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Brittle nails occur very often and lead to a reduction in well-being and quality of life in many people. Attacked fingernails or toenails are often not only a cosmetic problem, because in addition to external causes such as harmful substances in the nail polish remover, diseases, hormone changes, medication or an iron deficiency can also be the reasons for the structural damage. Accordingly, porous nails should always be checked by a doctor as a precautionary measure before self-treatment in order to avoid risks and to get the problems under control in the long term.
Nails: structure and function
The term “nail” refers to the curved, translucent plate that is located on the top of the tips of your fingers or toes. This is formed from the horny or keratin-filled cells of the epidermis and therefore - like hair and feathers - belongs to the so-called “skin appendages”. Nails can be from 0.05mm (baby) to 0.75mm (adult) thick, although the thickness can vary widely. The same applies to the growth rate, which is normally about 0.5 to 1.2 mm per week, with toenails generally growing more slowly than fingernails. On the other hand, growth can also be fundamentally slowed down, for example mostly in the elderly, but also as a result of injuries, poor circulation or other diseases.
The fingernails and toenails are made up of many layers and consist of different parts, on which changes can occur. The visible main part is the transparent nail plate, which, however, typically appears light pink in healthy nails, since the blood vessels of the nail bed underneath shine through. The nails form on the nail root (matrix) from horn plates, which lies at the bottom of the so-called “nail pocket” and represents the area of the nail that is connected to the skin. The matrix is mostly visible at the lower nail edge in the form of the small, bright "crescent", which is therefore often referred to as "nail moon" or "lunula" (Latin: "small moon"). Under the nail plate is the nail bed, which is firmly connected to the periosteum of the underlying finger or foot bone, from below and on the sides it is also surrounded by a skin fold ("nail palate"), which on the one hand for support, but also provides protection against tearing. The visible part of the skin, which directly adjoins the Palatinate and lies on top of the nail, finally forms the cuticle (perionychium).
Since the nail plate consists of dead skin cells and therefore contains neither blood vessels nor nerves, it does not emit any sensation of pain. However, this does not apply to the tips of the fingers or toes, because there are a large number of sensory cells for touch stimuli (Merkel cells), which act as pressure receptors and thereby enable palpation. In addition, the nails are important "tools" for scratching and plucking, protecting the top of the extremely sensitive tips of the fingers and toes from injuries and helping them to grip small objects, which supports fine motor skills.
Causes of brittle nails
With brittle, splintering nails, numerous causes can be considered, some of which are quickly recognizable, but others are difficult to diagnose. In addition to genetic factors, inadequate or incorrect care plays a central role in many cases. A typical example here is frequent hand washing, which removes moisture from the nails and makes them brittle, dry and cracked quickly. Even those who often come into contact with cleaning and cleaning agents and do not wear protective or rubber gloves run the risk of attacking their nails and causing structural damage. In addition to this, chemicals (for example in detergents) can also be the cause, as can nail polish remover containing acetone or inferior nail polish. In addition, splintered nails can result from a wrong, improper manicure or pedicure, as well as from a strong mechanical load, for example when doing sports or doing housework.
Brittle nails can also be an unpleasant side effect of a medication, because some medicines, when metabolized, have a massive impact on the body's vitamin balance and can therefore quickly lead to a deficiency. These "vitamin predators" include, for example, antibiotics, antiepileptics and medication for diabetes, which is why it can make sense to provide an appropriate balance, especially when taken for a long time. Here, however, you should definitely speak to the doctor treating you beforehand to avoid further side effects or interactions.
A number of physical changes can also be considered as the cause. Age plays an important role here, because, as with the body in general, “traces of aging” also appear on the nails over the years, for example by discoloring and generally becoming thinner and softer, which in turn increases the risk of damage. In this context, women often notice significant physical changes, especially during the menopause. Examples include thin, drier and sagging skin or delayed wound healing processes, in addition to which the nails are often affected, which become brittle due to the falling estrogen level. Since the change in hormonal balance also plays a central role during pregnancy, expectant mothers mostly have problems with their nails. In this case, the estrogen level is increased, but in most cases this only makes the hair fuller and firmer, but the nails, on the other hand, are usually brittle and break or tear faster during the nine months.
Diseases as a cause
In most cases, brittle nails have more “harmless” causes, but there may also be a disease that is responsible for the damage. Accordingly, these should not generally be dismissed as cosmetic "blemishes", but should be examined by a doctor, especially in the case of long-lasting or permanent nail problems. For example, an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) is possible, in which too little thyroid hormone is produced, as a result of which the metabolism only works more slowly and a number of typical "deficiency symptoms" such as brittle hair and nails, slow pulse, hard bowel movements or constipation or reduced memory may occur. Even with an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), the nails can become thinner and finer and tear or break faster. In this case, there are too many thyroid hormones in the blood, which causes the metabolism to work at full speed, which manifests itself in a wide variety of symptoms such as hair loss, diarrhea, stumbling or increased sweating.
So-called "psoriasis" is also an option, which is a relatively common, benign skin disease that in most cases is chronic. It is particularly characterized by an itchy rash in the form of limited, reddish skin areas that are covered with shiny, white scales. Psoriasis can occur in very different areas, but in about every second affected person, the fingernails and toenails are also affected ("nail psoriasis"). In this case, nail growth increases due to a disruption in the keratinization process, which causes the nail to thicken and form scars, which can often be easily removed (onycholysis). In addition, there may be dents, cracks and lines on the nails as well as yellowish or white or salmon-colored discolourations, as well as these are often crumbly and brittle and can therefore fail or be completely destroyed in the course of the disease.
Diabetes mellitus can also be the cause of brittle toenails, because the permanently elevated blood sugar levels can also lead to nerve damage and poor blood circulation in the feet. As a result, such a "diabetic foot" (also called "diabetic foot syndrome") firstly results in swollen feet and dry, cracked skin, which tends to be injured faster than usual. On the other hand, the nerve damage leads to numbness, emotional disturbances and a reduced sensation of pain, which means that small injuries are often noticed late and quickly develop into poorly healing, open wounds and ulcers.
In addition, a nail fungus (onychomycosis) can result in brittle nails, which is caused, among other things, by yeast or mold and is therefore caused, for example, by poor, air-impermeable footwear. In addition, injuries or certain diseases such as diabetes or circulatory disorders, but also an immunodeficiency (due to AIDS, chemotherapy, etc.) or longer antibiotic treatment increase the risk, since the resistance of the skin is reduced and the susceptibility to the nail fungus increases accordingly. At the beginning, this usually shows up in the form of white, yellowish or brownish spots, later changes in the nail shape and / or structure often occur, for example, the nail plate becoming thicker or brittle. In more severe cases, this can lead to the nail being completely destroyed, so early treatment is extremely important to prevent the fungus from spreading and becoming chronic.
Broken nails can also indicate an iron deficiency, which can develop in a pathological form if more iron is lost in the long term than is absorbed. Especially in healthy people, this often results from malnutrition or increased blood loss, for example as a result of an accident, surgery, birth or in the course of menstruation, and bladder or kidney stones can also lead to bleeding and thus to a deficiency. If the body loses too much iron, the intake from food is usually increased to compensate. However, if this is also insufficient, the reserves are opened, which ultimately leads to a deficiency if the storage facility is not replenished accordingly. Accordingly, if there is an iron deficiency, the intake must be correspondingly higher, which is possible above all through meat, offal, cereals, bread, vegetables and legumes, since these foods contain a particularly large amount of iron. However, since this can be better absorbed by the body from animal foods, vegetarians and vegans or generally people who eat an unhealthy and unbalanced diet over a longer period of time also belong to possible risk groups.
In addition to this, competitive athletes, children and adolescents have an increased need for iron due to their growth, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women, and are therefore more at risk. The same applies to older people, since they often have gastrointestinal problems. In addition, hormonal changes in many cases ensure a fast feeling of satiety and a reduced eating drive, which generally reduces food intake. In addition, insufficient iron intake can also be caused, for example, by antibiotics (tetracyclines), inflammatory bowel diseases or partial removal of the stomach or small intestine, and chronic kidney diseases or heart problems are also possible.
If there is an iron deficiency, this can affect the whole body, since iron is a vital trace element that cannot be produced by the body itself. This is particularly important as a component of the red blood pigment hemoglobin, since it binds the oxygen in the blood and in the muscles and thus ensures its transport to the body cells. As a result, iron fulfills a variety of functions in the body and enables, for example, performance and drive, healthy hair and nails and a strong immune system. If the body is undersupplied, this can manifest itself in very different symptoms, such as chronic fatigue and exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, paleness of the face as well as brittle hair and nails, but it can also lead to a racing heart, shortness of breath, a weakened immune system or symptoms similar to depression such as Depression, mood swings, sleep disorders or social isolation come.
In addition to this, there can also be another form of deficiency in the case of brittle nails, which, however, can also be attributed to malnutrition in most cases. An inadequate supply of vitamin B and vitamin D, which play a central role in the development of healthy nails, may be considered here, however, a calcium deficiency can also be the trigger. Accordingly, these vital substances should always be ingested in sufficient quantities through a balanced diet.People who are on a diet or are affected by eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia should take special care to prevent deficiency symptoms, if necessary, by supplementary preparations.
What helps against brittle fingernails?
In order to be able to treat brittle nails as best as possible, you should always first check exactly where the causes of the structural damage lie. Accordingly, a visit to the doctor is recommended in any case to be able to clarify whether the damage is, for example, a nail fungus or a metabolic disorder such as a thyroid disease or an iron deficiency. The further treatment steps then take place depending on the cause. If, for example, the splintering nails are based on an underactive thyroid, the therapy is carried out by taking medications that replace the missing thyroid hormones. In cases of hyperfunction, medication is also administered in many cases, for example, if Graves' disease is the trigger, so-called thyroid drugs (thiamazole and carbimazole) are primarily used, which inhibit the formation of thyroid hormones and thus counteract the symptoms. However, if the disease is caused by autonomy of the thyroid gland, thyrostatics are not suitable; instead, surgery or radioiodine therapy is often carried out early.
If an iron deficiency has been identified, the cause of this must also first be identified and treated, for example by eliminating any bleeding or changing the diet. This point is particularly important because the body cannot produce iron itself, but has to be added through food. Here there are various supportive home remedies for iron deficiency, central to this is a healthy and balanced diet, with iron being better utilized by the body in animal products than from plant food. Accordingly, if there is a lack of iron, foods such as pork liver, veal liver sausage or ham are particularly suitable, but also seafood, fish and eggs or egg yolk. In addition to this, there are of course numerous vegetarian sources, such as green leafy vegetables (spinach, chard etc.), white cabbage or seeds such as sesame or pumpkin seeds, the latter being particularly recommended, since most of the daily iron requirements are already available with a handful can be covered. In addition, if there is a deficiency, lentils, millet, chickpeas, beetroot and whole grain cereals are also suitable, as are fennel, salsify and tofu.
However, since the amount of iron in food is limited, only very slight deficiency symptoms can usually be compensated for in this way. In more severe cases, iron-containing tablets or dragees are mostly used first, which often have to be taken over several months to replenish the storage. Alternatively, the iron can also be added intravenously to the body in exceptional cases, for example in the event of a resorption disorder or in the case of an existing inflammatory bowel disease such as Chron's disease. This includes, for example, herbal blood juice or a nettle tea, but also the proven use of Schüssler salts or bitter substances.
In general, with brittle nails, regardless of the cause, attention should be paid to a balanced and vital nutrient-rich diet, which can be enriched if necessary by taking additional dietary supplements. Here, for example, biotin or vitamin H preparations come into consideration, by means of which cement substance is increasingly formed and the quality of keratin is improved, which consequently leads to greater resistance, elasticity and increased nail growth. Calcium or silica preparations can also be taken as a cure to strengthen the nail from the inside and make it less susceptible. In the opposite case, however, an overdose of certain vitamins can make the fingernails porous, so that it should always be discussed with a doctor beforehand which preparation should be taken in detail and for how long.
It is also important not to use nail polish removers containing acetone or alcohol, because they remove grease and moisture from the nails, making them dry and brittle quickly. Therefore, it is better to use solvent-free and oil-containing products instead and to take a break from painting regularly, since nail polish can also cause damage if used continuously. Often a special care polish for brittle nails is also helpful, which forms a thin protective layer on the nail and thus provides more hardness and strength. However, since these nail hardeners often contain the potentially carcinogenic preservative formaldehyde, you should take a close look at the selection and choose a product that is free of this additive.
Home remedies for brittle fingernails
In addition, regular, but gentle nail care should be ensured, for which a file (e.g. sand leaf file) is better used instead of nail scissors or a clipper to avoid small cracks on the nail. Experts also advise against tearing off, biting off or pushing back the cuticle and not to round off the corners too much when shortening the nails so that no ingrown toenail develops. Instead, the nails should be filed as straight as possible and from the edge to the center; a soft nail brush is also recommended for cleaning the nail edges. In addition to this, it is advisable to wear protective gloves when washing, wiping, etc., and to apply nails often to increase the strength. Special care products such as nail oil are available here, even a weekly bath in lukewarm almond or olive oil can be very helpful to provide the nails with fat and moisture.
Schüssler salts are also available from the field of naturopathy. Since brittle nails, especially with brittle hair, fatigue and facial pallor, are often signs of an iron deficiency, salt 3 (Ferrum phosphoricum) in particular can help to improve the absorption and utilization of iron. Salts No. 2 (Calcium phosphoricum) and No. 6 (Kalium sulfuricum) are also suitable for brittle nails, since they generally stimulate cell regeneration and have a building and strengthening effect. For dosing, it is often recommended to take two tablets three times a day, slowly allowing the salts to dissolve in the mouth around 15 minutes before or after eating. Nevertheless, there are no generally applicable standards here, so you should always consult an experienced naturopath or naturopathic practitioner before taking it to advise on the specific selection of salt and the dosage in each case.
In addition to this, homeopathy recommends the agent Silicea terra (silica) for brittle fingernails, as this has a positive effect on the structure of the nails and ensures firmness and resistance. This is administered in the form of lotions or creams as well as ampoules or drops, whereby the dosage form and duration of use should always be coordinated with an expert. (No)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dipl. Social Science Nina Reese
- Anke Niederau: The big book of nail diseases: cause, podiatric diagnosis, therapy, prophylaxis, Neuer Merkur Verlag, 3rd edition, 2016
- Denise M. Aaron: Overview of Dermatophytia, MSD Manual, (accessed September 30, 2019), MSD
- SchilddrüsenZentrum Köln e.V .: Underactive thyroid, (accessed: 30.09.2019), schilddruesenzentrum-koeln.de
- Jan Hastka, Georgia Metzgeroth, Norbert Gattermann: Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia, German Society for Hematology and Medical Oncology e.V., (accessed September 30, 2019), DGHO
- Thomas Dirschka, Roland Hartwig, Claus Oster-Schmidt: Clinic Guide Dermatology, Urban & Fischer Verlag, Elsevier GmbH, 3rd edition 2010
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ICD codes for this disease: L60ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find yourself e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.