6 Signs Your Fingernails Are Telling You Something About Your Health
- Published on: 04 January, 2016
- Last update: 29 May, 2020
Oh, the human body! Sometimes I sit back in amazement at how cleverly we are designed (and how well we can adapt to almost anything that comes our way). While studying the body through an ‘alternative’ or traditional lens, I have learned (and seen in myself) that there are many external ‘clues’ that can serve as a guide to our internal health.
Nail health is something I’ve paid close attention to ever since I began learning about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). What I love most about TCM is that it teaches you how to play a detective role in your own health by looking for key signs and signals from your body – whether that’s through your tongue, eyes, skin, or of course… your nails. (If this sounds cool to you, click on tongue and skin to learn what they mean too!)
The same way dark circles under your eyes can show that you’ve had a rough night of sleep, your body speaks in a vast number of ways.
As stated by one of the greatest Chinese medical texts, “if something happens in the interior of the body, it must be reflected in the exterior of the body.” By paying attention to subtle changes in your appearance, you can pinpoint exactly which areas of the body need work and how to support them. And no, you don’t need to be an expert to do this! You simply need to know what to look for.
UNDERSTANDING THAT NAILS = LIVER MERIDIAN
The reason I love studying the nails in particular is because in a broader sense, nails are the part of the body where the “liver” meridian is expressed (along with the eyes).
When someone is experiencing jaundice (a sign of liver disease or bile duct obstruction), the whites of the eyes will alert you by turning yellow. I find it interesting that conventional medicine acknowledges this form of an exterior ‘sign’ of interior health, but has yet to embrace or even examine the many other areas that ancient medicine systems know reflect our inner terrain.
Because both the eyes and nails are connected to the liver, when the nails turn yellow, the same organ/meridian is asking for help! The condition may not be as dire as jaundice, but it is an important signal nonetheless that the liver needs support (whether due to an infection or an autoimmune disease). To read more about the cause and solution for yellow fingernails, check out another blog post from this series here.
Another reason I’m so fascinated with the liver is because it’s the number one meridian affected in Americans due to our diet and lifestyle. I’ve written before (click here) about the epidemic of a TCM pattern called “Liver Qi Stagnation,” which may explain why we tend to have so much road rage! I highly suggest reading that post so you can truly understand the huge role of the “liver” in TCM terms, which is so much different from the detoxification functions we exclusively associate with it when coming from Western anatomy. You see, in TCM theory, the “liver” meridian “stores” and distributes blood, is responsible for the smooth flow of blood, hormones, and emotions (Qi), nourishes the eyes, tendons, and nails, and controls our ability to plan and make decisions. So when the liver is stagnant due to stress, alcohol, poor diet, fried foods, drugs/stimulants, etc., we no longer experience the smooth flow of hormones or blood (hello menstrual cramps), and tend to get frustrated and angry easily as the liver governs emotions such as anger.
Ayurvedic Medicine, which originated even earlier than TCM in Ancient India, is also well known for nail assessments. Instead of focusing on the liver meridian, areas of imbalance that Ayurveda looks for in the nails include bone health, malabsorption, inflammation, parasites, digestive issues, and more. I give the same disclaimer here that I give in my tongue posts: this does not mean anything is “wrong” with you and is not meant to diagnose disease. It’s simply giving you a picture of where you may be prone to imbalance (which allows you to make tailored changes to your daily health regimen, such as drinking specific teas or avoiding certain food allergens that encourage inflammation).
THE TOP 6 NAIL SIGNS & WHAT THEY MEAN FOR YOUR HEALTH
1. Absence of Moons (Lunulas)
According to Ayurvedic Medicine, the lunula represents one’s “agni” or “fire” within the body. This is right in line with Traditional Chinese Medicine, which views these lunulas as a representation of one’s “Qi,” also known as energy, metabolism, etc. Essentially, Qi and agni are the exact same thing (energy/vigor/life force), which to me is beautiful because both systems discovered the same innate energy that drives us and our bodily functions.
When you look at it this way, it can be understood that strong, white moons at the base of each nail indicate strong “Qi” or “fire”: strong digestion, solid immunity, a sharp/energetic mind, a fiery metabolism and a healthy thyroid gland. The more energetic a person is, the whiter (and more present) their moons will be. The fewer moons a person has on their nails, the more like likely they are to feel tired and suffer from poor immunity.
It’s normal for the pinky nail to have a small or absent moon, but if you find that moons are absent across most of all of your fingers, it’s a sign that you may need to support this inner fire that governs your digestion, energy and metabolism. I have so many tips to help you do this, plus a full post dedicated to expanding upon the root causes of low or absent lunulas.
You can find that post HERE, where you’ll learn how to strengthen your digestive fire, how to reduce “food stagnation” (gas/bloating and heaviness), and how to supercharge your immune system.
2. White Spots
The official term for these spots is leukonychia, derived from the Greek words leuko (“white”) and nychia (“nails”). White spots on the nails are very common, mainly due to the fact that more and more people are becoming deficient in minerals such as magnesium, selenium, and zinc.
Many websites state that the association between white spots and zinc deficiency is merely a myth, however this 2015 study successfully treated total leukonychia (where the entire nail turns white) with zinc and amino acid supplementation. Why amino acids along with the zinc, you may ask? In my eyes it makes perfect sense: zinc deficiency leads to chronically low stomach acid. Low stomach acid means you can’t break down and extract the amino acids within the protein you eat. As your zinc levels are replenished, your HCL will increase and you can begin properly digesting protein once again.
While I knew about the zinc connection, I was shocked to learn while researching for this post that leukonychia is also heavily associated with autoimmune disorders. This interesting study found that skin diseases were the most common trigger for white spots on the nails, with 41% of subjects’ leukonychia being linked to either psoriasis (31%) or alopecia aerata (10%). This is further supported by this study, which examined a 36-year-old man with long-standing alopecia areata who also experienced pitted nails and leukonychia. They found that what was happening to his nails was the same thing that was happening to his head: parakeratosis! The manifestation may have been different, but the root mechanism was the same. This is why I believe in treating the body as a whole.
If you want to learn more about white spots, zinc deficiency, and the connection between zinc and autoimmune disease, I have a full post expanding on this topic HERE. You’ll learn all about key nutrient deficiencies implicated in autoimmunity and the best way to correct them for healthy nails and skin!
3. Vertical Lines/Ridges
Vertical lines on the nails are extremely common, and often seen as a normal sign of aging. But what happens if you start seeing these changes when you’re young? Is there something deeper going on?
My personal thought process here is that as you age, the efficiency of your blood circulation (especially peripheral circulation to the hands and feet) decreases. This means far less nutrients and oxygen are delivered to the nail, causing the loss of a smooth, hydrated surface (perhaps combined with increased brittleness). If this is happening before your time, the answer may be quite simple:
- let’s increase the amount of nutrients you’re taking in,
- let’s support digestion so those nutrients can actually be absorbed, and
- let’s improve circulation so those nutrients can get to the nail where they belong.
Young or old, you want your circulation and digestion to be strong so that your blood can bring nutrients to every nook and cranny of your body. The very first step needed to correct this imbalance and strengthen your digestion from a TCM standpoint is the daily intake of ginger tea. Eating or drinking ginger stokes your digestive fire/”Spleen Qi” and improves the absorption and assimilation of all essential nutrients in the body. If circulation is your issue rather than digestion, try one of my favorite herbs: Ginkgo Biloba. It’s one of the major herbs in my new tincture blend, Brain Juice. Ginkgo enhances overall health by improving circulation and oxygen metabolism , by preventing cell damage by free radicals , and by reducing blood clotting. Because of this, fresh ginkgo leaf is one the best treatments known to the herbal world for inadequate blood flow caused by weakened blood vessels or impaired circulation.
If you deal with vertical lines or ridges on your nails, click HERE to read my full post on this sign and learn how to boost both digestion and circulation.
4. Pale Nails
In TCM, pale nails are said to be caused by “blood deficiency,” which isn’t always identical to anemia but certainly can be. If for any reason you become what they consider “deficient in blood,” either due to blood loss or poor red blood cell production (hello low iron and b12), the liver meridian is not able to properly regulate blood flow. This pattern of disharmony not only presents itself as pale nails, but also can include symptoms such as hair loss, dry skin, dry eyes, and brittle nails. In women, the most telltale sign would be scanty periods that feel incomplete and end too quickly.
Common causes of “blood deficiency” include:
- Iron or B12 deficiency (anemia)
- Restrictive diets, fad diets, or prolonged calorie restriction
- Not eating enough for your needs or frequently skipping meals
- Poor diet (junk food) or a lack of “blood-forming” foods in the diet (such as red meat and warming, nourishing carbohydrates such as sweet potato or pumpkin)
- Emotional stress (worry, anxiety, overthinking)
- Excessive physical exercise or work (the liver needs rest to build up blood reserves)
- Blood loss (trauma, childbirth, chronic heavy menstruation
- Excessive drinking/drug use
The good news is that “blood deficiency” is simply a pattern that practitioners look for and not a disease. Just like its most common cause (iron deficiency), it can be easily corrected with proper habits, nutrition and supplementation if necessary.
I have a ton of information detailing exactly how to correct this deficiency in my full post on the topic of pale nails. Click HERE to learn all about blood-building foods, herbs, and lifestyle habits!
5. Yellow Fingernails (with or without lifting)
Nail polish (specifically darker, richer shades) is the most common culprit when fingernails turn yellow, especially when it’s affecting the entire nail from top to bottom. Always make sure you’re using a clear base polish first to add a layer of protection between your fingernails and the colored polish. Consider taking a break from polish in general until the discoloration subsides.
If this is not the cause and you find your nails are continually getting worse even when abstaining from polish, there are two possibilities you’ll want to explore. The first is nail fungus, which is often accompanied by a progressive distortion/deterioration in nail shape and even a foul odor as the infection progresses.
The second is nail psoriasis, which involves the nails detaching or lifting from the nail bed rather than a distortion of shape. You’ll notice a chalky white buildup right where the nail is lifting due to hyperkeratosis (an overproduction of keratin, most likely prompted by the underlying inflammation present in autoimmune disorders). There will also be pain present when the nail is lifting due to psoriasis, which doesn’t usually happen in the case of nail fungus.
If you’re experiencing yellow fingernails, click HERE to read my full post and learn how to tell the difference between fungus and psoriasis (plus how to treat each condition and protect your nails!)
6. Horizontal Ridges or Grooves
These horizontal lines or ridges are called “Beau’s lines,” named after the French physician Joseph Honoré Simon Beau who first described and researched these grooves in 1846.
The most common causes of Beau’s lines vary greatly and can include:
- direct injury to the nail matrix
- inflammatory/autoimmune conditions that can affect the nails such as psoriasis
- infection in or around the nail plate
- nutritional deficiencies
- illnesses that are accompanies by high fever (this is sort of the ‘mark’ it can leave behind)
- metabolic conditions
- certain drugs (especially chemotherapy)
- diminished blood flow to the fingers (often seen in those with Raynaud’s)
Unfortunately, Beau’s lines are among the least specific nail signs one can encounter, and may be caused by any disease severe enough to disrupt normal nail synthesis. When the body is battling a difficult ailment, it presses “pause” on bodily functions that are not necessary for healing or survival – including nail growth!
However, there are still some clues you can look at to pinpoint the cause, for example: the width of the line is usually a good indicator of the given ailment’s duration. Likewise, measuring the distance from the line to where the nail bed begins can give you an approximate time frame of when the ailment or insult may have occurred. Fingernails take about 6 months to regrow completely, so if you see a Beau’s line halfway up the nail it means that the problem occurred about 3 months ago.
To learn all about the nutritional deficiencies and ailments that can contribute to Beau’s lines, click HERE to read my full article on these horizontal grooves.
I hope you found this article helpful! Thank you so much for reading and feel free to leave any questions below in the comments.