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Best Vitamins for Strong, Healthy Nails

Best Vitamins for Strong, Healthy Nails

Did you know that your nails are an appendage of the skin composed of living cells reinforced by a rigid, filamentous protein called keratin? Well, now you do. Other filament-associated proteins used in your nails include trichohyalin and proteins that are high in tyrosine, glycine and sulphur-containing amino acid subunits. Your nails are also composed of several minerals, including iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, calcium and sodium.

If the eyes are the window to the soul, so the nails are the window to the body. The condition of your finger and toenails can often reveal warning signs of serious systemic diseases such as anemia, hepatitis or lung disease. Also, apparently, every nutritional deficiency is reflected in the growth of your nails1. This applies equally to both men and women.

What you can expect to learn from reading this article

We list some foods to avoid if you want healthy nails; we tell you how diseases and deficiencies can show up as changes in previously healthy nails. We ask the doctors and the real experts on healthy, beautiful nails, the supermodels, what foods you should be eating and what dietary supplements you can take to keep your nails strong and healthy. Yeah, guys, the supermodels are last. We want you to read the entire article.

Nails and disease

  • Brittle nails or longitudinal lines are a possible sign of prolonged exposure to methyl mercury, one of the most toxic compounds known to man. Chronic exposure to mercury has been demonstrated to cause subclinical dysfunction in the central nervous system2.
  • A bluish tint to the nails can signal insufficient oxygen levels. If you spot this on your own nails or those of a person around you, a visit to the doctor is probably on the cards.
  • Pale, whitish nail beds could indicate anemia.
  • Thin, concave nails with raised edges could mean an iron deficiency.
  • Eighty percent of individuals with serious liver disease have Terry nails. These occur in hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver failure. Since liver disease may be quite advanced before the patient detects any symptoms, the appearance of Terry nails could be an early signal for diagnosis. Terry nails are also seen in diabetes mellitus, kidney failure or congestive heart failure.

For a more thorough and graphic description of how the nails can herald disease, visit this slide show at WebMd. The Cashman and Sloan article referenced herein also contains a lot of information on this topic.

Nails and nutrition

Foods to eat for healthy nails

We mentioned previously that sulphur was an important contributor to nail structure. In fact, it is the sulphur-containing amino acids, cysteine and methionine, that give the nail its strength. Foods that are high in sulphur are onions, garlic and shallots.

Contrary to what many people believe, calcium makes up only 0.2% of the nail plate by weight and makes no contribution to the hardness of your nails. This is not to say you should eliminate calcium from your diet, just don’t kid yourself that the chocolate milkshake you had at lunch time is doing anything to build the strength of your nails.

So what should you eat for healthy nails? Omega-3 fatty acids, found in nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish. Between 2 and 3 grams of supplemental fish oil a day would be ideal. One fat that is particularly hard to get in the diet is GLA. It is found in blackcurrant oil and evening primrose oil supplements. These are easy to find in natural food stores. For women, especially, it can improve the appearance of nails, hair and skin3.

According to Dr Ava Shamban, protein is an important component of a diet for healthy nails. This makes perfect sense, since keratin, trichohyalin and sulphur-containing amino acids are an important part of nail structure. Eat lean beef, pork, poultry and fish (the mercury-safe varieties, obviously) in addition to spinach, tofu, lentils and other vegetables that contain lots of protein.

Foods to avoid for healthy nails

We mentioned earlier that mercury poisoning shows up in your nails. High levels of mercury are found in certain kinds of fish (swordfish, mackerel and certain varieties of tuna). According to the FDA, canned tuna, salmon and shrimp are low in mercury. Sushi lovers, be careful.

Eating too much sugar is bad for your nails. This is hardly surprising, too much sugar is bad for a lot of reasons. Elevated blood sugar raises the levels of the male hormone, androgen. Androgen shrinks the hair follicles in women and in men.

Vitamins and supplements for healthy nails

It took some serious detective work to identify the best nutrients for healthy nails. What we found is that just because a particular vitamin or mineral is present in the nails, this does not mean it is an essential nutrient for healthy nails. For example, elevated levels of copper in the nails has been linked with both autism and Wilson’s disease4.

One of the few vitamins for healthy nails that the experts agree on is biotin (vitamin B). This view is supported by Dr Jessica Wu, author of “Feed Your Face,” and Deborah Lippman, founder of the luxury company

A deficiency of Vitamin A can manifest itself in the form of broken fingernails as well as dry skin and hair5.

Selenium is a trace mineral that’s essential for nail health. An easy way to incorporate sufficient selenium in the diet, and one that is easy to remember, is to consume four Brazil nuts each day. Diets high in refined or processed foods can reduce selenium intake, as can the usage of anti-inflammatory drugs. Insufficient selenium may be reflected in nails where much of the nail bed, the skin underneath the actual nail, is mostly white, although there may be a pink area toward the distal end of the nail.

Magnesium deficiency may cause you to have nails that split or break easily.

Zinc and iron are both necessary for building keratin, so deficiencies in these minerals can cause problems with nails.

What does all this mean for you?

Nails are a good reflection of your general state of wellness. If they are strong, unblemished and have a natural shine, then you are probably getting everything you need from your diet and any supplements you may be taking. Baby Boomers and their parents need not panic over slight longitudinal ridges; these are a natural consequence of aging.

If your nails are brittle and not as strong as you would like, it is likely that you are the victim of unlucky genes. Drinking plenty of water is also important for keeping nails hydrated. A water content of less than 16% can cause brittle nails, while water content in excess of 25% can make nails too soft.

Watch out for hidden sugar in products like soy milk. Soy is not naturally sweet, so to make the milk palatable, it is often loaded with cane sugar. Supermodel Sophie Dahl recommends using a brand that has either no sugar or is sweetened with fruit juice or brown rice syrup (Gents, we did promise you a supermodel).

And finally make sure you get enough biotin, vitamin A, selenium, magnesium, zinc and iron by taking a high-quality multivitamin on a daily basis. If you need a recommendation, check out our comparison of over 100 multivitamins.



1Cashman MW and Sloan SB “Nutrition and nail disease.” Clinics in Dermatology. 2010.

2Al-Batonony AM, et al, “Occupational Exposure to Mercury among Workers in a Fluorescent Lamp Factory, Quisna Industrial Zone, Egypt.” International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2013.

3Dr Andrew Weil, The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, speaking for

4Priya MDL and Geetha A, “Levels of Trace Elements (Copper, Zinc, Magnesium and Selenium) and toxic elements (Lead and Mercury) in the Hair and Nail of children with Autism.”

5Apostolos Pappas, “The Relationship of Diet and Acne: A Review.” Dermato-Endocrinology. 2009.

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