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Mineral Nutrient :: Copper


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Content Below: What is Copper · Benefits · Deficiency Signs · Foods · Supplements · RDA · Toxicity

What is Copper ?
Copper is an important trace mineral present in all body tissues. It plays an essential role in the body's metabolic processes.

The total amount of copper in each person is generally between 50 to 100 milligrams.  Most of it is stored in the liver, with smaller amounts in the brain, heart, and kidneys.

Food processing and lengthy cooking can substantially reduce the copper content of food, by as much as 50 to 70%.

Foods also tend to contain less copper now than just 50 years ago, mainly it is believed, due to depletion of minerals from soils.  However food that is cooked in copperware may get copper leached into it from the utensil.

How Copper Benefits Health
Copper, together with iron, is important in the formation of hemoglobin and red blood cells.  It also helps to keep the nerves, blood vessels, bones and immune system healthy.

Copper is needed in the diet as it is a critical component of many enzymes and enables them to function properly.  These enzymes play a vital role in a wide range of biochemical processes in the body.

:: Copper Benefits & Functions
1. copper-enabled enzymes are needed for the absorption, transport, and utilization of iron
2. due to its role in iron mobilization, copper is necessary for the formation of haemoglobin and red blood cells, and so has a role in the transport of oxygen throughout the body and energy production
3. one type of copper-enabled enzyme works with vitamin C and zinc to form elastin (found in skin and tissue and needed to keep skin flexible but tight, allowing skin to bounce back after being stretched; elastin tends to deplete as people age, resulting in wrinkled skin)
4. also essential for formation of collagen, which makes up bone and the connective tissue that connects and helps elastin to support other body tissues such as skin, bone, cartilage, tendons, and muscles; collagen is also important for healing of wounds
5. keeps arteries flexible
6. another copper-dependent enzyme helps the body produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin and hair its color
7. involved in development of immune cells and immune function
8. component of an antioxidant enzyme called superoxide dismutase (SOD) that protects cell membranes from damage by harmful free radicals, by eliminating the free radicals from the body; copper might therefore help prevent cancer, as any lack of copper (or zinc with which it works for this function) results in greater free radical damage
9. keeps thyroid gland functioning properly, and prevents hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid that does not produce enough of the hormone thyroxine)
10. preserves the myelin sheath that covers and protects nerves, and so is needed for healthy nerves and taste sensitivity


Copper Deficiency Symptoms and Causes
Full-blown copper deficiency is rare as copper is naturally present in many foods.  However, many people eat less than the recommended amounts of it.  Also, less than 50% of the copper in the diet is absorbed by the body, which leads to sub-optimal levels.

Certain conditions give rise to copper deficiency symptoms.  Infants fed on cow's milk (which is low in copper), low birth-weight infants, and children on low protein diets have been found to be short of copper.

In the elderly, and in people with malabsorption disorders (such as chronic diarrhea, Crohn's disease, celiac disease), food and consequently nutrients are poorly absorbed, which increases the risk of copper deficiency.

Zinc, iron, and copper compete for amino acid carriers that transport them across intestinal walls into the bloodstream.  Hence, high doses of any one of these minerals can cause a deficiency in the others.

Copper needs sufficient levels of stomach acid for absorption.  Regular use of antacids may therefore increase the risk of deficiency.

Calcium and phosphorus can increase the excretion of copper.  Prolonged use of oral contraceptives may also upset copper balance in the body.

As copper is involved in many biochemical functions in the body, low levels of it can result in a wide range of disorders.

:: Copper Deficiency Symptoms
1. among the earliest symptoms are osteoporosis, osteopenia (lower bone mineral density than normal, but not as low as for osteoporosis) and joint problems
2. retarded growth or abnormalities in bone development in low birth weight infants and young children
3. as copper is needed for the mobilization of iron, deficiency of it is one cause of sideroblastic anemia (characterized by lack of improvement with iron therapy alone, since it is due to defective iron utilization rather than insufficient iron)
4. hair loss
5. impaired immune system that leads to susceptibility to infections
6. impaired nervous system that may lead to decreased taste sensitivity and lack of physical coordination
7. inelastic blood vessels that rupture easily
8. elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels
9. deterioration of heart muscles and irregular heart beat
10. breathing difficulties
11. fatigue and weakness
12. skin sores
13. hypothyroidism (under-production of thyroid hormones)
14. Menkes disease (kinky hair syndrome), a rare genetic disorder of copper transport/absorption that occurs mostly in male infants, characterized by sparse greyish or colorless twisted hair, and floppy muscle tone


Copper Foods
Foods high in copper · organ meats (liver, heart, kidney) · dried spirulina · crimini mushrooms · shiitake mushrooms · oysters and other shellfish.

Other foods containing copper include · avocado, kiwifruit, pineapple, oranges · asparagus, Brussel sprouts, eggplant, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radish, red bell peppers, summer squash, tomatoes · green beans, winged beans · dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach, swiss chard, turnip greens · blackstrap molasses · buckwheat, quinoa, barley, oats, millet · cocoa · dried fruit like raisins and prunes · dried beans like soybeans, adzuki beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lentils, lima, navy beans · garlic, ginger, black pepper, peppermint · nuts like cashew nuts, hazelnuts, filberts, brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds and pecans · sesame, flax, pumpkin and sunflower seeds · tempeh and tofu · yeast.


Copper Supplements
Taking vitamins and minerals in their correct balance is vital to the proper functioning of all vitamins.  They work synergistically, which means that the effectiveness of any one nutrient requires, or is enhanced, sometimes dramatically, by the presence of certain other nutrients.

For this reason, if you are looking to take supplements for maintenance of optimal health, the recommended approach is to take a multi-vitamin that has the proper balance of all the necessary nutrients your body needs.

For a list of reputable top ranked vitamin and mineral supplements chosen in an independent supplement review, see Best Multivitamin Supplements. Many of these are manufactured to pharmaceutical or nutraceutical GMP compliance, which is the highest multivitamin standard possible.

Keep in mind, however, that while mineral supplements are useful to plug nutritional gaps that are almost inevitable in modern diets, and to ensure we get optimal doses of nutrients, they are no substitute for a good diet. Instead, use them to complement a healthy diet and lifestyle.


Copper RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance)
The Food & Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, in their 1997-2001 collaboration between the US and Canada, set the daily Adequate Intake (AI) of Copper as follows.

Life Stage | Gender Copper Dosage | Day
Infants 0-6 mths 200* µg
Infants 7-12 mths 220* µg
Children 1-3 yrs 340 µg
Children 4-8 yrs 440 µg
Girls 9-13 Yrs 700 µg
Boys 9-13 Yrs 700 µg
Females 14-18 Yrs 890 µg
Males 14-18 Yrs 890 µg
Females 19-50 Yrs 900 µg
Males 19-50 Yrs 900 µg
Females older than 50 Yrs 900 µg
Males older than 50 Yrs 900 µg
Pregnant Women 14-18 Yrs 1000 µg
Pregnant Women 19-50 Yrs 1000 µg
Lactating Mothers 14-18 Yrs 1300 µg
Lactating Mothers 19-50 Yrs 1300 µg

These dosages are the minimum required per day to ward off deficiency. In therapeutic use of this nutrient, dosage is increased as necessary for the ailment, keeping in mind Copper toxicity levels.


1 µg = 1 mcg = 1 microgram = 1/1,000,000 of a gram
1 mg = 1 milligram = 1/1,000 of a gram

* Indicates AI figures based on Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) figures


Copper Overdose Symptoms, Toxicity Level & Side Effects
Copper toxicity is generally rare, as excess is regulated by being excreted in bile. However in large amounts beyond the recommended doses, copper can accumulate and become poisonous, and cause liver, kidney, nerve or brain damage.  In severe cases it can lead to coma and death.

Symptoms of overdosing include weakness, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, muscle and joint pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia, memory lapses, delirium, and stuttering.

Copper toxicity is also believed to contribute to other medical problems like autism, childhood hyperactivity, learning disabilities, schizophrenia, senility, decreased concentration, and hypertension.

Postnatal depression might also be linked to high levels of copper.  Copper can rise during pregnancy to almost double the usual level and it may take a few months after delivery to get back to normal.

Copper can pass to babies during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and care should be taken to avoid taking doses higher than the recommended level.

Apart from excessive intake linked to over-supplementation, or to drinking water carried in copper pipes or cooking in unlined copper pots, toxicity is often due to a metabolic disorder.

One such disorder is Wilson's disease, a rare genetic condition in which the body cannot rid itself of copper.  This causes deposits of copper in organs, mainly the liver, kidneys, and brain, that can lead to serious consequences like hepatitis, kidney problems, and brain and nerve damage.

Other disorders that inhibit bile flow, by which excess copper is excreted, or that cause copper to accumulate in the body (such as idiopathic copper toxicosis) can also lead to toxicity even at low intake levels.

Treatment includes avoiding copper supplements and foods high in copper, and taking chelating agents that remove excess copper from the body.

The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine has set Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) for copper.  These are levels above which there is risk of toxicity, especially when taken over a long time.

Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) for Copper per Day
Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
0 to 12 months *ND *ND    
1 to 8 years 1,000 µg 1,000 µg    
9 to 13 years 5,000 µg 5,000 µg    
14 to 18 years 8,000 µg 8,000 µg 8,000 µg 8,000 µg
19 years & above 10,000 µg 10,000 µg 10,000 µg 10,000 µg
*ND : Not determinable.  Intake should be from food/milk only.

The ULs do not apply to therapeutic use of copper for treatment, which should be under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

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1. Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary reference intakes for vitamin A, vitamin K, arsenic, boron, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, vanadium, and zinc. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2001.

2. U.S. National Libary of Medicine [NLM] & National Institutes of Health [NIH]: MedlinePlus. NLM-NIH home page. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus>. Use the built-in search function to find specific data. Accessed 2009 March – June.

3. The George Mateljan Foundation: The world's healthiest foods [WHFoods]. WHFoods home page. <http://www.whfoods.com>. Accessed 2009 March – June.

4. Balch JF, Balch PA. Prescription for nutritional healing: A practical A-Z reference to drug-free remedies using vitamins, minerals, herbs & food supplements. Garden City Park, New York: Avery Publishing; 1990.

5. Ulene A. Dr. Art Ulene's complete guide to vitamins, minerals and herbs. New York, NY: Avery Publishing; 2000.

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