nails care healthy happy strong beauty

Get healthy, strong nails with these great tips from a naturopath

Do your nails split easily? Are they weak, brittle or hard to grow? Did you know that the appearance of your nails is a good indicator of your internal health? Naturopaths often use nail diagnosis as a tool to help identify nutritional imbalances in the body. They might not be absolute windows to your inner health, but they can certainly provide insights into possible underlying health conditions.

To improve the health and look of your nails you must first consider what you put in your mouth to ensure that you’re eating a wholesome, well-balanced diet, rich in nail-nourishing nutrients. The right foods, together with appropriate nutritional supplements — where needed — will give your nails the boost in vitamins, minerals and amino acids they need to grow strong and healthy, with the added bonus of benefiting the Health of your hair and skin, too.

Though somewhat paradoxical, it’s also apparent that using many commonly available nail-care products may actually damage nails and make them more unhealthy and unattractive-looking.

Silica is important for strong, healthy nails that won’t split.

Adopting healthy manicure methods is also important for protecting your nails, to reduce the risk of nail infections and breakages and to support your overall health.

Did you know?

Fingernails actually grow faster than toenails, at around 3mm per month. So, if you damage your fingernail, it’s going to take around six months for a new nail to grow from the root to the free edge. Toenails grow around 1mm per month and can take 12–18 months to grow out completely.

Things to avoid that damage nails

Don’t cut your cuticles

Leave your cuticles alone. They’re a natural protective barrier to bacteria and fungus. Cutting cuticles can make them look ragged, red and swollen, and it increases the likelihood of nail infections. A better option is to gently push your cuticles back.

Wear gloves

Whenever you immerse your hands in soapy, hot water or use harsh cleaning products, make sure you wear gloves to protect your hands and nails. Soaps and cleaning products are very drying and strip away the skin’s protective natural oils, leaving nails dry and damaged.

Don’t use your nails as a tool

Avoid using your nails as a tool to open things. Putting extra stress on your nails will weaken them, which can lead to breakages and risk bending a nail back.

Avoid toxic nail polish

Many women use nail polish regularly without realising they’re putting a cocktail of toxic chemicals on their nails, which could be damaging nails and putting their health at risk. Nail polish contains chemicals called endocrine disruptors, which have shown adverse effects at even very low doses. The effects are even greater for pregnant women and young children. If you are pregnant, you should avoid toxic nail polishes all together.

Among the three main toxic chemicals found in nail polish is dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which has been found in animal studies to cause birth defects and damage to the testes, prostate and penis. This toxic compound has been found in highest levels in women of childbearing age, according to a 2000 Environmental Working Group study. Toluene, the second of the toxic three, is linked to anaemia, liver or kidney damage and lowered blood-cell count, and may damage a developing foetus. Finally, formaldehyde is a known carcinogenic substance associated with leukaemia as well as being an eye, skin and respiratory irritant.

A good habit to get into is applying a natural hand lotion after you wash your hands. This will help prevent skin and nail dryness.

A healthy alternative if you like to paint your nails is to buy a chemical-free eco-friendly nail polish, like 3-free polishes, or the newer generation of 5-free polishes, which are also free from the chemicals formaldehyde resin and camphor. Try not to wear nail polish all the time, though, as it can be drying, making your nails weak and less flexible. Instead of applying polish, just file your nails and give them a gentle buff to make them look healthy and shiny.

Limit salon manicures & pedicures

According to a study by Stern and colleagues at Mt Sinai Hospital in the US, those who have regular manicures and pedicures are more likely to suffer from dry, brittle nails. Nail infections are more common, too, and you’re also exposing yourself to toxic chemicals. If you enjoy going to the salon, ask for a simple manicure and pedicure. Have your nails filed, lightly buffed and cuticles pushed back, not cut. Take your own chemical-free polish to the salon with you. Avoid putting your hands under the UV light dryers as they can increase your risk of skin cancer.

Avoid acrylic nails

Wearing acrylic nails will end up weakening and damaging your nails, along with increasing the risk of nail infections.

Avoid acetone-based nail polish removers

Only use acetone-free nail polish removers, as acetone strips your nails and makes them dry, brittle and unhealthy.

Recognise signs of infection

If you have any nail redness, swelling or pain, or if the surrounding tissues are inflamed, you may have a nail infection, which will require treatment. Follow the natural self-help tips in this article and, if symptoms don’t improve, see your doctor.

Tips for healthier nails

Moisturise your cuticles

Using a cuticle balm daily is a great way to nourish dry cuticles and improve brittle and damaged nails. This will also help prevent hangnails, those annoying and often painful torn pieces of skin at the root of your fingernail. You can also rub natural oils like coconut, jojoba or almond oil into your cuticles to keep them well hydrated and healthy. Massage the cuticle balm into your nails around the nail bed every morning and night. Massaging will also increase circulation and blood flow to the area, which will improve the delivery of nutrients to your nail bed, helping your nails grow strong and long.

Leave your cuticles alone. They’re a natural protective barrier to bacteria and fungi.

It’s easy to make your own cuticle balm. Simply place three tablespoons of shea butter, three tablespoons of cocoa butter, one tablespoon of beeswax and the contents of four vitamin E capsules into a medium jar. Place the jar in a small saucepan quarter-filled with water and bring to the boil. Mix ingredients together until they are well combined. Pour the balm into smaller containers and allow to set. You can also add around 20 drops of your favourite essential oil after you take it off the heat. Calendula essential oil would make a nice addition, as it’s healing with natural antiseptic properties to help prevent infections.

Apply a hand lotion

A good habit to get into is applying a natural hand lotion after you wash your hands. This will help prevent skin and nail dryness. Make sure you buy a natural handwash, too, that won’t be as drying.

Use a smooth emery board

Avoid using rough emery boards that are too harsh for nails and can cause small tears. To avoid breakages, use a fine, smooth file and file slowly in one direction, from the outside edge in towards the centre of your nail. Sawing nails back and forth can weaken them and increase the chances of breakages.

Don’t forget your toes

Your toenails deserve the same attention as your fingernails. Often stuck in shoes all day, toenails are a prime target for fungal infections. Make sure you cut your toenails straight across and give them a file and buff. Don’t dig under your nails as this will increase the risk of ingrown toenails.

Trouble-shooting common concerns

Ridged nails

Ridges that go vertically up and down the nail are more common and become more evident as we age. Traditionally, naturopaths see vertical nail ridges as a sign of mineral or protein deficiency from having poor digestion. Without a good supply of amino acids and minerals in the diet, which are the building blocks to grow strong nails, ridges can form. Vertical ridges can also be caused if the nails have been injured, if you have had an illness or fever, or if you suffer from eczema.

Horizontal ridges can also be caused by nutrition deficiencies; however, sometimes they may indicate that you have a more serious underlying health problem such as diabetes, kidney or liver disease, or a circulatory disease. See your doctor if your horizontal lines persist.

A single ridge down the centre of your nail can indicate an iron or folic acid deficiency, or it may be a sign that your diet is lacking in protein.

Discoloured nails

If your nails are a yellow or greenish colour, this is a sign of a bacterial infection that affects the nail bed, called pseudomonas. Fungal infections are a common cause of discoloured nails. Other symptoms associated with nail fungal infections include thickening and flaking of nails (due to the fungus breaking down the nail), and an unpleasant odour. Fungus thrives in damp, dark environments, so fungal infections usually develop on toenails continually exposed to warm, moist environments like sweaty shoes or shower floors. Try to air your feet and keep them dry as much as possible.

Yellow nails may also be an indication of a serious underlying condition such as liver, kidney or heart disease or diabetes. Smoking or constantly wearing nail polish will also cause yellowed fingernails. Soaking your nails in lemon juice, which has a mild bleaching effect, can help reduce yellowing.

On the other hand, if you’ve knocked or injured your nail, or have an ingrown toenail, blood can collect under your nail and result in a red or black nail.

Nails can also appear a white or pale colour due to a protein deficiency or anaemia. If there has been some separation from the nail bed, your nail will also appear white.

There’s a number of natural remedies you’ll find in your kitchen that can effectively treat fungal infections. Try soaking your toenails in one part apple cider vinegar and one part water for 15 minutes, a couple of times a day. Apple cider vinegar can help inhibit fungal growth. Tea-tree oil is a powerful anti-fungal and is useful for treating fungal nail infections. Rubbing a drop of tea-tree oil into your nails daily can help clear up nail infections.

Weak nails that break & split easily

Nails naturally become weaker as you age, but if your nails are soft and weak and tend to break easily, this can be a sign that you are deficient in iron. “Spoon nails”, where the edges of your nails are raised, is also associated with low iron levels.

Nails can also become weak from using harsh detergents like dishwashing liquid or bleach. Dry nails are more prone to breakage.

Your nails can become drier in winter, too, or may dry out from using nail polish regularly. Drinking around two litres of water daily is an important way to keep nails and cuticles well hydrated, to prevent nail and skin dryness.

Top nail nourishing nutrients


This important mineral is needed to maintain the structural integrity of your nails. Zinc is also required for a strongly functioning immune system to fight off infections, including nail infections. The best sources of zinc are grass-fed meat, seafood, chicken, eggs, pepitas, sunflower seeds, nuts, raw cacao and tahini. Supplementing with 50mg of elemental zinc daily is also recommended for anyone who is deficient in this important mineral.

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 essential fatty acids, found in high levels in oily fish, are needed for the body to grow strong, healthy nails. These beneficial fats help nourish and moisturise your nails. A deficiency in omega-3 fats can cause brittle nails that split easily and are slow to grow. They also help to promote healthy nails by reducing inflammation within your nail bed. Plant sources of omega-3s include flax and chia seeds, walnuts and dark-green leafy vegetables.


This vital nail nutrient is needed to make connective tissue in the body, including nails, hair and skin. Silica is important for strong, healthy nails that won’t split. Good sources of silica include oats, banana, leeks, green beans, brown rice, strawberries, asparagus and rhubarb. The herb horsetail is also rich in silica.


Including iron-rich foods in the diet, such as red meat, fish, lentils, eggs and green leafy vegetables, will help prevent low iron levels and will enhance the health of your nails. Supplementing with spirulina or barley and wheat grass is also a great way to boost your iron levels. If you have been tested low in iron you should also take an organic iron supplement to boost your levels.


Including good-quality protein in your diet will ensure that your body has the raw ingredients to produce keratin, the protein our nails are made of. Nutritious protein-rich foods include nuts, seeds, red meat, fish, organic chicken and eggs, yoghurt and legumes.

B vitamins

If your diet is lacking in B vitamins, your nails will start to suffer. They can become weak and start splitting, and ridges can start to appear. A deficiency in vitamin B12 can also cause the white moons on your nails to disappear. Taking a good-quality B-complex vitamin is a great way to support healthy nail growth, to harden the nail plate and prevent ridging and splitting. The best sources of B vitamins include legumes, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, red meat, fish, dairy and eggs.

Biotin, also called vitamin H or vitamin B7, is a member of the B family that is particularly important for increasing nail thickness and for preventing nail breakages and splitting. Supplementing with biotin at a dosage of 2.5mg a day can help make your nails thick and strong. Egg yolks, whole grains, cauliflower and avocado are all great sources of biotin.


Known as nature’s “Beauty mineral”, sulphur is vital for making collagen in skin and keratin in your nails. Sulphur is most abundant in egg yolks, poultry, grass-fed meat, fish, garlic, onion and brassica vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage). Sulphur can also be taken as a dietary supplement, MSM (methyl-sulphonyl-methane), at a dosage of around 2000–6000mg daily. Start off on a smaller dosage and work your way up. A study conducted by Ronald M Lawrence, MD, MSM: Increased Hair Growth, Nail Length and Nail Thickness, showed that individuals taking MSM daily for six weeks had significant improvement in their nail health, with increased nail length, strength and nail thickness compared to placebo.

Lisa Guy

Lisa Guy

Lisa Guy is a respected Sydney-based naturopath, author and passionate foodie with 16 years of clinical experience. She runs a naturopathic clinic in Rose Bay called Art of Healing and is the founder of Bodhi Organic Tea.

Lisa is a great believer that good wholesome food is one of the greatest pleasures in life and the foundation of good health. Lisa encourages her clients to get back to eating what nature intended: good, clean, wholesome food that’s nutrient-rich and free from high levels of sugars, harmful fats, artificial additives and pesticides. Her aim is to change the way people eat, cook and think about food.

Lisa is an avid health writer, being a regular contributor to The Sunday Telegraph's Body and Soul, and leading magazines including WellBeing. Lisa is an author of five books to date, including My Goodness: all you need to know about children’s health and nutrition , Pregnancy Essentials, Heal Yourself, Listen to your Body and Healthy Skin Diet .

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