Copper is a heavy metal that plays a few key roles in our body. It helps make certain enzymes, it helps determine which genes our bodies turn on and off, helps form connective tissues like hair, skin, nails, ligaments and tendons. Copper is also involved in cell metabolism and helps keep our bones healthy. It also plays a role in how iron is made, used and stored in our bodies.
Copper is found almost everywhere in nature, especially in ground water. It’s found all throughout the earth’s crust. Soil and natural sources of water all contain small amounts of copper. If you have copper pipes in your home, your water will also contain some copper.
Copper has been noted for its medicinal qualities as far back as 400 B.C. Bacteria also can’t grow on copper surfaces like copper doorknobs or copper panels.
Like zinc, copper also plays a role in the formation of one of the most powerful antioxidants found in our bodies. It helps form the enzyme Superoxide dismutase (SOD), which can take the very dangerous superoxide free radical and turn it into the slightly less harmful free radical, hydrogen peroxide. Another enzyme in our body turns hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. Superoxide is an oxygen molecule that has become supercharged and highly reactive. It can easily damage DNA or any other part of a cell it comes in contact with.
Copper deficiency is rare but can occur in some individuals. Infants are most at risk if they are fed formula made from cow’s milk, which is naturally low in copper. Premature babies or children with malabsorption issues are at risk as well.
Adults can also be at risk for copper deficiency as well. People with celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or other intestinal issues that affect your ability to absorb nutrients, can be at risk as well. Those who eat diets poor in copper or those who are elderly are at risk for copper deficiency as well.
Some of the symptoms of copper deficiency include anemia, elevated cholesterol, fatigue, poor immune function and wounds that heal slowly. If you notice that you have a few of these symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Like copper deficiency, getting too much copper is rare as well. However, individuals with Wilson’s disease are at risk for getting too much copper. Wilson’s disease is a genetic disorder where the body can’t get rid of copper. Eventually, copper can begin to deposit in organs and interfere with their functions. It may even result in liver damage and failure if not treated by a physician.
Copper pipes can cause your copper levels to get too high. Excessively high levels can bring on anxiety, learning disabilities, PMS (pre menstrual syndrome) or schizophrenia. See your doctor if you experience more than one of these symptoms, especially if your home contains copper piping.
Ingesting a large dose of copper (acute copper poisoning), can cause diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Excessively high doses of copper over time may lead to anemia, kidney disease or even death.
Copper vs. Zinc
Our bodies are great at regulating zinc and copper. One of the ways the body does this is by using one of these metals to balance out the other. Zinc and Copper have the same absorption sites in your intestinal tract so they are constantly competing with each other. Therefore, getting too much copper in you diet, can cause you to become zinc deficient. Likewise, too much zinc in your diet, can cause you to become copper deficient. It’s no surprise that, in nature, foods naturally high in zinc are also good sources of copper. And, foods that are high in copper are also good sources of zinc.
If your copper levels are low, you can help your body absorb more copper by eating proteins and certain carbohydrates. A compound called phytic acid binds zinc in carbohydrates, which doesn’t allow it to be absorbed by the body.
Copper and Alzheimer’s Disease
Studies have come out in recent years, that have linked copper and other minerals like iron, to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies suggest that copper can prevent a protein called Lipoprotein receptor related protein 1 (LRP1) from removing a toxic protein in the brain called Amyloid Beta (Aß), which is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The studies, which were done on lab mice and human brain cells, suggest that copper, even in normal amounts, may build up in your blood to the point where it causes the blood brain barrier to become leaky. The barrier protects the brain from most drugs and toxins. Copper, according to the study, seems to cause neurons to produce more Aß and may cause the proteins to clump together, which creates the plaques that are found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
However, other studies suggest that copper may not play a role in Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, it may help prevent Alzheimer’s instead of promote it. A 2013 study argued that if conditions in the previous study were the same as in the human brain, that normal amounts of copper would help remove Aß proteins and even help cause them from forming in the first place. Other critics of the first study say that the original study also did not differentiate between the inorganic form of copper found in drinking water and the organic (natural) forms of copper found in food.
Another research group suggested that iron may be the element that sets off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
How Much Copper?
Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of Copper
|0 – 6 Months||200 mcg||200 mcg|
|7 – 12 Months||220 mcg||220 mcg|
|1 – 3 Years||340 mcg||340 mcg||1,000 mcg|
|4 – 8 Years||440 mcg||440 mcg||3,000 mcg|
|9 – 13 Years||700 mcg||700 mcg||5,000 mcg|
|14 – 18 Years||890 mcg||890 mcg||1,000 mcg||1,300 mcg||8,000 mcg|
|18+ Years||900 mcg||900 mcg||1,000 mcg||1,300 mcg||10,000 mcg|
Interestingly enough, women seem to retain copper better than males. Why this happens is still unclear.
Foods high in Copper
Spirulina, a blue-green algae, is another good source of copper. 7 grams of dried chlorella contains about 400 mcg of copper.
These mushrooms are also great sources of copper. 4 dried mushrooms can contain around 800 mcg of copper. This is almost 100% of the daily value for an adult.
Cocoa powder contains 0.2 mg (200 mcg) of copper per teaspoon. This is about 10% of the daily value for an adult. Both unsweetened cocoa powder and the kind used in hot chocolates have the same amount of copper per teaspoon.
Copper and Zinc
Mollusks, especially oysters, are a great example of foods that are high in both zinc and copper. 4 mollusks (28 grams approx.) contain about 2 mg of copper and 50 mg of zinc. This is over 100% and well over 300% respectively of the daily value for adults. Wild mollusks are better sources of zinc and copper than farm raised mollusks.
Supplementing with copper is not recommended because it’s easy to get too much copper in your diet especially if you eat foods high in copper, have Wilson’s disease, or have copper pipes in your home. There are many forms of copper that can be used in supplements. Some of the best forms of copper are copper acetate, copper citrate and copper chelates.
Here is a list of prescription drugs that may potentially interact with copper in supplements.
- Itender Singh, Abhay P. Sagare, Mireia Coma, David Perlmutter, Robert Gelein, Robert D. Bell, Richard J. Deane, Elaine Zhong, Margaret Parisi, Joseph Ciszewski, R. Tristan Kasper, and Rashid Deane Low levels of copper disrupt brain amyloid-β homeostasis by altering its production and clearance; PNAS, 2013 110 (36) 14771-14776;
- Wapnir, Raul A. “Copper absorption and bioavailability.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 67.5 (1998): 1054S-1060S.