Copper plays an important role in the body, but much like anything else with our health, too little or too much can be dangerous. The issue of copper in human health isn’t something I can ever recall coming across in mass media, so I thought it would be an interesting one to cover. Here’s a look at the role of copper in the body, sources of copper, and the signs and symptoms of copper deficiency.
Why Is Copper Important?
Copper is one of the many essential minerals in the body and it plays numerous vital roles. It’s important for the likes of nervous system functioning, a balanced metabolism, iron absorption and the promotion of healthy bones. While both deficiency and toxicity are rare, it highlights just how important this mineral is at optimal levels.
What Are The Causes Of Copper Deficiency?
Not consuming enough copper in your diet is a possible cause, however deficiency is rare. It’s possible that a high intake of vitamin C or zinc can lead to deficiency as this essentially competes alongside copper for absorption.
Other potential causes involve surgery to the digestive tract and conditions like celiac disease, whereby absorption of nutrients and minerals may be reduced to varying degrees.
Deficiencies of copper have been linked to conditions like Alzheimer’s, Wilson’s and Menkes, as both too little and too much of this trace mineral can impair brain function.
How Is Copper Deficiency Diagnosed?
A blood test can help diagnose copper deficiency. Your doctor should be able to request this, and they’ll assess your symptoms, lifestyle, diet and medical history to see whether copper deficiency is likely and rule out other potential causes.
If you’re unable to get a test via your doctor, or would prefer to do so privately from home, you can order blood tests online from Medichecks. They offer one specifically for checking copper levels, while also offering a combined test for a larger range of minerals (iron, chromium, copper, magnesium, manganese and zinc). These tests can be done at a local clinic with a nurse or at home via a fingerpick test kit.
You can browse the Medichecks home blood tests using this link & get 10% off with code INVISME10
Check out my full review for more details on Medichecks here.
The Signs & Symptoms Of Copper Deficiency
As copper is crucial in absorbing iron within the gut, lower levels of copper can thus lead to lower levels of iron. As copper works in conjunction with iron in the formation of red blood cells, low iron can then cause iron deficiency anaemia. This means that the body isn’t able to get enough oxygen-rich blood to the tissues, which is turn makes you feel weaker and more tired.
Copper is also used by cells in the generation of adenosine triphosphate (ADT), which is a source of energy for the body. Reduced copper can lead to reduced ADT, hence more fatigue.
A Weakened Immune System
Copper’s role in the immune system can mean that low copper leaves the system more vulernable, so you might experience more sickness and infections. The body can find it more difficult to generate immune cells with low levels of copper, leading to neutropenia, a deficiency of neutrophils (white blood cells). Consequently the body’s ability to fight infection can be impaired.
Brittle & Weak Bones
Osteoporosis refers to a low bone mineral density, a condition that results in weak and brittle bones. Osteopenia is the stage of weakening before it becomes as severe as osteoporosis. While osteoporosis is more common as we age, there are a few conditions and deficiencies that can contribute to weakened bones, such as Vitamin D deficiency and copper deficiency. Copper plays a role in forming the cross-links within the bones to ensure bones are strong and healthy. It additionally encourages the production of bone tissue strengthening cells called osteoblasts.
Problems With Learning & Memory
Copper is involved in brain development and function. It’s used by enzymes for supplying the brain with energy and aiding the relay signals it sends to the body. A lack of copper has been associated with stunted brain development and conditions that affect learning and memory. For example, deficiencies of copper have been linked to conditions like Alzheimer’s, Wilson’s and Menkes, as both too little and too much of this trace mineral can impair brain function. One study suggested that low brain copper levels were associated with neurodegeneration, whereby patients with Alzheimer’s were found to have up to 70% lower brain copper levels than patients without Alzheimer’s.
As well as assisting in the healthy function of the brain and its relay signals, copper also plays a role in spinal cord health. Copper deficiency impairs the enzymes that insulate the spinal cord for relaying brain to body messages, and as walking is maintained by these signals, deficiency can result in unsteadiness, poor movement, and impaired co-ordination.
Pale Skin & Premature Greying
More research is needed into both of these areas, but it’s thought that copper’s role in melanin pigments can lead to pale skin and premature greying as both hair and skin colour involve melanin.
Reduced Collagen Production
Copper is involved in maintaining elastin and collagen. Lower copper may make it harder for the body to replace collagen or connective tissues, in turn leading to problems like joint dysfunction.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol have both been linked to low levels of copper.
Impaired Thyroid Function
Copper, in addition to other minerals, helps in maintaining optimal functioning of the thyroid gland. As the thyroid’s T3 and T4 levels are linked to the levels of copper, these levels can lower with copper deficiency. In turn, a thyroid condition like hypothyroidism can develop, with possible symptoms including muscles weakness and cramps, constipation, weight gain, tiredness and increased sensitivity to cold. Your GP can test for thyroid issues but a full blood workup can also be done at home; you can find out more about home thyroid tests here.
Vision Problems & Loss
Long term copper deficiency can disrupt the nervous system, which in turn can lead to vision problems and even vision loss. Loss of vision with copper deficiency is thought to be more prevalent in those with digestive tract surgery as the ability to absorb copper can be more markedly reduced.
Sources of Copper
With many foods containing reasonable amounts of copper, deficiency of this mineral is quite rare. However, being rare also means that copper is regularly checked and doesn’t typically feature in standard blood workups.
Only 0.9mg (900mcg) is needed to fulfil the recommended daily intake (RDI). Tap water can also bring small amounts of copper if the supply uses copper pipes. The upper limit for adults is 10mg (10,000mcg).
Certain foods are particularly good sources of copper. For instance:
- Seafood and meat like oysters, squid, lamb liver, beef liver and lobster are all high in copper, with 1oz/28g of beef liver containing approximately 458% the RDI.
- If meat and fish aren’t your thing, then the likes of oats, sesame seeds, cashew nuts, mushrooms, almonds, sunflower seeds and dark chocolate are all good sources.
There are also products that are infused with copper to infer certain health benefits, like copper bangles or gloves for circulation and arthritis. You can see my review for the Copper Clothing gloves here.
It’s advised you speak to a GP if you’re considering supplementing copper as supplements are not usually required except in cases of chronic conditions or heart failure.
What About Too Much Copper?
As is the case with many things, balance is the key as too little or too much can be detrimental. Too much copper can conversely cause copper toxicity. This form of metal poisoning can cause anything from troublesome to possibly fatal side effects, including vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, yellow jaundiced skin, kidney or liver damage, irregular heartbeat, headaches, problematic breathing, low blood pressure, and even coma.
Toxic copper levels are more likely the result of exposure to environments with elevated copper levels or contaminated sources of food and water.
With a balanced diet, it’s rare for either deficient or toxic levels of copper, but it’s worth being mindful. If you’ve had digestive tract surgery, such as gastric bypass, of have a condition like celiac, it’s particularly important to consider. If you have any queries or concerns, or are experiencing worrisome symptoms, speak to your GP.
Have you ever experienced issues with copper deficiency, or do you use any copper products for your health?
I am not a medical professional. The information is sourced from referenced pages. Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns or queries.