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The question

My fingernails peel and crack a lot. I've been told it's related to my diet, but I do eat a lot of calcium-rich food. What else could it be?

The answer

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Fragile nails that peel and crack is a common concern and diet is not the only cause. There are four main reasons why nails become brittle:

Aging: As we age, the integrity and strength of nails can weaken and split.

Damage: One of the most common causes of peeling and cracking nails is from repetitive exposure to water with swimming, dishwashing or bathing, chemical exposure, or repetitive trauma such as biting. These actions can breakdown the nail matrix which can weaken the structure and lead to the peeling and cracking.

Diet: In addition to calcium, iron and vitamins A and D are essential building blocks for strong nails. Also, a deficiency of vitamin B12 can lead to dry nails which split easily.

Other medical conditions: Brittle and cracked nails can be a clue to other potential medical conditions such as thyroid disorder, liver and kidney disease. If nails are thickened in addition to being brittle, this may be due to a fungal infection or psoriasis.

Try the following tips to keep your nails strong and healthy:

  • Decrease prolonged exposure to wet conditions. Wear cotton-lined rubber gloves and limit prolonged moisture such as with dishwashing and bathing.
  • Avoid chemical use: Wear protective gloves when cleaning and use less harsh chemicals if possible. Try to avoid nail polish removal, but if needed, use a remover with a non-acetone base.
  • Decrease repetitive trauma: Stop biting nails or using them to pick at things. Avoid using metal instruments for manicures as this can cause trauma to the nail.
  • Keep your nails trimmed or filed to prevent catching on objects and further damage.
  • Eat a diet rich in calcium, and vitamins A and D.

Because nails regrow slowly at approximately 3 mm each month, healthy regrowth can take up to six months.

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If your nails are discoloured, thickened, have lines through them or are clubbed – see you doctor as these findings may indicate a more serious underlying medical condition.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at doctor@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Wijayasinghe.

Click here to see Q&As from all of our health experts.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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