What Unhealthy Fingernails May Mean for You

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM


The meaning of your unhealthy fingernailsYou may have heard in passing that your fingernails can reveal a lot about your health. Have you wondered how much truth that statement actually held? Or did you brush it off as some old folk remedy along with others you’ve heard? But the fact is, unhealthy fingernails actually do reflect what’s happening internally in your body. The color and the texture of the nail can magnify the signs of an existing disease that has gone undiagnosed or unrecognized. It is important that you become aware of what your fingernails may actually be displaying. There are many things to look for, and the more knowledgeable you are, the quicker you can address what’s really going on internally.

Our fingernails are important. They are what distinguish us from other mammals. In actual fact, they are a sort of flattened claw. Most scientific theories indicate that fingernails were either an adaptation that humans underwent to help support broader fingertips for picking up small items, or a side effect of the loss of claws. But another reason for fingernails is that they serve as an outward indicator of a person’s health.

What Unhealthy Fingernails Look Like

Upon examination, you will discover that fingernails can have many variations in color, texture, length, and curvature. Yes, it is absolutely a fact that the way your fingernails grow are due to genetics. However, there are indeed subtle variances in unhealthy fingernails that are caused by other factors. Many abnormalities are due to underlying illnesses and diseases.

    • Beau’s Lines. Beau’s lines usually appear when nail growth under the cuticle is disrupted by a severe illness or injury. Conditions could include: uncontrolled diabetes, scarlet fever, pneumonia, or other illnesses associated with high fevers. In some cases it represents a sign of a zinc deficiency.
    • Blue Tinted Nails. A bluish tint to the nails could indicate some type of heart problem like emphysema. Blue means that body isn’t getting enough oxygen. This should be addressed immediately.
    • Dark Lines. Dark lines located beneath the nail are a serious concern and should be looked at by a doctor immediately as they could be melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer.
    • Dry and Brittle Nails. A common cause of cracked or split nails is a thyroid disorder. If the brittle nails are accompanied with a yellowish hue, it could be the sign of a fungal infection. Brittle nails can also be due to malnutrition, or insufficient nutrients. They are also characteristic of individuals who suffer from Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).
    • Gnawed Nails. It may be habitual, but biting or picking at fingernails is usually due to persistent anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. If the pattern continues and is unbreakable, it could be an addiction worth discussing with a doctor.
    • Nail Clubbing. This one may seem like a genetic disorder, but nail clubbing is actually a sign of unhealthy fingernails common to different types of lung disease where low levels of oxygen exist. It could also be a result of inflammatory bowel diseases, liver diseases, or AIDS.

Unhealthy fingernails: Nail Pitting

  • Nail Pitting. Small pits or depressions in the nails are a common condition in connective tissue disorders including Reiter’s syndrome, autoimmune diseases like alopecia areata, or psoriasis.
  • Nail Separation. There are a number of reasons why the fingernail separates or becomes loose from the nail bed. The separation could be caused by drugs or certain nail products, or even by more serious issues, including thyroid disease or psoriasis. In addition to the separation, the nails also become opaque with a yellow, green, or white tinge.
  • Pale Nails. If your fingernails are pale in color, that could signify anemia, congestive heart failure, liver disease, or malnutrition.
  • Puffy Nail Bed. If the beds of your nails are red and puffy, this inflammation could be the sign of a connective tissue disorder such as Lupus. If just a single nail is inflamed, this could be a small localized infection.
  • Rippled Textured Nails. A rippled or pitted texture could be an early flag that the body has the potential to develop psoriasis or inflammatory arthritis.
  • Spoon Nails. Another odd unhealthy fingernail phenomenon is when the nail spoons in enough to hold a drop of water. Also, known as koilonychia, the nails become extremely soft, and round up. This is often a sign of iron deficiency, a rare liver condition, heart disease, or hypothyroidism.
  • Terry’s Nails. Although often attributed to aging, Terry’s nails can also be a sign of liver disease, congestive heart or kidney failure, or diabetes. Most of the nails are white in color with the exception of a narrow band of pink at the top.
  • Vertical Ridges. Vertical ridges on the fingernails are usually the result of aging, but could be the due to stress on the adrenal glands, or to AFS.
  • White or Jaundiced Nails. A pale or jaundiced color can indicate hepatitis or other liver disorders.
  • Yellow Nails. The most common cause of yellow nails is from fungal infections. Often times the nails thicken and crumble over time, or you may see the nail bed retracting. In rare, more serious cases, unhealthy fingernails can signify thyroid or lung disease, diabetes, or psoriasis.

Nails and Stress

Stress makes it extremely difficult for your body to function accurately. Nutrients are not absorbed as they should be, and unhealthy fingernails are one of the first signs to appear which indicate that the body is under duress.

The high levels of stress associated with adrenal fatigue are detrimental to nail health and often leave them brittle, due to the lack of biotin and increase of cortisol. Many people turn to abusing their nails through biting, repetitive rubbing, or peeling when stressed out, all of which can cause damage to the nail or nail bed.

When it comes to adrenal health, the illness often shows up in the tips of the fingers as well. With adrenal exhaustion, sufferers will find vertical lines that gradually cover the fingertips. In addition, the fingerprints may grow fainter and the skin thickness diminish due to lower levels of collagen.

Your Nail Health and You

Although there is usually an underlying reason for unhealthy fingernails, and the disfigurement should be addressed properly, there are ways to aid in the health and appearance of your nails to bring them back to a healthy state.

Healthy vs unhealthy fingernails

  • Strong and healthy nails require specific care. Nutrients like biotin, iron, protein, silica, magnesium and zinc, among other vitamins and minerals, are all supportive of hair and nail health. Healthy diets high in omega-3 with low sugar and hydrogenated oils can benefit your nails as well.
  • Learning stress management techniques like yoga and deep breathing can help to keep cortisol levels in normal ranges. Exercise and taking time for yourself have also been shown to contribute towards nail health, as well as your overall well-being.
  • Avoid taking stressful situations out on your body. Biting nails, twisting hair and picking or scratching at the skin should all be avoided.
  • 8 hours or more of sleep allows the skin and tissues of your fingernails to grow and heal. Enhance the absorption of your nutrients by relaxing and eating slowly.
  • An extremely important factor for the health of the skin and nails is to drink plenty of water. It will hydrate the skin and flush waste and toxins away.

How to Give the Best-Looking Handshake in Town

The hands are known as the body’s barometer and there is a lot that your fingerprints can tell you about your general well-being. We’ve gone over what an unhealthy fingernail looks like. Now let’s find out how a good, healthy fingernail should appear and how you can get the best-looking handshake in town.

  • Your hands and fingernails should be well moisturized to prevent dry, cracked nails and skin. A daily application of an all-organic lotion is recommended.
  • Use good, sharp nail clippers to get a clean cut. Dull clippers may cause ridges.
  • Smooth out the edges on your nails. Keeping them well rounded will not only eliminate tearing, picking and peeling, but it will give them a well manicured and groomed look.
  • Do not trim the cuticle. You can push it back after you shower to give your nail a more elongated look, but cutting or trimming is not sanitary or safe.
  • The perfect length is leaving a bit of white at the tip of your nail. If you cut too close to your nail bed, you risk the potential of causing infection, and you’ll give yourself the inability to pick anything up.
  • You should have a natural shine. No buffing or polish is really needed if your nails are kept healthy.

Is Nail Polish Good for You?

Nail polish and unhealthy fingernailsThere is no denying that a freshly painted set of nails look glamorous, but how healthy is it? In actuality, despite the age-old trend of decorating the fingernails, it can seriously weaken and damage the nails, leaving them dry, discolored and broken. Although fingernails are layers of dead keratin, and cannot “die”, yet they can and will weaken if they are constantly covered in polish. If you must paint your nails, make sure to take a break periodically. To avoid the yellowing that a nail polish can cause, a base coat should always be applied for protection.

Traditional nail polish remover is also damaging to the nails. So, if you change colors frequently, you will want to make sure that you use a fortified remover and avoid acetone bases at all costs.

Originally nail polish began as far back as 3000 BC in China and ancient Egypt as beeswax, egg whites, gelatin and vegetable dyes — all natural, non-toxic, and chemical-free ingredients. However, through time, nail polish has evolved to contain some extremely harsh toxins that are dangerous.

It is important to be cautious when wearing polish as it can worsen conditions, or even mask them. If a person is constantly wearing nail polish, they will be unable to see what signs the body is giving for any internal illnesses.

Now that you are aware of what unhealthy fingernails look like, you can be more proactive about your health care. It is always important to be educated about your body so you can remain in optimal health. Your body truly does tell you what it needs if you listen and observe it closely. It is important to remember that not every nail abnormality is an indication of an ailment. Many are harmless! However, if you feel that you may have unhealthy fingernails, it is always advisable to see a dermatologist or healthcare practitioner as soon as possible to investigate an underlying cause.

Many serious diseases are reflected by unhealthy fingernails, and recognizing them can be a step towards receiving proper care, and, ultimately, recovery.

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Yes, Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome can indeed show up as a set of unhealthy fingernails. Along with dark circles under the eyes, hair loss, adult acne and dark patches, vertical lines in the fingertips can be a sign that your adrenals are indeed stressed out.


Unhealthy fingernails