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7 Things Your Nails Can Tell You About Your Health

By Karly Carpena
March 14, 2016

Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but nails can offer an important glimpse into your overall health. It turns out, having strong, healthy nails isn’t just good news for your manicure—unpleasant nail symptoms could also indicate bigger health problems.

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7. PALE NAILS

The problem isn’t so black and white when it comes to white nails. If your fingernail beds are looking a little ghostly, you may have anemia, a blood disorder characterized by a low red blood cell count. “Anemia resulting from low levels of iron can lead to inadequate oxygen in the blood, which causes the skin and tissues to become pale, particularly the tissues under the nails,” says Shilpi Agarwal, M.D., a board-certified family medicine and integrative and holistic medicine physician in Los Angeles. Be sure you’re consuming good sources of iron, including green leafy vegetables, beans, and red meat, to boost your levels.

More seriously, pale nails could also be a sign of early diabetes or liver disease, both of which can lead to impaired blood flow. “When diagnosed early, diabetes can often be controlled with dietary changes,” Dr. Agarwal says. Avoid processed foods with refined sugars and carbs, and eat more fiber, vegetables, and whole grains. “These will help stabilize blood sugar levels and limit circulatory damage caused by uncontrolled sugar levels,” she says. For liver disease, a trip to the doc for testing is a must-do for accurate diagnosis.

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6. YELLOW NAILS

Yellow nails certainly don’t look pretty, and what causes the hue is even grosser: “Thickened nails, with or without a yellow-ish tone, are characteristic of fungal infections that generally traverse the entire nail bed,” Dr. Agarwal says. She adds that topical medication is often no help since the infection is in the nail bed and underlying nail plate. Your doctor can prescribe an oral med, which will reach the entire breadth of the infected nail.

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5. DARK LINES

Even if you diligently check your skin for questionable moles monthly, you likely overlook your nails, a place where dangerous melanoma often goes unnoticed. “Dark brown or black vertical lines on the nail bed should never be ignored,” Dr. Agarwal warns. “These can be a hallmark sign of melanoma, which requires early detection and treatment.”

Leave your nails bare periodically so you can examine them, then go get a mani. “Sunlight is unable to penetrate through polish, so any shade other than a clear coat will provide an adequate barrier from the sun,” Dr. Agarwal says. Smart idea since your nails’ smooth surface makes it hard for sunscreen to be absorbed into the nail.

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4. PITTING AND GROOVING

Depressions and small cracks in your nails are known as “pitting” of the nail bed and are often associated with psoriasis, an inflammatory disease that leads to scaly or red patches all over the body. “Individuals who suffer from psoriasis develop clusters of cells along the nail bed that accumulate and disrupt the linear, smooth growth of a normal nail,” Dr. Agarwal explains. “As these cells are sloughed off, grooves or depressed areas are left behind on the surface.” A physical exam is often all you need for a diagnosis, after which your doctor may recommend topical, oral, or injected medications or light therapy.

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