brittle nail

What is a nail and what is it made up of?

The fingertips and toes of humans are protected by a plate like cover called nail. Finger nails and toe nails are present in human beings only and such tips of animals are called claws. Such cover is made of thick and tough protein known as keratin. Keratin is fibrous protein.

The basic structure of the nail consists of nail plate, nail matrix and nail bed beneath. The bottom most part of the nail plate surface is called lunula or lunule.

Contrary to the general belief, nail is not made of dead cells. Nail is permeable. Even water can penetrate the nail which is why use of certain cosmetics is advised to be avoided. In fact, nail is more permeable than skin. This is confirmed by the fact that though brittle nail condition affects about 20 percent of total population, it disproportionately affects higher percentage of women presumably on account of nail polish used.

Nail matrix is the tissue responsible for growth of the nail. The matrix produces the cells that become nail plate. The health and appearance of the nail is based on the general health and genetic character of the person.

Nail being made of thick protein need to be trimmed regularly as it is estimated to grow at about 3mm per month. But when the health of the nail becomes brittle it starts to split or peel off. There are many causes for brittle nails.

Causes of brittle nail are:

  • Usage of the nail for regular activities such as cleaning, washing, opening of lids with nail, typing, continuous exposure to water or other liquids and procedures related to cooking and washing of clothes or utensils.
  • Polishing the nail often particularly using chemical polishes. Since the polish on the nail prevents the nail from breathing freely, the nail become dry and brittle.
  • Nails being made of protein, inadequate protein intake through food is a major cause for unhealthy growth and consequent brittleness of the nails
  • Deficiencies in vitamins and iron consumption by a person affects the overall health and brittleness of the nails is a general indication of body weakness due to such deficiencies.
  • Consumption of regular food that causes high acidic Ph. of the body makes the nails brittle. Regular consumption of alcohol, carbonated drinks, sugars, grains and processed carbohydrates are known to increase the acidic ph. In the body.
  • Dehydration of the body also decreases the moisture of the nail and make it brittle.
  • When the body suffers low thyroid or hypothyroidism, brittle nails is one of the symptoms that indicate the serious illness.


Whatever is the cause for brittle nails condition, it ultimately boils down to the fact that there is deficiency of either protein or moisture. Hence all the treatments in curing brittle nail is directed towards these two only.

While brittle nail itself is a symptom of some other underlying medical conditions, one need not look into the symptom for brittle nail as the condition is visible and only the cause need to be diagnosed by a doctor. Taking into account other medical conditions of a person, the diagnosis will reveal deficiencies in iron, calcium, zinc, biotin, vitamin A or other issues like dehydration or fungal infection.

How to grow healthy nails?

In order to eliminate the causes of brittle nail or even as a cure one should:

  • Restrict using the finger tips for any activity that may spoil the health of the nails in the absence of any other deficiency.
  • Avoid polishing the nails for more than once a week with toxic chemicals which can easily penetrate into the nail. Use of fortified nail polishes with minerals and vitamins can be adopted. As much care must be taken in selecting the polish removers applied on the nails.
  • Keep the nail trimmed as close as possible to the tip of the finger
  • Make up for any deficiency in iron or other vitamins either through appropriate food or through supplements
  • Consume food that enhances the alkaline Ph. of the body.
  • Keep the nails sufficiently moisturized
  • Treat conditions like hypothyroidism medically.
  • Any change in the quality of nail like, thickness, growth pattern (concave or convex), color or split or crack need to be watched for early remedial measures.
  • Exposing the nails to sunlight to gain vitamin D is also helpful in maintaining healthy nails.


Prevention of brittle nails can be attempted by adopting healthy eating. Diet plays a dominant role in the overall health of a person. Consumption of nutrient rich food is vital.  Since brittle nail is both a symptom and disease it can be cured by eating food rich in iron, protein, calcium and minerals so as to enhance the overall health of the body and the nails particularly. Consumption of food rich in biotin enhances the health of the nails. Some such foods are milk, soya bean, banana, cauliflower, lentils, grains and cereals. Besides protein and iron, food which can supply vitamin B12, vitamin A and essential fatty acids must be consumed regularly. Linoleic acid is a must to keep the nail healthy. Linoleic acid is a poly unsaturated omega -6 fatty acid which is available in many of the essential oils we normally use in food preparations.

Besides healthy eating some home remedies that are helpful in treating the problem are use of coconut oil, tree tea oil, apple cider vinegar, sea salt and lemon juice for external application on the nails and finger tips.




Kripa Sivasubramanian, MBA, earned her Master’s degree in Business. After a long stint in the Technology sector, she took up courses in natural medicine and yoga. Ms. Kripa is certified in Ayurvedic yoga for Dosha. She is also certified by Stanford University School of Medicine in Introduction to Food and Health.