By Jody Paglia Tanzman, RD,LDN,CLC
Maybe you’ve been spying white dots on your fingernails, or your hair is just not as lustrous looking as it used to be. Ever wonder what your skin, nails and hair can tell you about your health and nutrition status? Read on to find out what your outward appearance says about you.
Though your skin is one of your body’s major organs, sometimes we forget just how important it is. The skin is involved in a myriad of jobs to aid your body in functioning, from regulating the body’s temperature and blood pressure to the production of vitamin D.
Dry skin is typical in older adults due to the natural decrease in sebaceous and sweat gland activity. However, sudden changes to dry skin or itchy patches could mean something else. Dehydration, of course, is often the culprit behind dry skin. Limiting alcohol and caffeine and drinking a minimum of eight glasses of water or other non-caffeinated liquids a day will keep your skin plump and well hydrated. Another cause of dry skin can be a lack of essential fatty acids. Make sure to incorporate polyunsaturated oils from sources such as nuts and seeds and plant-based oils such as coconut, hemp and flaxseed into your daily meals. Topical applications of oils have also been shown to be beneficial in maintaining healthy skin.
To help your skin look youthful, don’t forget to eat your protein. Collagen, responsible for the strength and elasticity of skin, is actually made up of the amino acids that form proteins. Over time, collagen production slows, creating wrinkles and dry, saggy skin. By incorporating enough protein in your diet, you can provide your body with amino acids such as glycine and proline and the essential amino acid lysine, which make up collagen. The U.S. Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men. Though meat sources contain the highest amount of lysine, nuts, legumes and soybeans are good vegetarian sources. Vitamin C is also crucial to collagen production. While most people get adequate vitamin C, people with diabetes and certain cancers can have low levels. They might develop small skin discolorations due to ruptured blood vessels (“petechiae”), a sign that the body is lacking vitamin C. To combat a deficiency, be sure to enjoy natural sources of vitamin C such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers and strawberries.
Nails are actually skin cells that have been converted to hardened keratin. Because blood vessels in the nail bed lie just below the nail, nails are generally pink in color and healthy nails are smooth and uniform in thickness. White spots (“leukonychia”) on the nail are commonly thought to indicate a calcium deficiency; actually white spots are quite common, and are usually a result of mild injuries to the nail.
Peeling nails are usually not indicative of sickness but due to frequent hand-washing and/ or use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Regular use of nail polish and nail polish remover can also be the culprit behind brittle, peeling nails, though brittle nails are also seen in thyroid diseases and in extremely rare cases, selenium toxicity.
Vertical ridges along the nail are harmless but raised ridges however, accompanied by a curving of the nail, can indicate an iron deficiency. Iron is crucial to the formation of red blood cells, without which your body will not be able to get an adequate oxygen supply. Consuming iron-rich foods such as red meat, shellfish, beans, tofu, spinach, broccoli, sesame seeds and fortified grains is essential to maintaining adequate iron stores. Be sure to pair these foods with vitamin C-containing foods/ drinks for optimum iron absorption.
Nails that do not have a pink color to them, and are instead yellow, blue, brown and/or with pigmented lines should be discussed immediately with your doctor, as they can be a sign of a systemic disorder. Indentations that run across the nail (“Beau’s lines”) are also cause for attention, and can occur for several reasons, such as in uncontrolled diabetes and zinc deficiency. Zinc is a mineral that aids the body in cellular growth and immune function. Because the body does not store zinc, it is important to get an adequate amount of zinc each day. Though the amount and bioavailability of zinc is highest in foods of animal origin, zinc can also be found in a variety of plant-based foods such as oatmeal, chickpeas and cashews. Vegetarians and vegans are at risk for zinc deficiency, in part due to lack of meat consumption and also due to the high consumption of foods such as whole grains which contain phytates that block zinc absorption. Sprouting beans, nuts, seeds and grains by soaking in water for several hours can increase zinc bioavailability.
Hair loss (“alopecia”) can be downright scary! According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about half of all men and women in the U.S. suffer from some form of balding by the time they are 40. Hair loss can be due to a multitude of reasons. Hormonal changes (like menopause and childbirth), hair processing and blow drying, medications and certain diseases such as psoriasis and thyroid disease, can cause hair to fall out. Mental or physical stress, such as a rapid or sudden weight loss of fifteen pounds or more often causes hair loss, generally about three to six months after weight loss.
Dietary imbalances can also wreak havoc on the appearance of hair. The coarsening of hair, along with excess shedding, can be a sign of vitamin A toxicity. Though rare to over-consume foods rich in vitamin A, some medications and supplements contain potent amounts of this vitamin. The good news is that as soon as normal levels of vitamin A are reached, normal hair growth resumes. Much like lack of protein can decrease skin suppleness, it can also affect hair growth. When the body is low on protein, it uses the amino acids for other functions within the body, with hair growth low on the body’s priority list. Hair will typically lose its thickness as old hairs shed normally but no new growth comes in to take its place. Reintroducing an adequate supply of protein will allow hair to grow again, though it might take several months to see changes in hair thickness.
The take home…
Regularly monitor your hair, skin and nails. Though there could be many superficial reasons for their appearance, any changes could potentially indicate a deficiency in the diet or an underlying condition. If you have any concerns about your health, you should share them immediately with your health care practitioner. A good health care provider uses a physical examination, in conjunction with lab testing, to establish a person’s well-being. To help keep yourself in optimum health, be sure to eat and drink an array of healthful foods, and remember, if you nourish your body on the inside, the outside will shine!