Copper is an element found throughout the body, primarily in the brain and liver but also in the hair, kidneys, and heart. There is typically about 100 to 150 milligrams of copper within the body. About 95 percent of the body’s circulating copper is found in ceruloplasmin, a copper-protein compound, which makes this blood component a good source for testing to determine copper levels within the body. Copper plays a role in many processes that allow the body to function properly, including the maintenance of a healthy nervous system and the support of bone and joint health.
Sources of Copper
Many natural foods contain copper. Foods especially rich in copper include nuts such as almonds and walnuts; legumes, including peas and beans; meats, especially liver; shellfish, particularly oysters; whole grains; and some dried fruits such as raisins and prunes. Copper is also often transferred to food through copper utensils and other cookware used to prepare food, which supplements dietary copper. Additionally, water that is consumed from copper pipes will also contribute to a person’s copper intake.
Only about 25 percent of the copper that is ingested is actually absorbed by the body; certain factors may affect the degree of absorption. For example, while protein and fresh vegetables may help increase copper absorption, vitamin C as well as zinc and manganese may actually interfere with the absorption of copper.
Although copper ingested from dietary sources is often enough to maintain appropriate copper levels in the body, supplements are available and include copper citrate, copper sulfate, and copper gluconate.
Functions of Copper
Copper serves a wide variety of purposes with the body. It helps the body to properly use iron and hemoglobin, which insure that oxygen is carried throughout the body. Copper aids the healing process by supporting the formation of collagen, which is a component of connective tissue. Its role in the formation of collagen also links copper to healthy bone development. Copper supports the nervous system in that it helps maintain myelin, which is a substance that covers nerve endings. Copper also plays a role in energy production within the body: in red blood cells, copper binds to erythrocuprein, which is involved in the creation of energy. Copper assists in the formation of melanin, which is responsible for skin pigmentation. It is also part of the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD), which protects against damage caused by free radicals. Copper also supports the body’s production of adrenaline and helps regulate levels of histamine within the body, which is linked to inflammation and allergic reactions.
Uses of Copper
Copper has been shown to lower cholesterol. It may be used to treat arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Because of its ability to aid in the production of collagen and, in turn, in tissue re-growth, copper may help treat ulcers, as well as other diseases such as cancer and diabetes; it may also increase bone density. Anemia, fatigue, and allergies may also be treated with copper, especially if the people suffering from such conditions demonstrate low levels of copper.
There is some debate over whether copper deficiency or toxicity is more of a concern. Traditionally, copper deficiency has not been a concern because copper is present in so many natural foods; however, recent studies have shown that human copper levels are lower than the appropriate amount. Alternately, there is concern that humans are ingesting an excessive amount of copper, perhaps from the pipes through which tap water runs. Both copper deficiency and copper toxicity may pose serious health risks.
Since copper may help reduce cholesterol, it is unsurprising that a copper deficiency may lead to higher cholesterol. Similarly, bone diseases and anemia may also be side effects of inadequate levels of copper. The immune system is weakened by copper deficiencies, thereby making people with such deficiencies more susceptible to infection. Effects of insufficient copper on the immune system may include decreased white blood cell activity as well as decreased cellular immune response. Copper deficiencies may also result in decreased functioning of the thyroid.
Several conditions may cause a decrease in the body’s absorption of copper, thus leading to a copper deficiency; such conditions include sprue and celiac disease. Pregnant women are often at risk of inadequate copper intake, as are infants who drink only cow’s milk, which is very low in copper. Since zinc and copper are absorbed by the same sites, too much zinc in the body will prevent copper from being absorbed, also creating a copper deficiency.
Elevated levels of copper have been linked to schizophrenia, depression, and learning problems, as well as fatigue, nervousness, irritability, and, in women, premenstrual syndrome. Concentrated doses of excessive copper can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, and dizziness, among other problems. Since zinc and manganese work within the body to balance each other out, supplementation of zinc may help counteract the effects of copper toxicity; increased levels of manganese and vitamin B6 may also help treat copper toxicity.
Several conditions may lead to excessive levels of copper in the body. Contraceptive pills may lead to increased levels of copper. While people with conditions such as viral infections, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, leukemia and other cancers have demonstrated higher levels of copper, there is uncertainty regarding the source of these elevated levels; an increase in the amount of copper present could be part of the cause of the disease, but it could also be the body’s response to the disease.
Wilson’s disease is a condition that causes an increase in copper levels in the body. Copper initially collects in the liver, but is eventually released and absorbed by other parts of the body. This disease can result in hepatitis, decreased kidney function, and neurological disorders, among other complications.
Required Daily Amount
The requirement for copper is about two milligrams per day for both men and women. While copper deficiency has traditionally not been a concern, some studies have shown that actual copper intake is below the recommended level.
Since zinc and copper each affect the way the body uses the other element, it is important that a balance is maintained between the two. The ratio of zinc to copper should be maintained between the range of 10:1 and 15:1; that is, 10 to 15 milligrams of zinc to one milligram of copper.
- Alan H. Pressman and Sheila Buff. The Complete Idiot's guide to vitamins and minerals, Alpha A member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc (2007)
- Brewer, S. The essential guide to vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements, Right Way (2010)
- Elson M. Haas, Md & Buck Levin, Phd, Rd. Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to diet and nutritional medicine, Celestial Arts (2006)
- Holford, P. The optimum nutrition bible, Little Brown Group (2004)
- Holford, P & Lawson, S. Optimum Nutrition Made Easy How to achieve optimum health, Piatkus Books (2008)
- Lieberman, S. & Bruning, N. The Real Vitamin & Mineral Book, Avery, a Member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc (2003)
- Rodale Health Books. Healing with vitamins : the best nutrients to slow, stop, and reverse disease, Rodale, (2009)
- Royston, A. Vitamins and minerals for a healthy body, Heinemann Library, (2003)
- The National Research Council. Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th ed, National Academy of Sciences (1989)
- Werbach, M. Nutritional Influences on Illness, 2nd ed, Third Line Press (1993)
Posted in CopperAsk a Question Or Join a Discussion