What is Copper
Copper is a chemical element that supports the function of organs along with various metabolic processes in the human body. It is an essential dietary mineral that cannot be made by the body and must be obtained from the diet through food and drinking water. This micronutrient is used to maintain blood vessels, bones, connective tissue, and nerves. It also works with Iron to create red blood cells and aids in the absorption of Iron itself in the body. Copper is important because it both donates and accepts electrons and is part of many copper fueled enzyme reactions. Some of these reactions include energy creation, a creation of the pigment melanin, and creating collagen. It is also part of an Antioxidant enzyme that regulates Iron balance in the body. Copper can be found in the liver, muscle, and bones of the body. It metabolizes sugar and cholesterol; as well as creates and releases important proteins and enzymes that regulate energy for cells, nerve signaling, blood clotting, and the transport of oxygen. In addition to all this, it also stimulates the immune system, promotes healing, and acts as an Antioxidant neutralizing free radicals preventing damage to the body at the cellular level. After ingestion, it is absorbed in the intestines, where it is then carried to the liver where it is processed. The liver then releases Copper, where it is carried by a protein into the bloodstream so it can be transported where needed in the body. Extra Copper is removed from the liver and excreted through bile where it is removed.
Recommended Daily Intake
The adult body can store anywhere between 1.4 and 2.1 mg of Copper per Kilogram of body weight! The following recommendations for Copper intake depend on age, sex, and pregnancy status. Copper is excreted through breast milk, making it vital for infant development. Infants, however, have special mechanisms to manage Copper in the body while they develop.
Here are the following dietary intake values for Copper:
- 0 to 6 months: 200 micrograms
- 7 to 12 months: 220 micrograms
- 1 to 3 years: 340 micrograms
- 4 to 8 years: 440 micrograms
- 9 to 13 years: 700 micrograms
- 14 to 18 years: 890 micrograms
- 19 and older: 900 micrograms
- Pregnant Women: 1,000 micrograms
- Breastfeeding Women: 1,300 micrograms
A deficiency is uncommon in the United States due to the range of foods and water sources that contain Copper. The recommended values are also relatively low and are easy to reach the adequate amount for the body each day compared to other nutrients. Parts of the body that are most affected by a deficiency in Copper include the blood, heart, connective tissue, bone, the nervous system, and the immune system.
Symptoms of Copper deficiency include:
Anemia like symptoms due to problems with Iron absorption
Copper is needed for transporting and metabolizing Iron and without it, there is a decrease in these functions in the body. The body will not respond to an increase in Iron but is corrected with supplements of Copper.
Lowered Immune System and Neutropenia
Copper deficiency can lead to really low white blood cell count, increasing the risk for infection since neutrophils are a portion of the immune system.
Since Copper is essential for the formation and maintenance of bone, a deficiency can lead to brittle bones due to the lack of elastin and collagen not being produced. In a growing child, this can lead to the bone forming incorrectly, and for those older, it can cause a breakdown of the bone itself.
This causes difficulty with walking, body tremors, and degeneration in the spinal cord.
This presents itself as numbness or tingling sensation in the hands and feet that can migrate inward towards the torso. Peripheral neuropathy is a common symptom of Copper deficiency that causes damage in the brain and how it signals and can lead to disability and injury. This can also be caused by demyelination of the nerves since Copper is known to maintain the myelin sheath.
Sometimes, Copper deficiency can cause peripheral vision and color loss. A deficiency in Copper can lead to inflammation of the optic nerve as well.
Loss of pigmentation or a lightening of the skin can occur because Copper causes melanin pigmentation in the skin.
Since Copper helps create and maintain the collagen that provides connective tissue and blood vessels for the heart, a deficiency can cause these to break down and not be functioning optimally.
Copper assists with increasing energy by helping to create cellular energy called ATP.
Decreased Antioxidant activity
Iron, Selenium, and Glutathione are affected when the body is deficient in Copper. These play a role in managing oxidative stress and performing Antioxidant roles in the body.
Bones in the body can become brittle and more easily break, in addition to potentially developing osteoporosis if the deficiency goes untreated. Copper is essential for the formation and maintenance of strong bones.
The thyroid gland is very sensitive to copper, and those with a deficiency can experience weight gain.
Since pregnant and breastfeeding women require the highest daily dosage of Copper, they are most at risk for deficiency, although a balanced diet usually resolves low levels of Copper in the body. Deficiency in pregnant women can lead to the following health problems in the fetus and infants:
- Low birth weight
- Muscle weakness
- Neurological problems
The fetus stores copper in the liver in the last stage of pregnancy and is used during the time when the baby is breastfed. In babies, Copper is used for metabolic functions like creating connective tissue, gene expression, creating skin pigment, normal functioning of organs, and antioxidant function. Once weaned of breast milk, the diet should reflect a balanced diet with enough Copper for proper growth. Most newer infant formulas have added Copper to help maintain proper levels in growing babies.
Infants and children most at risk for a deficiency include:
- Low birth weight
- Ingesting cow’s milk instead of breast milk or fortified formula
- Suffering from infection
Thankfully, doctors are able to identify a deficiency quickly and provide proper treatment with supplementation.
Increased amounts of Zinc in the diet can cause a Copper deficiency as well. Zinc can be found in various treatments for infections and vitamins and is even found in denture cream and acne medication. Higher amounts of Zinc block the absorption of copper in the digestive system by providing an alternative chemical for the copper to bind to, leading to it becoming excreted from the body.
Copper deficiency can also be caused or have a heightened risk due to genetically inherited disorders as well as acquired diseases. Usually a balanced diet or supplementation can treat a copper deficiency.
Conditions linked with Copper deficiency include
The body is already experiencing bone breakdown and degradation, making it even more susceptible to the hazards that deficiency of Copper can bring.
Copper assists with creating blood vessels, creating connective tissue, and blood cells so having a heart condition can increase the effects of a Copper deficiency. Copper deficiency can also present many of the same symptoms that are present in cardiovascular disease and could also be a factor for developing it in the first place.
This genetic disorder causes a lot of symptoms and is usually fatal. It impairs enzymes that transport Iron, Antioxidant function, and the creation of neurotransmitters. Essentially, the body cannot absorb Copper that is needed to live. The problem happens with the absorption from the intestinal tract. The lack of Copper in the body can cause a variety of problems in the blood such as anemia, low white blood cell and neutrophil count. A key identifier includes coarse, brittle white/gray hair in young children where the disease presents itself.
Impaired Dietary Absorption
Diseases and surgeries that alter the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food can lead to a deficiency in many Vitamins and Minerals with Copper being just one of them. Gastric bypass surgery, Celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease are some different examples that can cause a deficiency in Copper.
Those that ingest a lot of alcohol typically have liver damage so they cannot properly store Copper or transport efficiently. They also usually do not get enough vitamins and minerals from food because they aren’t eating a proper diet and their body has a harder time absorbing nutrients from food.
Eating disorders & Vegetarians
Eating disorders involving purging or low amounts of food being eaten overall lower a number of nutrients the body will get, including Copper. Plant sources generally contain less copper than meats so those that follow a certain diet should always check with their doctor to make sure they are getting enough of all essential nutrients.
Conditions that affect the bones, connective tissue, heart, and blood vessels can lead to a Copper deficiency
The body has a wonderful system in place to absorb, transport, store, and excrete Copper to keep a constant supply without reaching high levels. When not enough Copper is obtained from the diet, the liver will use its stockpile. When too much Copper is ingested the body will try to remove excess by excreting it through bile. However, both lowered and increased amounts for extended periods of time can lead to a deficiency or toxicity. Damage to the body and disease can occur from both.
Toxicity can be caused by inherited genetic conditions or non-genetic factors. Acute Copper toxicity is usually caused by accidental ingestion and symptoms usually subside once the source is eliminated. The body has many safeguards to prevent this by regulating absorption and excretion. The genetic defect that causes Wilson’s Disease involves mutations in proteins that transport Copper to the bile duct disable the framework that controls the regulation of Copper in the body. This can cause Copper accumulation in body tissues including the liver which can cause cirrhosis. Other parts of the body that accumulate Copper include brain, kidneys and eyes.This happens in people that genetically inherit two copies of the defective gene from both parents. Thankfully genetic testing can identify this problem and it can be treated through treatments that remove Copper and allow it to be excreted as well as limiting intake of Copper. The upper limit of Copper is around 10mg per day from food and supplements.
High amounts of Copper can cause the following symptoms:
- Stomach pain
- Metallic taste in mouth
Top 10 Health Benefits of Copper
Helps form Red Blood Cells
Copper interacts with enzymes that metabolize Iron to the bone marrow as the site of red blood cell formation. Copper is a part of enzymes that form the heme molecule that eventually becomes hemoglobin and is the main component of red blood cells. It also aids in the formation of blood vessels
Maintains Bone and Connective Tissue
Copper is essential for the formation of collagen and elastin, which plays a large part in the creation of bones, connective, tissue, and skin. A Copper assisted enzyme is needed to cross link collagen and elastin which makes strong, yet flexible connective tissue for the body. This enzyme, called lysyl oxidase is also used to create the connective tissue of the heart and blood vessels as well as forming bone.
Facilitates Absorption of Iron
Copper helps the body absorb Iron from the gastrointestinal tract and release it from the liver where it is mainly stored. Some copper containing enzymes oxidize Iron from the body so that it can be transported to where red blood cells are created.
Boosts Immune System
Copper speeds up the body’s ability to heal wounds, in addition to being able to kill bacteria and boost innate immune response. Copper helps to create white blood cells which are very important parts of the immune system.
Creates Pigment for the Body
Copper is used in the creation of melanin, that provides color to the skin, hair, and eyes. It maintains skin color and has been shown to protect the hair from graying.
Copper has Antioxidant properties donating electrons to free radicals that can cause damage to the body’s cells and genetic information. Combined with an antioxidant enzyme called superoxide dismutase, it protects the cells from harmful free radicals. Without this antioxidant enzyme, neurological damage can occur. Ceruloplasmin also acts as an antioxidant by binding Copper and Iron, preventing free Copper and Iron ions from creating free-radical generating reactions in the body. Copper also affects gene regulation some of which are activated by oxidative stress in the cells, meaning that Copper can help express genes that detoxify the body.
Proper Fetal Development
Copper helps the body create bones, blood cells, blood vessels, connective tissue, and skin. In addition to this, it creates melanin that provides the skin, hair, and eye pigment for the body. It also facilitates the upregulation and deregulation of proteins in the body and gene transcription.
Provides the Body with Energy
Copper is needed to create energy as well as take place in over 50 enzymatic reactions. Copper helps to make ATP which is an energy storing molecule contained in the mitochondria of cells. It also helps the body to utilize sugar that is ingested.
Function of Organs
Copper protects the skeletal, nervous and cardiovascular system. It is involved in creation and maintenance of the myelin sheath in the nervous system. Copper can also enhance brain function as it is a brain stimulant by participating in reactions that facilitate brain function. However, too much can be harmful because it accumulates in the brain. It is also used in the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine in the brain. It also plays a role in the ability of the thyroid to function properly.
Copper can lower LDL, or bad cholesterol, levels and also increase HDL or good cholesterol. This can lead to a decreased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack, stroke, and atherosclerosis.
Top 10 Foods Rich in Copper
The following foods have high daily values of Copper:
- Sesame Seeds – 163% DV
- Cashews – 98% DV
- Soybeans – 78% DV
- Shitake Mushrooms – 72% DV
- Sunflower Seeds – 70% DV
- Tempeh – 68% DV
- Garbanzo Beans – 64%DV
- Lentils – 56% DV
- Walnuts – 53% DV
- Lima Beans – 49% DV
Best Natural Sources of Copper
Since Copper cannot be formed by the body, it must be obtained through food and drink. Ways to naturally increase your intake of Copper include:
- Eat a nutritionally balanced diet that contains foods high in Copper. Whole grain cereals, legumes, liver, cherries, fruits, green vegetables, shellfish, nuts, poultry, soybeans, and dark chocolate all naturally contain dietary Copper.
- Drink water: Groundwater and copper tubing that transports drinking water can provide 20-25% of dietary Copper found in water.
- Check with your doctor if you think you might need a Copper dietary supplement. Taking a Copper supplement can prevent a deficiency but they should be taken only under recommendation from a doctor. Various Copper supplements have different rates of absorption. Those most likely to need a Copper supplement include those with digestive issues, those on diets, and those who take Iron or Zinc supplements. Do not take copper supplements if you are experiencing diarrhea.
Side Effects & Interactions
- Those taking high amounts of Zinc, Iron, or Vitamin C may need more Copper intake. Iron tends to accumulate in the body when Copper is not there to transport it. Zinc in high doses can increase the creation of a protein that binds to Copper and prevents its absorption in the body. High doses of Vitamin C can negatively interact with the transportation of Copper.
- Birth Control Pill/Estrogen replacement: Taking these medicines can increase the blood levels of Copper.
- Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: Copper can bind to this type of pain reliever and can enhance the anti-inflammatory properties that they possess.
- Penicillamine: This medication is used with Wilson’s Disease and Rheumatoid Arthritis and reduces Copper levels.
- Allopurinol: This medicine treats gout and some studies show that it may reduce levels of Copper in the body.
- Cimetidine: Also known as Tagamet, this medication treats stomach ulcers and GERD. It may increase the levels of Copper in the body.
- Nifedipine: This medicine can lower the amount of Copper in the blood.
Disclaimer: Before taking any dietary supplements, always check with your doctor to make sure that there will be no medicinal interactions or that a supplement is right for you.