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The best nutrients for healthy hair and nails
Want strong, shiny locks and healthy nails? Focus on getting these 4 nutrients.
The next time you’re filling your cart at the grocery store or perusing a menu, remember: There's a strong connection between the health of your hair and nails and what you eat. A healthy diet filled with a range of nutrients is important for both those body parts. But it’s not as simple as popping a supplement that promises thick hair and strong nails.
There are no specific “hair vitamins” or “nail vitamins,” says Carol Haggans. She’s a scientific and health communications consultant with the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. “Most vitamins and minerals have wide-ranging roles in the body,” she says. In other words, nutrients that are good for your overall health are ones your hair and nails are thirsty for, too.
The condition of your skin and nails can be a window into your nutritional life, providing clues as to whether you’re getting enough of a certain nutrient. If your hair is thinning and feels straw-like or your nails are dry and brittle, it could point to a deficiency.
“It’s important to understand the concept of the micronutrient triage theory [developed by Bruce Ames],” says Robin Foroutan, RD, an integrative medicine nutritionist in New York City. When the body isn’t getting enough nutrients, it prioritizes body functions according to their importance for survival and reproduction. And that could give hair and nails — which you don’t need for survival — short shrift.
“In order to have super healthy hair and nails, you need to get optimal levels of most nutrients so your body has enough resources to devote to the proteins that make up healthy hair and nails,” says Foroutan.
If you’re having an issue your nails, skin or hair, you can make a virtual appointment with one of Optum’s health care providers. Get started.
The keratin-nutrient connection
The main building blocks of hair and nails are keratin proteins, which provide structure and a protective barrier, says Foroutan. Keratin is made in the body using a range of vital nutrients.
If you eat a fairly balanced diet, you might assume you’re covered. But the reality is that most of us aren’t getting optimal levels of some nutrients through our diet. “You’d be surprised how often people with overall healthy diets have nutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies that can affect overall health and appearance,” says Foroutan.
In fact, 75% of Americans don’t eat enough fruit and 80% don’t eat enough vegetables, according to the Linus Pauling Institute’s Micronutrient Information Center.
Fruits and veggies are loaded with nutrients that your hair and nails love, including beta-carotene, which gets converted to vitamin A in our bodies. And many Americans also fall short of their recommended daily intake of hair-helping, nail-friendly nutrients such as iron and zinc.
4 top hair and nails nutrients — and how to get them in your diet
While there’s no single nutrient that will magically deliver to-die-for nails and hair, these 4 play important supporting roles in keratin formation. It’s best to get them through your diet, but you may need to supplement if your doctor discovers you’re deficient in 1 or more.
Boost your biotin
Biotin — another name for vitamin B7 — is marketed as a hair, skin and nails supplement power player. “It’s very important to keratin production,” says Foroutan. Along with other B vitamins, it supports healthy cell division and growth for hair and nails, explains registered dietitian nutritionist Ginger Hultin, RD, author of How to Beat Disease Cookbook.
So how much biotin do you really need? The recommended amount for adults is about 30 micrograms a day, which is small compared to the levels in some biotin supplements, says Haggans, which can contain up to 5,000 micrograms. The extra biotin likely won’t do you harm, though. Unlike some other nutrients, biotin is not toxic in large doses. But it can interfere with certain laboratory tests, so let your doctor know if you’re taking it, says Haggans.
Although a deficiency can lead to hair thinning, there’s not a lot of research showing that biotin supplements will help grow a full head of thick hair. But a few small studies have found that folks with brittle nails had improved thickness and strength when taking extra biotin. (Read more about the causes of hair loss.)
You can get biotin naturally in your diet by eating these foods:
- Sweet potato
- Some nuts (such as almonds) and seeds (such as sunflower seeds)
Eat more iron
Working some iron into your meals is important for hair and nails. “Dry, brittle nails are a common symptom of anemia,” says Hultin. Anemia is caused by low levels of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your cells, including those in your nail bed and scalp. Iron also helps proper cell division to support healthy hair follicles, says Hultin, and a deficiency can lead to hair loss. An iron deficiency can also result in brittle nails or spoon nails, which look like they’ve been scooped out on top.
But as with most nutrients, there can be too much of a good thing. Iron overload, also called hemochromatosis, is a condition in which the body absorbs and stores too much iron. Hemochromatosis can cause heart failure and, over time, can lead to liver cancer, arthritis, diabetes, early menopause and erectile dysfunction. So don’t take extra iron the name of beauty on your own. Your doctor can run a complete blood count (a CBC) and measure the levels of your red blood cells to determine if you need to supplement.
You can easily get dietary iron by eating these foods:
- Meat (beef, poultry and pork)
- Dark leafy greens
- Dried fruit
- Fortified cereals and breads
Say yay for A
Vitamin A is essential for healthy hair and nails — as well as cell growth in general — and if you don’t get enough of it, you could start to notice hair loss. But it’s a balance: Too much vitamin A can actually cause hair loss and other serious problems. Because vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient, it gets stored up in the body and can reach toxic levels, causing symptoms such as headaches, nausea and dizziness. So again, make sure you get your blood levels checked by a doctor before popping a pill. For meat eaters, good dietary sources are:
- Fish oils
Beta-carotene is turned into vitamin A in the body, so certain vegetables and fruits are good sources as well, such as:
- Sweet potatoes
Zinc, which we get from nuts, grains and leafy greens, helps with the immune system, wound healing and cell growth. When you don’t get enough of it, you can develop hair loss, since zinc is needed for the formation of keratin. But zinc in high doses can lead to anemia, nausea, headaches and, in the long term, lower immunity and low levels of good cholesterol. Luckily, it’s not too hard to get a healthy amount of zinc through your diet. And seafood lovers can celebrate: Oysters contain more zinc per serving than other food. Other good sources include:
- Red meat
- Fortified breakfast cereals
If you and your health care provider determine supplements are the way to go, buyer beware. “When it comes to supplements of vitamins and minerals, not all versions are created equal,” says Foroutan. She recommends getting expert advice — from a dietitian or doctor who is well versed in dietary supplements — on choosing brands to ensure you have high enough doses to make a difference. “So many supplements on the market have such small amounts of key nutrients that they’re not even worth taking, despite their pretty packaging.”
In some cases, it may even make sense to try a prescription supplement. Your provider will help you make the right choice for you.
You don’t have to wait until your hair is thinning to seek support. Jumpstart the process to fuller hair by completing our online questionnaire to see if prescription-strength hair support might be a good fit for you.
Micronutrient inadequacies: Oregon State University, Linus Pauling Institute. "Micronutrient Inadequacies in the US Population: an Overview"
Biotin: National Institutes of Health, Biotin Fact Sheet and Harvard School of Public Health, Biotin – Vitamin B7
Anemia: Mayo Clinic, Anemia and Iron Deficiency Anemia.
Iron overload: Cleveland Clinic. Hemochromatosis (Iron Overload)
Spoon nails: Mayo Clinic Spoon Nails
Vitamin A: National Institutes of Health Vitamin A Fact Sheet
Zinc: National Institutes of Health, Zinc Fact Sheet
Nutrients and hair loss: Dermatology and Therapy. 2018. The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Hair Loss: A Review.