As the weather starts to warm up and our hands emerge from winter gloves, there's no escaping the state of our nails. And what a sight they can be, brittle, bitten to the core and in need of some tender loving care.
Nails are important, and not just because, at their best, they can be beautiful. Your nails are a window into the state of your general health. If your nails are unhealthy, it's likely that the rest of you isn't as hale and hearty as it could be either.
So whatever the state of your nails, here's our guide to making them strong and healthy again, reflecting a more vibrant and vigorous you.
It's worth remembering that slow growing nails reflect your health from a couple of months ago, and that changes in diet might take a couple of months to show up in healthier nails. Nevertheless, nutrition is perhaps the most important factor in growing strong, supple, healthy nails.
Unsightly nails can often be a sign of nutrient deficiency. Brittle and spoon shaped nails can be caused by iron deficiency, for example, which should be checked out by your GP. But nails also reflect the quality of your diet. A diet rich in nutrients will usually be reflected in healthy nail growth.
One nutrient that is often lacking from modern diets, and which can affect the quality of nails, is zinc.
"Healthy nails reflect a healthy body," says nutritionist Sam Conebar. "So if you find that your nails are starting to get brittle, are taking longer to grow or contain more white spots, then you could be suffering from a zinc deficiency. Zinc contributes towards healing, growth and immunity – three things that have a direct effect on the health of your nails. Increasing your zinc intake will strengthen your nails and help to restore them to their natural state of beauty."
You can find zinc in red meat, oysters, some green vegetables and liver.
Experts also recommend a diet high in protein to support healthy nails – nails are largely made of a protein called keratin – and a limit to your alcohol and caffeine intake, which can inhibit the body's absorption of essential nutrients.
A balanced diet is the best way to get the nutrients you need for healthy nails but if you struggle then supplements can help. As well as a good multivitamin it can be worth topping up on fatty acids. A lack of them can lead to dry, flaky nails, so sprinkle a handful of seeds and nuts onto your cereal or take a fish oil supplement.
As well as nurturing strength from within nails also benefit from external treatments, and specifically a good nail oil.
"For strong, brittle nails, the treatment would be a continuous use of a high grade oil, which contains molecules small enough to penetrate into the nail plate and surrounding skin," says Georgie Smedley, director of Nail Harmony UK.
"This should be applied at least twice a day around the nail fold, on the nail plate and under the free edge to give maximum absorption."
Whichever oils or creams you use, avoid harsh chemicals that can damage the nail bed.
Nail experts agree that, however spectacular they might look, super-long nails are not healthy. "Trimming nails periodically will help your nails grow and prevent breakage or snagging," says Smedley. "Keeping nails at a manageable length is wise."
File nails regularly, but be careful not to over-file. Being too file-happy can lead to damage to the nail plate.
As can nail biting, of course. It's one habit that we all have control over but some of us can't seem to stop, leading to uneven, unsightly and damaged nails. Nail biting can have an emotional or psychological cause like stress, anxiety or loneliness, and if that's the case the cause needs to be addressed before the biting will stop.
And some people simply bite nails when they're bored. In which case, keeping nails short (so there's less to bite), using a bitter tasting varnish or getting regular manicures (you'll be less inclined to bite beautiful nails) are proven ways to beat a biting habit.
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