Copper is a mineral found throughout your body. It’s a nutrient that your body must have to function properly. You only need trace amounts of this heavy metal. Lead, mercury, and arsenic are examples of heavy metals that aren’t good for you. But getting copper in trace amounts is essential. Getting too much of it or not enough of it can cause health problems.
Copper has an important role in a number of functions, including the:
- production of red blood cells
- regulation of heart rate and blood pressure
- absorption of iron
- prevention of prostatitis, or inflammation of the prostate
- development and maintenance of bone, connective tissue, and organs such as the brain and heart
- activation of the immune system
Copper has attracted interest as a therapeutic agent. According to a study in Medicinal Research Reviews, copper is a possible treatment for a number of conditions, including degenerative neurological disorders, such as:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
The results of research on copper’s effect on cancer are mixed. One study published in the Journal of Mammary Gland Biology Neoplasia suggests that copper may cause cancer. But a growing body of research indicates that copper compounds can work against certain cancer cells. An Italian study published in the journal Dalton Transactions shows copper to be nearly as effective as cisplatin, which is a commonly used chemotherapy drug. The researchers found copper to be three times more effective than cisplatin in treating adenocarcinoma of the colon, which is one type of cancer.
Magnetic therapy bracelets have long been promoted as wearable treatment for arthritic pain. British scientists decided to put copper bracelets to the test in a placebo-controlled trial. The results, published in the journal PLoS ONE, showed that the bracelets offered little or no therapeutic benefit. Furthermore, several study participants experienced skin irritation from the bracelets.
Because your body needs so little copper, you might think you can get enough just by eating a balanced diet. However, some researchers are challenging this belief. An article published in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology notes that copper has been decreasing in Western diets since the 1930s. These researchers estimate that one-quarter of adults in the United States don’t get their daily requirement of copper.
One easy way to make sure you’re getting enough copper is to eat foods that contain it. You can find copper in shellfish and organ meats, such as liver.
You can also get a good amount of copper by eating vegetables, grains, and seeds, such as:
- green vegetables
- whole grains
- sunflower seeds
Peanut butter and dark chocolate also contain copper.
According to the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, people with sufficient levels of iron can still be anemic. If blood test results show that you’re not getting enough copper, your doctor may recommend that you take supplements. Copper supplements are available as pills and capsules. You can also get copper intravenously, or through your veins. You shouldn’t take copper supplements and zinc supplements at the same time. You should take these supplements at least two hours apart.
If you’re in good health, you’re not likely to have low levels of copper. The symptoms of copper deficiency may include:
- a tingling sensation
- an unstable gait
- a loss of vision
Conditions that may lead to copper deficiency
Most people get enough copper from their diet. However, if you have one of the following conditions, you may need supplemental copper.
- celiac disease
- cystic fibrosis
- Crohn’s disease
Menkes syndrome can also cause a copper deficiency. If you have Menkes syndrome, you can absorb copper from the food you eat. However, your body doesn’t release it into your bloodstream properly. As a result, your body doesn’t get the copper it needs. Instead, copper tends to build up in the small intestine and kidneys. Menkes syndrome is a rare genetic disorder. People who have it are usually diagnosed when they’re babies. It’s commonly called Menkes kinky hair syndrome because one of its characteristics is sparse, kinky hair.
Risk factors for copper deficiency
The following situations can sometimes increase the risk of having a copper deficiency:
- Gastric bypass surgery makes some people more prone to deficiency.
- Premature babies are more likely to have a copper deficiency than full-term babies.
- Taking supplemental zinc can make it difficult for your body to absorb enough copper.
Just as copper is necessary for survival, too much copper can be toxic. The tolerable upper intake level for copper has been set at 10 milligrams per day.
Symptoms of copper toxicity
A larger amount can cause toxicity symptoms, including:
- muscle pain
In severe cases, toxic levels of copper can cause:
- liver damage
- heart failure
- kidney failure
A condition that can lead to copper toxicity
Wilson’s disease is an inherited disorder in which the liver is unable to get rid of excess copper. Copper then builds up in organs such as the brain, liver, and eyes, which causes damage over time. Wilson’s disease can be life-threatening if you don’t get treatment for it.
Copper has an essential role in keeping you healthy. Most people get enough copper by eating a healthy diet. Certain conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, or gastric bypass surgery may make you more prone to copper deficiency. Not having enough copper in the body is more common than having too much copper in the body. Copper toxicity can cause problems as well, including liver damage or heart and kidney failure. Be sure you get enough copper, but not too much. Talk to your doctor if you notice the symptoms of either copper deficiency or toxicity.