Are you passing up free medical information that's right at your fingertips? Health indicators that are close at hand?
You could be, if you haven't studied your fingernails.
Fingernails can reveal a great deal about specific diseases and your general state of health, according to Santa Monica nutritionist Lillian Grant.
There was a time when family doctors would rarely make a diagnosis without looking at your fingernails, she said. "They automatically used to say, put out your tongue and say 'ah,' and hold out your hands. They would look at your fingernails and your tongue. They did a lot of diagnosing from just those two areas."
Even in today's age of medical specialization, Dr. Jamie MacDougall, a dermatologist at County-USC Medical Center, finds that nails provide clues about a person's health.
"The fingernails certainly can be an indication of general health," he said. "There are many types of systemic diseases that are reflected in the nails."
Indeed, the fingernails indicate serious illnesses involving the heart, lungs, thyroid and liver, according to Dr. Richard Kaplan, assistant professor of dermatology at the UCLA School of Medicine. Tiny spots of bleeding beneath the nail, called splinter hemorrhages, can be a sign of endocarditis, an infection of the heart and bloodstream, he said.
Furthermore, lung disease and cancer of the lung often cause the ends of the fingers to become shorter and thicker, while the nail itself bows out. Iron deficiency anemia produces much the same symptoms, and the nails are pale in color, according to Kaplan. Plummer's nail, where the nail grows up and down in an undulating pattern, indicates thyroid disease. And Wilson's disease, a liver condition, creates exaggeratedly large "moon" areas on the nails.
Fingernails reveal not only these major health problems but some minor ones as well.
In fact, the two dermatologists estimate at least 10% of their practices have to do with nail problems. The most common, by far, are fungus infections and psoriasis. Fungus usually causes the end of the nail to lift up and separate from the skin below it. The nail becomes thick and discolored. In psoriasis, the nails are often pitted, streaked and yellowish.
Weak or breaking fingernails do not necessarily indicate a health problem. Rather, the causes may be genetic and/or environmental.
"Not everyone is born with heavy hair or durable nails," Grant said. "Durable nails are not as subject to the injuries that can be caused by caustic abrasives. In other words, using household cleaners can actually destroy the nail of a person who has inherited a thinner nail."
Grant advises people to wear rubber gloves to protect nails from chemicals and immersion in water when washing dishes or scouring the bathtub.
Another common problem with fingernails is peeling, where horizontal layers keep flaking away.
"Shedding and peeling are in part due to drying out and also somewhat due to aging," Kaplan said.
"Peeling also occurs when women overuse cosmetics on their nails. There's not much you can do for it, although hydrating emollients can be some help," he said. In addition to moisturizing emollients, Kaplan said one can file or buff down the nail.
Drugs, including prescription medications, can ruin nails. The antibiotic Tetracycline is probably the worst offender, MacDougall said. Persons taking the medication, especially those exposed to a lot of sun, may find the nail lifting away from the nail bed.
While Grant said white spots in the nail could be caused by a vitamin or zinc deficiency, the dermatologists did not concur.
"White spots, most researchers believe, are related to minor trauma, to little bumps and bangs," said Dr. Jay Kenney, nutrition research specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica. "You jam your finger, or hit your nail down where it's growing out, and you don't see the effect for several weeks. By the time your nail grows out, you've completely forgotten the incident and your finger feels fine and you think: 'What is this strange bump on my fingernail? Or this spot? Am I eating something wrong?' "
Supplements Don't Help
Can calcium, gelatin or any other nutritional supplements make nails stronger? No, Kenney said. "Fingernails and hair are the same protein, keratin. . . . There is no calcium in nails and no truth to the eating of gelatin or taking of calcium to help your fingernails."
Grant, however, said that egg yolks help strengthen nails and make them grow.
"An egg yolk contains all eight amino acids, and it also contains an abundance of the sulfur-containing amino acid, which is one of the most important for the nails. I would say that a good nail drink is an egg yolk and a teaspoon or tablespoon of molasses, in a glass of nonfat milk."
Grant also recommends getting plenty of Vitamin A, which you obtain by eating dark green vegetables and yellow-fleshed fruits.