Reader GW asks: “What can I do to stop or prevent nails from splitting? Is the old remedy of gelatin just a myth?”
According to dermatology experts, nails can split for a variety of reasons. Nutritionally, protein may be the most critical for strong nails. Amino acids from foods such as fish, chicken, soy, beans, eggs, yogurt and numerous other foods provide the material to make keratin, the tough protein fiber from which our nails are made.
Another nutrient, vitamin D, regulates the production of these fibers, according to the Micronutrient Information Center at Oregon State University. If you have a low level of vitamin D, your nails might suffer.
Like our skin, our nails can become dry and brittle if they fail to get adequate moisture. Drinking water and other fluids helps this process from the inside; using moisturizers and wearing gloves when appropriate can protect our nails on the outside.
Our nails and skin need some fat, too, to stay moist and supple. Essential fats — those that must be provided in our diet — are found in nuts and seeds, vegetable oils and fish. An inadequate intake of essential fats results in dry skin and nails, say experts.
Iron deficiency can also cause nails to become dry and brittle. Low levels of iron can cause nails to curve like the inside of a spoon. This condition is called “koilonychia” or “spoon nails.”
Some research suggests that the vitamin biotin may help strengthen weak or brittle fingernails. We generally need about 30 milligrams of biotin a day for optimal health. A few small studies used daily doses of 2500 milligrams for six months or more. Good sources of biotin include avocados, eggs and liver.
By the way, in case you are wondering, our fingernails tend to get thinner as we age; our toenails get thicker. And our fingernails naturally grow faster than our toenails.
Gelatin is indeed an old remedy, harking back to the 1950s. Gelatin is actually collagen, a protein substance found in the bones, skin and connective tissue of animals. It’s not a complete protein, however, so gelatin as the sole therapy for building strong nails would be like trying to build a house without nails. Historically, according to the Knox gelatine folks and other sources, using their product for strengthening nails was a great American advertising success, not particularly based on tried and true science.
In short, the old advice holds true: Eat a balanced diet from all the major nutrient groups to assure your nails stay strong. A deficiency of any nutrient can affect the growth of our nails in some way, say experts.
And wear gloves when you wash the dishes.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at email@example.com