By Cliff Harvey ND, Dip.Fit, Ph.D. candidate in nutrition (AUT University)
Brittle nails that crack, split and bleed are at best an inconvenience and at worst can be painful and can affect self-esteem. Nail problems are a common concern for people, especially women. In fact, research shows that up to 50% of people have brittle nails. (1)
A range of nutrients are often prescribed for nail health, and many formulas have been developed to improve nail health, usually in combination with ingredients purported to aid the strength and vitality of the skin and hair. So, are these supplements and formulas effective?
Causes of brittle nails
Nail brittleness can be caused by physical trauma to the nail-bed, repeated wetting and drying, repeated exposure to detergents, and solvents (such as nail polish remover)
Some medical conditions can also cause brittle nails: hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), Raynaud’s disease, chronic lung conditions, skin diseases such as psoriasis, Sjogren’s syndrome and more. Because of these possibilities, it is always prudent to see your doctor to exclude any possible nasties, and if seeking secondary care for any sign, symptom or disorder (naturopathy, nutrition etc.), seek the advice of a properly qualified, registered practitioner.
Many nutrients play a role in preserving nail health and a relative deficiency in calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamin c, e and the b vitamins and many others could be contributing to poor nail health. That’s why the first step in improving health of ANY tissue, organ or system in the body is to eat a better diet overall, which includes lots of nutrient-dense whole foods, quality protein sources, plenty of healthy fats (like flax oil, hemp oil, olive oil, coconut oil, olive oil, butter and ghee).
Supplementation can help to cover these nutritional bases too, but most supplements have little or no evidence for their use in anything more than a supporting role for nail health. Some though have some exciting potential.
Supplementation with B vitamin biotin is likely to improve nail health for those with weak nails (but not further improve already healthy nails).(2) In a pilot study performed in Switzerland nail-plate thickness was increased by 25% with biotin supplementation.(3)
Silica is commonly used in nail formulas. Silica though is poorly absorbed, with different forms of silica varying in absorption rates between less than 1% and 50%. Orthosilicic acid is a highly absorbable (bioavailable) form of silica (side note: so is alcohol-free beer!)(4) and is the preferred form for supplemental use due to its high absorption rate.(5) Orthosilicic acid is also the only form that has substantial evidence that it actually improves nail (and hair and skin) health. In a study of 50 women, reported brittleness of nails was significantly improved after 20 weeks of orthosilicic acid supplementation vs placebo.(6)
- Improve your overall nutrient density
- Eat 6+ serves of vegetables per day
- Don’t be afraid of fat! Healthy fats provide essential fatty acids that are important for nail health and also aid the uptake of many of the micronutrients, especially the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Include a protein source at all meals. This doesn’t need to be a lot, just have some meat, fish, eggs, sprouted lentils, nuts or seeds or use a quality protein powder (such as Clean Lean Protein)
- Include a supplement that incorporates biotin and orthosilicic acid.(7) Use a broad-spectrum multi that includes whole-food based ingredients, the essential vitamins and minerals and includes the best form of silica (orthosilicic acid). Make sure that the product you use also includes the best forms of other vitamins and minerals (such as methylated folate—L5MTHF). You don’t want to have healthy nails at the expense of the rest of your body!
Note: One serve of Nuzest Good Green Stuff contains an effective dose of orthosilicic acid and biotin.
- Gequelim GC, Kubota CY, Sanches S, Dranka D, Mejia MM, Sumiya FM, et al. Perception of brittle nails in dermatologic patients: a cross-sectional study. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia. 2013;88(6):1022-5.
- Floersheim GL. [Treatment of brittle fingernails with biotin]. Zeitschrift fur Hautkrankheiten. 1989;64(1):41-8.
- Hochman LG, Scher RK, Meyerson MS. Brittle nails: response to daily biotin supplementation. Cutis. 1993;51(4):303-5.
- Sripanyakorn S, Jugdaohsingh R, Dissayabutr W, Anderson SHC, Thompson RPH, Powell JJ. The comparative absorption of silicon from different foods and food supplements. British Journal of Nutrition. 2009;102(06):825-34.
- Araújo LAd, Addor F, Campos PMBGM. Use of silicon for skin and hair care: an approach of chemical forms available and efficacy. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia. 2016;91:331-5.
- Barel A, Calomme M, Timchenko A, Paepe KD, Demeester N, Rogiers V, et al. Effect of oral intake of choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid on skin, nails and hair in women with photodamaged skin. Archives of Dermatological Research. 2005;297(4):147-53.
- Scheinfeld N, Dahdah MJ, Scher R. Vitamins and minerals: their role in nail health and disease. J Drugs Dermatol. 2007;6(8):782-7.