dry, brittle, and cracked. In many cases, nails with these characteristics are the victims of lots of exposure to water, cleaning products, and/or living in areas of low humidity. In other cases, dry, brittle, and cracked nails are caused by thyroid disease (e.g., hypothyroidism), a fungal infection, or a deficiency of biotin, vitamin A, or vitamin C.

  • Horizontal ridges. Such lines or ridges typically occur when the body has been through trauma or a serious illness with high fever. Other causes may include the presence of diabetes (uncontrolled), circulatory problems, severe deficiency of zinc, or psoriasis.

  • Vertical lines. When lines are running vertically, it is usually a sign of aging. Occasionally vertical lines in the nails are an indication of a deficiency of magnesium or vitamin B12.

  • Spoon nails. When nails curve upward at the edges, they look similar to a spoon. This appearance may be a sign of heart disease, excess iron absorption (hemochromatosis), hypothyroidism, or iron-deficiency anemia.

  • White spots. In the majority of cases, white spots in the nails are a sign of trauma, and they typically go away on their own. Occasionally they are associated with a fungal infection.

  • Dark nails. Nails that sport a dark streak may be a sign of melanoma, which is the most deadly of skin cancers. See your physician immediately.

  • Pitted nails. Sometimes you may see tiny dents or pits in your nails, and that’s often a sign of psoriasis. Other possible associations are alopecia areata (hair loss) or connective tissue disorders.

  • Puffy nail fold. If the skin at the base of your nails is puffy and red (aka, inflammation of the nail fold), it may be associated with lupus or another type of connective tissue disorder. It is also possible you have an infection of the nail fold.

  • Very pale nails. This can be a sign of anemia, congestive heart failure, liver disease, or malnutrition.

  • White nails. If your nails are primarily white with a darker rim or a narrow strip of pink at the top, this may be an indication of liver problems, such as hepatitis, or congestive heart failure, diabetes, or kidney failure.

  • Blue nails. When fingernails turn blue, it means you are not getting a sufficient amount of oxygen. This suggests heart problems or lung disorders, such as emphysema.

How to improve nail health

Along with addressing any specific health problems associated with your nails, it’s important to stick to a healthy diet. Foods rich in healthy protein, such as grass-fed beef, quinoa, beans, and organic fermented soy (e.g., tempeh) are good examples, as are foods containing a lot of zinc, such as pumpkin seeds, wheat germ, and chick peas, as this mineral is required for making proteins found in nails. Biotin, a B vitamin, helps strengthen nails and hair and may play a role in building keratin, which is found in nails.

Read more about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

Also maintain a healthy balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (preferably 1:1). Anyone with soft or brittle nails may have an omega-3/omega-6 imbalance. Reduce your intake of vegetable oils and select animal-based omega-3s from cold water fish, walnuts, and seeds (chia, flax, hemp).

American Academy of Dermatology. Nails
Manders H. Real talk: women spend $768 million on nail polish. Refinery 29 2013 Jan 27
Mercola.com. 10 things your nails reveal about your health
WebMD. What your nails say about your health

By Deborah Mitchell| June 16, 2017
Categories:  Care

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at deborahmitchellbooks.com.

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