In the West, there is a general acknowledgment that the appearance of one’s nails can reflect the state of one’s health, but in many Eastern medical traditions the nails are used quite directly in the diagnosis. Despite their role as protective shields for the fingertips, nails are actually more sensitive to internal and external conditions than one might imagine.

If you have thought of them primarily as canvases for the display of interesting colors of nail varnish, the following may surprise you — and perhaps lead you to keep them unpainted from time to time, so you can read them for clues.

First, some basic facts: Nails, like hair, are made of the protein keratin. The visible part of the nail is called a nail plate. The skin underneath the nail plate, which contains elastic fibers that hold the nail firmly in place, is called the nail bed; in the lower part of the nail bed is the matrix from which the nail cells divide, causing the nail plate to grow.

Though living cells produce the nail plate and cause it to grow, the nail itself — like the hair — is not alive. Our lunula, the half-moons visible in our fingernails, are actually the uppermost portion of the matrix, the rest of which is very thin and lies unseen beneath the skin. The skin at the base of the nail, which manicurists like to push back, moisturize and sometimes trim, is the cuticle. Fingernails grow about 5 cm per year, or twice as fast as the toenails.

In a general way, we know that a diet low in protein and minerals will often result in sickly looking hair and nails. Brittle, weak, splitting nails or nails which are discolored or ridged can sometimes be a cause for worry, reflecting poor diet and poor health. Infections, poor circulation and glandular disturbances may also be reflected in the condition of the nails.

A hard-drinking, hard-smoking friend, whose diet was dangerously high in cholesterol, tells me that the first sign of damage to his health had come via his fingernails.

He is one of those high-energy people who looks healthy no matter what, even on two hours of sleep. He doesn’t exercise. Because he looks so fit, he has always considered himself invincible. One day, however, a friend noticed his opaque, waxy-looking fingernails and exclaimed in alarm, “You’re not well!” In fact, he wasn’t, though he still felt all right. The body has many means of transmitting clues about its condition, if one knows how to interpret them.

In the Ayurvedic system of Indian medicine, nail analysis plays a part in the classification of an individual within one of the three main constitutional categories: Vata, Pitta or Kapha. A homeopath will sometimes take the nails into account as well, when attempting to determine a patient’s basic type. Traditional Chinese medicine takes into account the color of the nails since the health of the blood that circulates in the nail bed is thought to be reflected in the nails’ color.

A healthy nail color is pinkish red. Nails that are purple are thought to indicate a state of general weakness and low resistance, while nails of dark red may accompany a diet high in fats and cholesterols, and a stagnant vital energy circulation. White nails may suggest poor circulation and anemia. Other conditions that a practitioner of Oriental medicine might take into account include the presence of white spots in the nails; hangnails or split nails; horizontal indentations in the nails; vertical ridges; and hard, thick, malformed or discolored nails. More specifically, each finger and fingernail is associated with particular internal organs and meridians. The thumbnail, for example, is associated with the lungs, while the nail and tip of the little finger are linked with both the heart and the small intestine.

To keep your nails in good condition requires not only a nutritious diet and good general health, but sensible external care as well.

File your nails carefully and gently, moving in one direction only. Keep them trimmed so they’re not too long; long nails are more likely to break, and the longer a nail is, the weaker it is. Rub a good moisturizer or oil into the nails and cuticles regularly, and your nails should soon reward you with smooth, glowing beauty. If you use nail polish, give the nails frequent breaks from it.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.