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Copper Health Benefits – Symptoms of Deficiency and Overdose

Copper is a mineral found in trace amounts in all body tissues where it plays several vital roles. It is an essential part of many enzymes and thus necessary for the body’s ability to absorb iron, deactivate free radicals and reduce oxidative stress. Copper also helps the body make melanin, myelin and collagen needed to develop connective tissue and blood vessels, heal wounds and is essential to various metabolic reactions that release energy for bodily processes.

Most people in the Western World can easily obtain adequate amounts of copper through a well-balanced diet. Recommended daily intakes based on RDAs (recommended dietary allowances) and recommended daily maximums for copper expressed in micrograms are shown in the table below:

Age RDA (mcg) Upper Limit (mcg)
1-3 340 1,000
4-8 440 3,000
9-13 700 5,000
14-18 890 8,000
Adult 900 10,000

However, recommendations are higher for women who are pregnant (1,000 mcg per day) and breastfeeding (1,300 mcg per day).

Health Effects of Copper

The appropriate level of copper in the body is essential for ensuring good health. Copper is necessary for the body’s absorption, storage and metabolism of iron and for synthesizing hemoglobin, a metalloprotein of red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to body tissues.

Copper is also an antioxidant found in enzymes that block the action of free radicals. Free radicals are pieces of highly-reactive molecules that can damage body tissues. Other copper enzymes help the body to produce the protein collagen and to heal wounds. Like iron, copper is necessary for the metabolic reactions that release energy.

Furthermore, copper is important for helping the body to develop strong bones, cartilage and blood vessels. It also contributes to creating myelin (an insulating layer around nerves) and melanin (skin pigment) which helps ensure the health of nerve tissue and prevent a person’s hair from turning gray prematurely. However, increasing the intake of copper will not help reverse the graying process. There is no medicine or dietary supplement at the moment that could reverse gray hair.

Studies show that copper may play a role in slowing the aging process by decreasing the incidence of protein glycation. In this reaction, sugar molecules (fructose or glucose) twist protein molecules out of shape, thus making them unusable. Protein glycation can cause high cholesterol, cardiac problems, bone loss, blindness (in people with diabetes) and other health problems.

In addition, the latest research suggests that copper complexes may have anti-cancer properties. However, when it comes to arthritis, there is no scientific evidence that copper bracelets are effective in relieving arthritic symptoms.

Copper Deficiency and Overdose

While proper amount of copper in the body is essential to good health, too much or too little copper can have major health consequences.

Copper deficiency is in most cases the result of genetic disorders, such as Menkes syndrome, in which the cells absorb copper but cannot release it to the body. There is no cure for Menkes syndrome and it is often fatal at a very early age.

Deficiency of copper rarely results from too little copper in the diet. But, malabsorption diseases, such as celiac disease, crohn’s disease or short bowel syndrome, and malnutrition can lead to copper deficiency. Also, premature or low-birth weight infants are at increased risk of copper deficiency.

Some individuals who take certain dietary supplements may ingest levels of zinc, iron or vitamin C that are so high that they decrease the absorption of copper. Other conditions that can cause copper deficiency include burns, prolonged diarrhea, cystic fibrosis, intestinal disease, pancreas disease, kidney disease, chronic stress and intestinal bypass surgery or stomach removal.

In most cases, copper deficiency can be easily treated with dietary supplements.

Symptoms of copper deficiency include anemia (low red blood cell count) and low white blood cell counts, abnormal heartbeat, bone abnormalities (e.g., osteoporosis), muscle spasms and impaired functioning of the immune system resulting in greater vulnerability to infection. There is some scientific evidence that low levels of copper are associated with high cholesterol and damage to blood vessels. However, further research is needed to determine if low levels of copper can actually affect cardiovascular disease risk.

High levels of copper tend to be extremely rare. When they do occur, they are mostly due to genetic disorders such as Wilson’s disease, in which copper accumulates at toxic levels in the liver, brain and other organs. However, taking excessive levels of copper supplements can also result in toxicity. Overdosing on copper may lead to liver, kidney or nerve damage. In people with diabetes, consuming too much copper can also affect blood sugar levels.

Symptoms of copper overdose include abdominal pain, burning sensation in the body, yellow eyes and skin, chills, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, metallic taste, convulsions, muscular aches, lack of urine and overall weakness.

Dietary Sources of Copper

Good dietary sources of copper include:

  • Avocadoes
  • Barley
  • Black pepper
  • Bran products
  • Chocolate
  • Dried peas and beans (e.g., chickpeas but also cocoa beans)
  • Dried fruit (e.g., prunes)
  • Goat cheese
  • Green leafy vegetables (e.g., kale)
  • Lentils
  • Mushrooms (e.g., shiitake)
  • Nectarines
  • Nuts (e.g., cashew nuts)
  • Organ meats (e.g., liver, kidneys)
  • Potatoes
  • Seafood and shellfish (e.g., oysters)
  • Seeds (e.g., sesame seeds)
  • Soy products (fermented)
  • Whole grains
  • Yeast

But, remember that cooking in copper pots boosts copper content in foods. If required, copper can be also obtained through dietary supplements. However, taking copper supplements is only recommended to patients with copper deficiencies after first consulting a doctor.

Where to Get More Information: Copper Development Association