I've been biting my nails for years - how do I stop?

Naturopathic doctor

The first step is to find out why you bite your nails. One reason many people bite their nails is to satisfy the need to have something in their mouths, which happens a lot with stressed-out people who skip meals and drink a lot of coffee. If that description fits you, making sure you eat regular meals with adequate protein may help, because that maintains a regular blood sugar level throughout the day. In other people, the culprits are nervousness and increased tension, so I treat them for stress. That can be done a number of ways, including through relaxation practices, such as meditation and yoga, as well as diet and lifestyle changes.

I also suggest taking the herb horsetail, which has a good base of silica that helps with hair and nail strength. Certain mineral supplements also keep nails strong; I generally suggest calcium, magnesium, and potassium. A lot of people have used gelatin — they'll either eat Jello or take it in a capsule — because it's a protein base that helps strengthen the nail.

Of course, there are some safety issues with nail biting — a lot of people will chew off hangnails, which increases the chance of infection. The other thing with nails is that people will chew down to the nail beds, which isn't good because the nails are there to protect the fingers.
— Rebecka Hoppins Campbell, ND, Seattle Naturopathic Clinic, Lynnwood, Washington

Behavioral psychologist

Habits are hard to break because they're automatic — you're doing it without any forethought. Really, the idea is to distinguish what's driving this behavior. The next step is to identify the situations that trigger the behavior and to replace those with something else.

If you feel an urge to do something, you can use certain techniques to channel that energy into something different that would not be harmful. One way is to use a squeezy ball and keep squeezing until the impulse or the urge to bite your nails passes. It can't be something jellylike — you need something a bit firm that actually makes you work a little.

Equally important is to look at what produces the nail-biting behavior. Some people may find that they bite their nails during times of boredom because they aren't engaging in any activity. But if you definitely notice that when you're sitting in front of the TV you've got your nails in your mouth, you could do something like put Band-Aids on your nails. Then when the finger goes up to your mouth, you will automatically form an awareness of what you're doing.
— Robin Zasio, PsyD, Anxiety Treatment Center, Sacramento, California

Acupuncturist

Nail biting is like the little red light on your dashboard: If you're driving down the road and the “check engine” light goes on, it's probably a good idea to see what's happening and get the whole car checked out.

It also tends to happen when a person is very anxious. As far as I'm concerned, it's not really the nail biting as much as the specific cause, because nail biting is a manifestation of anxiety. And from my perspective, many, many people in our culture are anxious so it's a fairly widespread phenomenon.

The Chinese believe that there's some kind of weakness in the body that causes this anxiety. We would recommend some specific herbs that “root” the spirit more securely. Atractylodes, dong quai, and longan all nourish the spirit and spleen and stomach to help with digestion and nourishment.

Sometimes I'll use dragon bone, which is fossilized bone. Its calcium content calms and takes the edges off the spirit disturbance. Sometimes conch shell calms things down. I would also recommend tai chi because it's a calming exercise, and qigong, which involves certain body movements and awareness that take you out of the focus on yourself and your stress.
— Donn Hayes, Dipl. AC, CH (NCCA), Rising Sun, Evergreen, Colorado