I started noticing that at around the same time that my stomach was beginning to really bother me that my nails were weak and kept breaking. I could not understand why and I did my best to keep them short to avoid those painful breaks right in the middle of the nail. I hate those. It was not until I was diagnosed with fructose malabsorption that I found out that brittle nails are a possible symptom in addition to all the other ones, as the small intestine is not able to properly absorb fructose. Oh joy. In addition, other digestive disorders, such as, general malabsorption, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease may all lead to weak nails. When I learned that fingernails are a good indicator of one’s health since nutrition, hormones, and disease can impact the growth of the nail, I thought it would be good to find out why my nails kept breaking.
But first, how are nails made? The growth of a new nail begins at the matrix, located under your skin at the base of the fingernail and toenail. When new cells are made they cause the old cells to compress together and move out of the matrix which becomes our nail. Because these old cells are dead, we can cut them and paint them without concern for harming them. These cells contain the structural protein keratin that provides the strength of the nails.
Vitamins and minerals are needed to produce healthy nails, including vitamins A, B12, C, D, and H also known as biotin, folic acid, iron, magnesium, and calcium. For example, vitamin C has a role in producing the structural protein collagen, which in addition to keratin is also an important component of hair, skin, and nails. Additionally, a deficiency of iron may result in brittle nails. Iron is a component of hemoglobin, a molecule found in red blood cells that transports oxygen. Less iron can result in less oxygen and if there is not enough oxygen provided to the matrix the nail does not grow correctly.
Nails can become brittle, weak, pigmented, or change shape due to mistreatment, for example too many gel manicures, malnutrition, and chronic illness. A spoon shaped nail, also known as koilonychia, may be an indicator of iron-deficiency anemia. A clubbed finger, first described by Hippocrates around 400 BC, may be a sign of lung or heart disease.
As mentioned above, digestive disorders are one type of illness that can affect the appearance and structure of one’s nails. This is due to the inability to properly absorb nutrients, which can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies. For example, the protein gluten present in wheat, barley, and rye can damage the intestines of patients with celiac disease. This impairs the intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients resulting in malnutrition. Below are nutrient deficiencies found with different digestive disorders:
- Celiac disease: Typically deficient in iron, calcium, and vitamin D but may also be deficient in vitamins E and B12, copper, folate, magnesium, niacin, riboflavin and/or zinc.
- Fructose malabsorption: Folic acid and folate, zinc, iron, and vitamin D.
- Irritable bowel syndrome: Iron and vitamin B12
- Crohn’s disease: Iron, calcium, folate, copper, magnesium, zinc and vitamins A, B12, D, E, and K
If you have been diagnosed with a digestive disorder, work with your doctor and/or nutritionist to make sure you are eating a well-balanced healthy diet and to learn what foods to avoid, such as gluten or certain FODMAPs. Also, find out if you should be taking any supplements. When I was being tested for fructose malabsorption, I learned that I was deficient in vitamin D and it was recommended that I start taking a vitamin D supplement.
Some other general tricks of the trade to help you have strong healthy nails:
- Studies have shown that biotin, a water-soluble member of the vitamin B family can heal weak nails.
- Limit the number of times you get a gel manicure or acrylic nails.
- Do not use acetone-based nail polish remover.
- If you notice a dramatic change in the appearance (pigmentation, discoloration) or structure (spooned or brittle) of your nails, it could be that you have been getting too many manicures, using harsh cleaning chemicals, etc. However, you should also speak with your physician to find out if it may be an indicator of something going on with your general health.
Have you noticed any changes in your nails?
1. Cashman MW and Sloan SB (2010) Nutrition and nail disease. Clinics in Dermatology, 28(4), 420-425
Photo taken by butterbeeee on Flickr