Family health

Wise to the Surface

Your energy is disappearing faster than the summer. You feel as though you’ve been dragging yourself around for weeks. You collapse onto the couch, emery board in hand, to tend to your neglected nails. But a little filing won’t fix these fingers — your nails seem to be curving upwards from the cuticle. What’s going on?

The answer is at your fingertips. That spooning of your nails, combined with feeling generally crummy, is a sign that you may have an iron deficiency. In fact, little changes in your skin, hair and nails can be outward clues to a host of inside troubles.

“Any physical change is important,” says Sharon Mintz, a Toronto family doctor. “If you’ve had something, let’s say a mole, for 20 years and all of the sudden it changes, you should get it checked.” Same goes for something new — from hair loss to problem toenails.

That said, Mintz is quick to point out that, taken in isolation, small changes on your body often mean nothing. But if you’re also feeling ill and fatigued, what seems superficial may point to an underlying health problem, and can provide a good starting point for discussion with your doctor. Here’s what to look for.

Roots of Trouble

Itchy scalp: This could be nothing more than an allergic reaction to a new hair product. But if you’re not using anything new, take a closer look for the following symptoms:

• Thick, flaky skin around your scalp may mean you have psoriasis (a persistent condition that causes areas of your skin to become thickened, inflamed and scaly).

• Flakes in the front of your scalp, between your eyebrows, around your nostrils and behind your ears could indicate seborrheic dermatitis (an easily treated red, scaly rash, also known as cradle cap in infants).

For either of these conditions, a trip to the doctor is in order for both a confirming diagnosis and treatment.

Hair loss: “A few things could be happening here,” says Mintz. “It could be stress related. It could also be iron deficiency anemia, in which case you’d also be pale and quite fatigued. Or you could be looking at either an under- or overactive thyroid condition.”

To boost your iron intake, fortify your diet with spinach and other leafy green vegetables, lean beef, apricots and cashews. And try to drink some OJ along with your enriched breakfast cereal to increase your absorption of the mineral.

A person with a hypothyroid (under-active) condition would also have fatigue, constipation, a feeling of being cold, as well as dry, coarse hair. You may also notice that the outer edges of your eyebrows are starting to fall out. This conditions is common postpartum. A hyperthyroid (overactive) condition has opposite, sped-up symptoms, such as insomnia, anxiety, discomfort with heat and diarrhea. For either of these problems, see your doctor.

If you’re also retaining water, feeling nervous or coping with cramping in your arms and legs, then your hair loss may be due to a deficiency of vitamin B6. Try adding more meat, fish, cantaloupe, cabbage and brown rice to your diet.

Nailing It

Got white spots on your fingernails?

That’s nothing to worry about. Ditto for subtle discoloration — it’s probably from nail polish. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore your nails. Here’s what to keep an eye on:

• Vertical lines on your nails may indicate a zinc deficiency. Think about your diet recently: Are you getting enough meat, fish, poultry, whole grains or legumes? If you’ve also noticed that wounds seem to be taking longer than usual to heal, chances are you need to up your intake of this mineral.

• If you notice little pits on the surface of your fingernails, you might be seeing an early sign of psoriasis.

• If you’ve been feeling generally unwell and notice horizontal stripes on your nails, see your doctor. This combination of symptoms could be related to problems with your heart or liver.

• An onset of streaky, painless dark lines on your fingernails — not related to bruising or an injury — also merits a trip to the doctor, as it could be a sign of melanoma.

The Skinny on Skin

The largest organ in your body — your skin — can often be your first indicator of an underlying problem.

• Pearly white, dome-shaped bumps on your face could signal basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer. They can start out as small translucent nodules with little blood vessels shining through, as a red, flat but slightly raised area or as a scaly red to white-brownish patch. Sometimes basal cell carcinoma may be of brown to black colour looking similar to a mole. They may itch, be sensitive to touch or even bleed. Be sure to see your doctor.

• Rough, dry scaly skin can suggest a vitamin E deficiency. Try eating more whole grains, meat, eggs, avocados, wheat germ and vegetable oils.

• If you also seem more prone to skin infections, are having trouble with your teeth and gums and find both your appetite and sense of smell are lacking, you may be suffering from a vitamin A deficiency. Boost your diet with more coloured fruits and vegetables, plus eggs and dairy products.

While you shouldn’t lose sleep over a new spot on your skin, neither should you ignore it, says Mintz. “Go to your doctor and really talk it through,” she says. Because when it comes to your health, nothing is superficial.