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Copper is a mineral found throughout your body. It’s a nutrient that your body needs in small amounts to function properly.

Other heavy metals, like lead, mercury, and arsenic, aren’t good for you. But getting copper in trace amounts is essential. Getting too much 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 like the brain and heart
  • activation of the immune system

Copper is a vital component for your body, but you need just the right amount. Copper supplements may improve some health conditions, though these are usually associated with a copper deficiency.

For example, a 2015 study found that post-menopausal women with low bone density had very low levels of copper and other minerals in their blood. The study recommended copper supplements as a potential treatment to help improve bone density.

Some experts have also suggested that copper supplements may improve heart failure. But findings are mixed, with a 2014 study indicating that a supplement containing copper didn’t benefit people with heart failure.

Other studies have also linked higher copper intake to mortality from cardiovascular disease. Overall, more research should be done to assess any benefits of copper in this area.

Copper’s role in Alzheimer’s disease is similarly unclear. According to research from 2017, some studies associate Alzheimer’s disease with copper deficiency and recommend increasing copper levels, while others link the disease to overly high levels of copper.

Additional research is needed to explain the potential benefits of copper supplements for different health conditions.

Copper’s role in cancer is complex and is still being studied.

According to research from 2015, high concentrations of copper in the blood are linked to several kinds of cancer, including breast and lung cancer.

The article also noted that copper may play a role in the development of tumors, and that some types of cancer cells have elevated copper levels.

As a result, many current studies focus on copper chelation therapy. Copper chelators bind to copper ions to reduce their activity, remove them from cells, or transport them between cells.

Research from 2018 suggested that copper chelation may be effective when combined with other cancer treatments.

Copper may also be used to kill cancer cells more directly. A 2019 study indicated that treatment with copper nanoparticles delayed the growth of pancreatic tumors in mice.

Another study from 2014 found that copper compounds caused the death of colon cancer cells in test tubes.

Overall, more studies are needed to explore copper’s role in cancer.

Magnetic therapy bracelets are sometimes promoted as wearable treatment for arthritic pain. British scientists put copper bracelets to the test in a placebo-controlled trial.

The results, published in the journal PLoS ONE, found 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, it may seem that you’d get enough through your diet.

But according to research from 2018, at least one-quarter and possibly much more of the U.S. population doesn’t eat the daily average requirement of copper. As a result, the study notes that the risk of copper deficiency may be common.

Copper-rich foods

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, like liver.

You can also get a good amount of copper by eating vegetables, grains, and seeds, like:

  • potatoes
  • peas
  • beans
  • green vegetables
  • whole grains
  • sunflower seeds

Peanut butter and dark chocolate also contain copper.

According to research in the Annals of Hematology, 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 2 hours apart.

Symptoms

If you’re in good health, you’re not likely to have low levels of copper. Symptoms of copper deficiency may include:

  • tremors
  • a tingling sensation
  • an unstable gait
  • numbness
  • fatigue
  • anemia
  • a loss of vision

Conditions that may lead to copper deficiency

Most people get enough copper from their diet. But if you have one of the following conditions, you may need supplemental copper.

  • celiac disease
  • cystic fibrosis
  • Crohn’s disease

Menkes syndrome

Menkes syndrome can also cause a copper deficiency. If you have Menkes syndrome, you can absorb copper from the food you eat. But 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.

This condition is 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 of copper can cause toxicity symptoms, including:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • jaundice
  • muscle pain

In severe cases, toxic levels of copper can cause:

  • liver damage
  • heart failure
  • kidney failure
  • death

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 like 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, like 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 with your doctor if you notice the symptoms of either copper deficiency or toxicity.