Hair, Skin, Nails : Natural Support for Healthy Hair, Skin, and Nails

By Michael T. Murray, ND

Radiant, vibrant, and healthy looking hair, skin, and nails have long been associated with good health. While most people try and improve the appearance of these tissues from the outside alone, the real key to healthy skin, beautiful hair, and strong nails is building them from the inside out through good nutrition and key dietary supplements.

Skin, hair, and nails are derived from dynamic, living tissue. And, like all living tissue they need proper nourishment. Since hair and nails are derived from skin cells, the nutrients required for healthy skin are the same nutrients required for healthy hair and nails.

What about diet?

Yes, diet is extremely important to hair, skin, and nail health. I think the best diet for healthy skin, hair, and nails is following the Mediterranean Diet. The traditional Mediterranean diet has shown tremendous benefit against heart disease and cancer, as well as diabetes. It has the following characteristics:
  • It centers on an abundance of plant food, including fruit, vegetables, breads, pasta, potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds.
  • Foods are minimally processed and there is a focus on seasonally fresh and locally grown foods.
  • Fresh fruit is the typical daily dessert, with sweets containing concentrated sugars or honey consumed a few times per week at the most.
  • Dairy products, principally cheese and yogurt, are consumed daily in low to moderate amounts and in low fat varieties.
  • Fish is consumed on a regular basis.
  • Poultry and eggs are consumed in moderate amounts, about 1 to 4 times weekly, or not at all.
  • Red meat is consumed in small, infrequent amounts.
  • Olive oil is the principal source of fat.
  • Wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts, normally with meals.
The two components of the Mediterranean diet that have received a lot of attention is red wine and olive oil. In terms of skin health, a particularly important component of the Mediterranean diet is the olive itself. Population-based studies have shown a negative correlation between the consumption of olives and wrinkle formation.

The main reason skin wrinkles is the cumulative effects of free radical damage. This damage may be the result of exposure to the elements -- sun, wind, and pollution all take their toll, but exposure to internal free radicals is also a major cause and so is normal aging. To prevent wrinkles from forming, we need to eat a diet rich in antioxidants and avoid exposure to free radicals, especially smoking cigarettes and excessive sun exposure.

What are some other key nutrients for healthy skin?

Skin, hair, and nails are vibrant, dynamic tissue. One of the reasons that the health of our cells is so closely tied to our overall nutritional status is because of this high rate of cellular turnover. Obviously, a deficiency of an essential nutrient, whether it is a vitamin, mineral, fatty acid, or protein can result in impaired manufacture of healthy new skin cells. A healthy diet is important, but so too is proper supplementation.

I recommend taking a high potency multiple vitamin and mineral formula and a true pharmaceutical grade fish oil to insure the full balance of key nutrients for good health.

What supports healthy nails?

Your fingernails and toenails are part of your epidermis, so the same nutrients that are important to skin health apply to nails as well. In particular, human nails are largely composed of minerals and proteins. The primary protein in our nails is keratin. Key nutrients for keratin manufacture include not only specific amino acids like cysteine and methionine, but vitamin C, zinc, and B vitamins as well. When there is adequate protein, but insufficient minerals like calcium, magnesium, silica, boron, and zinc, the nails are very weak, thin, and extremely flexible.

One of the absolute key nutrients for strong nails is biotin. As early as 1940, researchers knew about an association between deficiency of B-complex vitamins and nail brittleness. More recent research, especially from the world of veterinary medicine, has focused on the role of biotin in this common disorder. Biotin has not only been shown to increase the strength and hardness of hooves in pigs and horses, recent human studies have shown that biotin supplementation (2500 mcg per day) can produce a twenty-five percent increase in the thickness of the nail plate in patients diagnosed with brittle nails of unknown cause. Silicon at a dosage of 10 mg per day has also been shown to be very effective in strengthening brittle nails.

What about healthy hair?

To fully appreciate the importance of nutrition in hair health, we must first look at how hair grows. Each hair shaft begins from an enclosed area of skin known as the hair follicle. At the base of the hair root is the hair bulb. The hair bulb is where hair growth occurs.

Hair grows by the addition of skin cells, which then change shape. In other words, hair is made of transformed skin cells. In order for healthy hair to grow, the hair bulb must have a constant supply of vital nutrients. Obviously the better the nutrition, the stronger and healthier the hair you will have.

The hair root is held in place by a sheath of tissue known as the root sheath. The ability to hold the hair in the follicle is dependent upon the strength of this sheath. Again, nutrition plays a major factor in holding hair in place. The hair shaft itself is composed of an outer layer known as the cuticle, an inner layer known as the medulla, and a layer in between known as the cortex.

Although all parts of the hair need to be healthy for healthy looking hair, it is the cuticle, the outer layer of the hair shaft, that we see. The cuticle is also the part of hair that suffers the most abuse. If the cuticle is not strong enough it can fray, be damaged, or even become detached from the shaft. This results in dry, lifeless, and damaged looking hair.

What determines the strength of the hair cuticle? Nutrition. Again, since hair is derived from skin cells, the nutrients required for healthy skin are the same nutrients required for healthy hair. In particular, although all of the B vitamins are important to healthy hair, biotin is especially important. Biotin deficiency is characterized by hair loss, change in hair color, and damaged skin. Biotin has been shown to be extremely effective in treating a medical condition known as uncombable hair syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by unruly, dry, blond hair with a tangled appearance as well as brittle nails. Biotin supplementation produces significant improvements in this disorder.

Final Comment

Remember, hair, skin, and nails are derived from dynamic living tissue. And, like all living tissue their health is ultimately determined by the quality of nutrition that it is supplied with.

Dr. Michael T. Murray is one of the world's leading authorities on natural medicine and the author of more than 30 bestselling books, including The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. He is a graduate and former faculty member, and serves on the Board of Regents, of Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington.

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