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Finger- and Toe-Nails and Health

Man and wife hands

It has been brought home to me, during the course of my own recovery, just how much the condition of the fingernails and toenails reflect the overall health of the body. We often overlook this early warning sign and window on our internal health, but it can reveal a lot - if you know what to look for!

The nails are a peripheral body part and are involved in the excretion of excessive nutrients and toxins and so, like hair, they catalogue our recent history and toxin exposure.

The average adult nail takes approximately 6 months to grow, so any defects in the nail can be dated with, for example, a mark half way up the nail revealing a health event 3 months previously. The shape of the nails can also change with health status and is an indicator of the long-term health condition.


The colour of the nails

Ideally, healthy nails should be pinkish red and a return to this colour after a period of illness shows a positive general improvement.

If the nails are reddish purple, then according to the dictates of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) this may indicate excessive consumption of dairy products, sugar, fruits, fatty foods and/or pharmaceutical or recreational drugs. This purplish colour can be found when the digestion, circulation and elimination channels are under stress. Reddish-purple nails may be found in association with conditions such as insomnia, constipation, diarrhoea, fatigue and depression.

Dark red nails indicate overconsumption of fatty foods, meat, dairy and/or salt and indicate that the heart, circulation and/or kidneys are under stress and that the liver and gall bladder may be under-functioning. 

Pale nails are an indication of poor circulation and may indicate underlying anaemia. This is fairly common in menstruating women and may be indicated by fatigue and is caused by a lack of iron, vitamin B12 and/or folic acid. A lack of iron can also lead to the development of spoon- or spade-shaped nails (koilonychia).

Swelling of the fingertips under the nail beds, referred to as 'clubbing' can also cause pale nails and can be an indicator of an underlying heart or lung problem affecting blood flow to the finger tips. According to TCM, this can be caused by an excessive intake of flour, fruit and/or sugar. It can also indicate fat and mucous accumulation around the internal organs, problems with the testes or ovaries and possibly leukaemia or cancer.

A blow to the nail can cause purplish-black discolouration and if very painful a doctor can burn a small hole in the nail so that the blood can escape. Blood will pool under the nail, separating it from the finger and the nail will part company with the finger as it grows.



The white half-moons at the base of the nails show the degree of activity of the metabolism with little or no half-moon indicating a slow metabolism and perhaps an under-active thyroid gland. Most people usually have half-moons during their childhood and youth, but these can diminish with advancing years and disappear completely in old age. They can also reappear with effective detoxification!


Marks on the nails

If there is one white spot then this may indicate direct trauma to the nail bed when the nail was developing.

Many also claim that one or two white marks can be an indicator of zinc deficiency.

However, heavy metals in circulation also show in the nails as white marks or bands (known as Mees' lines) and if there are multiple or frequent white flecks or bands - this is the most likely cause. These frequently appear with effective detoxification as heavy metals such as mercury are drawn into circulation from storage in various organs.

According to TCM, white marks can also indicate an excessive intake of sugar, alcohol and/or chocolate.

Brown marks which appear like splinters are signs of haemorrhage from a tiny blood vessel. This may be due to a knock or more rarely to infection of the heart valve(s), kidneys or lungs.


Ridging and pitting of the nails

The deep horizontal ridging of the nails known as Beau’s lines is due to a temporary stoppage of nail growth. It can be a sign of zinc deficiency, a significant dietary change, stress, a serious illness or infection, a heart attack or anorexia. The event can be dated with respect to nail growth and will grow out with the nail. 

The formation of vertical ridging of the nails is said to be due to excessive consumption of carbohydrates and/or a lack of protein and too much salt. The digestive system, liver and kidney are frequently underactive and this may also be accompanied by fatigue.

Pitting can be due to nail trauma, but if present on several nails may be associated with conditions such as psoriasis, atopic eczema, alopecia areata or an autoimmune disease.


Thickened nails

Thickened nails are most commonly associated with some sort of fungal infection, which may be the same yeast that causes athlete's foot or Candida albicans. The nails may yellow and start to come away from the underlying skin. Applying Tea tree oil or lemongrass oil topically may help, but addressing the underlying cause of the yeast infection (which is often mercury toxicity) is critical to long-term well being too. Thickened nails are also said to indicate excessive protein or fat consumption by TCM practitioners.


Weak nails

Brittle nails can be due to the way the nails and hands have been treated. Methods of manicuring, dehydration, handling paper and use of detergents can all be responsible. Protect your hands and nails by wearing gloves to do the washing up, use a good hand cream and almond oil rubbed into the nail bed conditions the nails and helps to aid the circulation. Brittle nails can also be a sign of Raynaud’s disease or an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).

Split nails can indicate a dietary lack of zinc and/or iron. They are typically associated with a poor diet with overconsumption of fruit, fruit juices, drinks, medication and even vitamins which may deprive the body of minerals. Disorders of the circulatory or nervous systems may be at cause along with problems relating to the testicle or ovary on the side affected. 

Peeling nails are often associated with indigestion, flatulence, fatigue, menstrual irregularities, lack of sexual vigour, depression, nervousness and/or insomnia. 

Soft nails can be due to excessive consumption of stimulants such as coffee, alcohol or sugar. They can often indicate a weak physical constitution, but mental activity. 


Ingrowing nails

Ingrowing nails usually occur on the big toenail as a result of trimming the nail allowing a nail spike to dig into the flesh. The area can become swollen and inflamed. The solution is to cut toenails straight across.


The nail affected

The particular or worst affected nails can also give you a clue as to the origin of the issue. Many of the energy meridians end on the fingers and toes and the worst affected nail may indicate the meridian most under stress. The issue also tends to be reflected on the same side of the body according to the list below, so that problems with the right testicle or ovary, for example, would manifest in problems with the right second finger nail. 

For the hands:

The thumbs: Lung and respiratory functions

The first fingers: Large intestine and its functions

The second fingers: Energy and blood circulation, reproductive functions

The third fingers: Energy and heat metabolism

The little fingers: The heart and small intestine and their functions


For the feet:

The big toes: The spleen, pancreas and liver and their functions

The second and third toes: The stomach and its functions

The fourth toes: The gall bladder and its functions

The little toes: The bladder and its functions


Supplements for nail health

Vitamin C aids the production of collagen in the nail bed

Vitamin E improves strength and lustre

Biotin improves brittle nails

Folic acid helps growing nails

Calcium improves nail strength

Zinc aids growth and strength especially nail quality and sheen

CoEnzyme Q10 improves oxygen uptake and energy production in cells

Silica from a herbal source such as horsetail improves nail strength

Soy isoflavones promote nail growth and strength

MSM acts as a source of organic sulphur needed to synthesise keratin


Further resources

Books on related topics are listed under Mercury & Dentistry in the Recommended Reading section of this website. 

You might also be interested in the following: 

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How the Body Heals

Illness IS Toxicity

Meridians Reference

The Descent into Illness

Symptoms of Mercury Poisoning

Mercury Toxicity Questionnaire

A History of Mercury Poisoning

To find out more about how to detoxify toxic metals please refer to Chronic Fatigue, M.E., and Fibromyalgia: The Natural Recovery Plan

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Heavy Metal Toxicity listed under Mercury & Medicine in the Audio Hub
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Symptoms of Mercury Poisoning

Heavy Metal Detox 


Or for all media use the Search facility at the top of the page


Finger- and Toe-Nails and Health: Article summary

This article looks at how the fingernails and the toenails can be used as indicators of general health according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The causes of various different colorations of the nails, marks on the nails and weak, thick, ridged and/or pitted nails are outlined. The significance of the nail(s) affected are also detailed. Supplements to promote nail health are listed.


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The Natural Recovery Plan Newsletter August 2010 Issue 8. Copyright Alison Adams 2010. All rights reserved
Dr Alison Adams Dentist, Naturopath, Author and Online Health Coach

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