Your nail contains a strong protein substance known as keratin. This protein plays a key role in helping your fingernails to grow at a rate of nearly 0.14 inch (or, 3.5 mm) in a month. Nails on your toes however grow at a slower rate of about 0.06 inch (i.e., almost 1.55 mm) per month. Your nails exert a mild pressure to improve your sense of touch, especially at the tips of your fingers. Rate at which nails grow can offer insights into your mental and physical health conditions. Your nails may turn brittle when a few deficiencies occur, or if you have a few medical conditions. For example – deficiency of iron and vitamins A or D can lead to brittle nails. It helps to know what other causes can make your nails turn brittle.
Your nails can tell so many things about your health. Nails are made of keratin – a protein compound. This protein-substance plays a very important role in maintaining the health of nails. The levels of moisture can have an influence your nails’ brittleness as well as dryness. An optimal level of moisture is needed to avoid nails turning brittle. An excessive level of moisture can also make your nails brittle and soft. This is often related to overuse of soaps or an excessive application of liquids to remove nail polish. It is also be triggered by frequent exposure to cleaning solutions. On the other hand, nails can turn brittle and dry at times – again, moisture has a role to play here. This is due to frequent and excessive drying of your fingertips.
It is fairly easy to detect if your nails are brittle due to an external reason or an internal medical condition. If you experience brittleness of fingernails while the nails on toes are normal, it is due to an external reason. If both fingernails as well as your toenails are splitting, it is likely to be an internal problem or a deficiency. Brittle nails can also occur due to many other causes. The salient ones are-
Hypothyroidism – This condition occurs when your body makes lesser than normal amount of thyroid hormone. The gland is positioned at your neck and it resembles a butterfly. The hormone it helps to secrete is responsible for giving energy to almost all parts of your body. For instance, deficiency of thyroid hormone can impact the normal functioning of several vital organs such as your digestive system, heart, etc. This condition is referred as hypothyroidism. The most common signs of suboptimal secretion of thyroid hormone include an increase in bodyweight, persistent episodes of tiredness, loss of hair, mood swings including depression as well as difficulties to pass stools.
Restricted flow of blood – A condition wherein flow of blood to your toes and fingers becomes less is called as Raynaud’s condition. There are two types of this condition – namely, primary and secondary syndromes. Primary condition occurs among people who are generally healthy. The secondary form of this syndrome shows up in people living with autoimmune disorders such as arthritis; at times, frostbites can also trigger it.
In both types, your blood vessels shrink in size and hinder uniform flow of blood to nose, ears, fingers or toes. If you are experiencing this syndrome, your treating doctor may prescribe drugs such as losartan or calcium channel blocking drugs such as amlodipine.
Inadequate supply of iron – This mineral is essential for your body to produce a protein called hemoglobin in the red cells of blood. So, when iron is not available properly, it leads to a poor supply of oxygen to your muscles as well as tissues. This is because haemoglobin works as the carrier of oxygen to make organs to function normally. If untreated for long, this gives rise to a medical condition known as anemia. This condition is characterised by brittle nails. You may find nails cracking with ease. In some rare instances of this condition, your nails may resemble the shape of spoons; the edges will raise-up with a dip in the middle of your nails. Such a condition is however experienced when deficiency of iron reaches an acute level.
Aging – As you age, your nails may undergo a few changes. Brittle and dulling of nails is a very common occurrence among elders. But, nails of your toes may become hard and thick while nails on the fingertips may become brittle and thin.
Brittle nails? Tips for healthy nails
Detergents or cleaning liquids – such as those used in dishwashing machines, can make your nails brittle. So, while handling such harsh cleaners, soaps or detergents, you are advised to use a pair of gloves.
The most common cause for brittle nails is dryness. In order to keep your nails well-hydrated, you are advised to use a moisturizer. Talk to your dermatologist if are not sure about the type of lotion to be used. In general, your treating doctor may advise to go for moisturizers having alpha-hydroxy acid or lanolin in them. It is a good practice to apply the lotion onto your nails as well as hands during bedtime. This will help your nails to fight dryness while you are sleeping. It is also highly recommended to apply the lotion soon after a wash.
With proactive care, you can prevent likely damage of your nails. It is a healthy habit to file nails using emery. If done periodically, filing helps avoid splits and eventual breaking of nails. A word of caution here though – Always file in the same, unidirectional way. Also, if you spot any rough areas, gentle filing can iron out such snags. You may need to avoid any metal-based implements or tools while taking care of your nails.
You can also use a nail-hardener to give additional strength to your nails. Commonly used hardeners include nail polish or other similar products. If you need to use a remover of nail polish, ensure that the liquid does not have acetone in it. Also, make sure to cut and trim fingernails as well as toenails; this habit will help reduce the exposed area of your nails. Last but not least, never bite or pick nails.
In times of COVID-19 or other similar pandemics, it is natural for people to use hand sanitizers. The downside of an excessive use of hand sanitizers is they can make your nails dehydrated. So, the next time you need to use a sanitizer, ensure that it does not enter into your nails. Also, care to use an optimal quantity of such sanitizing liquids.
Dietary ways to avoid brittle nails
An adequate intake of nutrients and minerals can help you take care of nails. Diet does – in fact – have a few solutions to treat brittle nails. As mentioned, nails contain a protein called keratin. Intake of sufficient quantities of proteins is required to stimulate keratin levels. Needless to state, a healthy presence of keratin in your body can lead to healthy nails.
Brittle nails may also show up due to anemia; in such cases, intake of iron-laden foods such as spinach or meat can boost iron production. You can also consume a few types of supplements of iron. However, you are advised to take needful advice from your doctor before taking such supplements. Several dermatologists (qualified specialists of skincare) administer the intake of biotin-based supplements. A few doctors may also recommend intake of calcium or gelatin-supplements. It is generally advised to take these supplements for a fairly long term – say, for 5 to 6 months. However, not all consumers have reported positive results. Studies done on supplements suggest that only less than 35% of consumers stand to benefit.
All said and done, there is nothing like water. Yes! Consume a lot of water to stay hydrated; this only means, your nails have access to an optimal level of moisture to maintain their health. There are many ways by which you can increase the intake of water. These include (1) carry a water-bottle with you wherever you go and (2) skip beverages during mealtimes; instead, opt to drink more water.
Some drugs – such as water pills or diuretics – can dehydrate you sooner than you can imagine. So, if you have medical conditions for which intake of diuretics is recommended, talk to your treating doctor about your nail health. Your doctor will prescribe safer drugs – especially those carrying no risks of dehydration.
In general, brittle nails are less common among men; it is more pronounced among women. In clinical terms, this condition is referred as onychoschizia. A qualified doctor will examine your nails carefully and understand your clinical history in greater detail before recommending an apt treatment plan for brittle nails. Also, you are advised to consult a qualified medical practitioner if you experience a few other signs such as decrease or increase in bodyweight (hypothyroidism can also be a possible cause for this) or frequent spells of tiredness (may be a lack of hemoglobin – an anemic condition). It is also high time to visit your doctor when remedies administered at home are not working.
Hence, you are advised to take good care of nails by filing them regularly, not biting or picking them as well as consuming foods rich in proteins such as lean meats, eggs, etc. You can also take vitamin-rich foods like fish (especially, salmon), beans, etc.; these are naturally available sources of biotin. If you are not able to gain access to such natural sources, you can ask your doctor to prescribe needful supplements to boost the health of nails.