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Nail Health

Nutritional Therapy for Healthy Nails

Natural remedies for nail treatment are up against the same obstacles as prescription agents: it is difficult to deliver healing agents to the site of infection. However, a few nutrients stand out for their ability to support strong, healthy nails.

Silicon. Silicon is an essential trace mineral that is vital to healthy bones and skin. It helps facilitate the formation of collagen, which is necessary for strength and healthy development of epithelial and skeletal connective tissue. In a recent study, silicon was examined for its ability to improve skin and nail health in women with sun-damaged skin. Chronic exposure to sunlight has been shown to damage connective tissue, which causes loss of elasticity in skin. In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, women were given 10 mg daily of either a bioavailable silicon or placebo. Measurements of skin and nail health were taken throughout the study. At the end of 20 weeks, women taking silicon had decreased skin roughness and less-brittle nails and hair, showing that silicon had a significantly positive effect on nails, skin, and hair (Barel 2005). This study used a stabilized orthosilicic acid, which is the form of silicon with the greatest bioavailability.

Vitamin E. The results of several small studies show that vitamin E can be effective in the treatment of nail changes in yellow nail syndrome, which also has profound effects on heart and lung function that must be treated separately (Williams 1991). A few studies found that high doses (800 to 1200 IU daily for several months) were effective in some patients (Rommel 1985; Venencie 1984; Ayres 1973); another study focused on topical vitamin E used twice daily for 12 months, which also provided noticeable results (Williams 1991).

Biotin. In one study, supplementation with the B-complex vitamin biotin increased nail thickness by 25 percent in 63 percent of participants with brittle nails. Nearly all patients had improved hardness and firmness after taking 2.5 mg biotin daily for an average of 5.5 months (Floersheim 1989). In another study, researchers reported that patients taking biotin daily for three to six months experienced a significant decrease in brittleness and splitting (Hochman 1993). Increased nail thickness was evident after biotin supplementation in yet another study, in which progress was identified using scanning electron microscopy (Colombo 1990).

Protein. Protein, consisting of amino acids chains, is a building material for new nails. Researchers have found an association between protein deficiency and nail abnormalities such as Muehrcke’s lines (ie, paired, white, transverse lines that appear on the nail plate). Muehrcke’s lines appeared in individuals with low blood protein levels (ie, albumin level less than 2 grams per dL [20 grams per L]), but when protein levels were normalized, the white bands disappeared (Fawcett 2004). Protein from sources that provide a variety of amino acids have also been shown in studies to increase the health and strength of the nail plate (Cashman 2010).

Iron. Iron-deficiency anemia, which affects 20 percent of women and 50 percent of pregnant women, can cause brittle nails if it becomes severe. A blood test should be used to diagnose iron-deficiency anemia in people with brittle nails. Supplemental iron should be taken under the supervision of a physician.

Zinc. Zinc deficiency has been associated with poor nail health, manifesting as deformed nails, hangnails, inflamed cuticles, and white spots in the nail plate. A few small studies have shown that supplementation with oral zinc can help resolve nail abnormalities in yellow nail syndrome (Hausmann 1994; Arroyo 1993).

L-cysteine. L-cysteine is a conditionally essential amino acid, one of only three sulfur-containing amino acids. The others are taurine (which can be produced from L-cysteine) and L-methionine, from which L-cysteine can be produced in the body by a multistep process. L-cysteine is an important component of keratin, hair, and nails.

Prevention: Proper Nail Care

To help achieve and maintain healthy looking nails, consider the following guidelines:

  • Use cotton-lined rubber gloves when doing dishes or using harsh chemicals, then wash hands with a gentle soap and dry them thoroughly (perspiration buildup inside gloves can set the stage for fungal infections). Renew and replace gloves frequently to reduce possible fungus accumulations.
  • Avoid biting your nails or picking at your cuticles.
  • Keep nails clipped slightly longer than the tip of finger or toe to prevent hangnails or ingrown nails.
  • To avoid ingrown toenails, wear shoes with a toe box that does not squeeze your toes together.
  • Try to keep your nails short, square-shaped, and slightly round on the top. It is best to trim brittle nails after a bath (they will be more supple then) and apply moisturizer.
  • If your nails are very brittle, avoid nail polish.
  • If your nails or cuticles are dry, consider moisturizing them at bedtime and wearing cotton gloves while you sleep.
  • Use nail polish remover no more than twice a month. If necessary, touch up nails with polish.
  • Mend split or torn nails with nail glue or clear polish.

To avoid fungal infections, follow these tips:

  • Wear shower shoes or flip-flops in communal showers.
  • Make sure your feet and body are thoroughly dried.
  • Avoid sharing towels or clothing.
  • Use nonirritating soaps and detergents.