Copper is an essential mineral that has many roles in the body.
It helps maintain a healthy metabolism, promotes strong and healthy bones and ensures your nervous system works properly.
While copper deficiency is rare, it seems that fewer people today are getting enough of the mineral. In fact, up to 25% of people in America and Canada may not be meeting the recommended copper intake (1).
Not consuming enough copper may eventually lead to deficiency, which can be dangerous.
Other causes of copper deficiency are celiac disease, surgeries affecting the digestive tract and consuming too much zinc, as zinc competes with copper to be absorbed.
Here are 9 signs and symptoms of copper deficiency.
Copper deficiency may be one of the many causes of fatigue and weakness.
Copper is essential for absorbing iron from the gut ().
When copper levels are low, the body may absorb less iron. This can cause iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which the body is unable to carry enough oxygen to its tissues. A lack of oxygen can make you weaker and feel tired more easily.
Several animal studies have shown that copper deficiency may cause anemia (, ).
Additionally, cells use copper to generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body’s main source of energy. This means copper deficiency could affect your energy levels, which again promotes fatigue and weakness (, ).
Fortunately, eating a copper-rich diet can help fix anemia caused by copper deficiency ().
Summary Copper deficiency may cause iron deficiency anemia or compromise ATP production, resulting in weakness and fatigue. Fortunately, this can be reversed by increasing copper intake.
People who get sick often may have copper deficiency.
That’s because copper plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system.
When copper levels are low, your body may struggle to make immune cells. This could drastically reduce your white blood cell count, compromising your body’s ability to combat infection ().
Studies have shown that copper deficiency can dramatically reduce the production of neutrophils, which are white blood cells that act as the body’s first line of defense (, ).
Fortunately, eating more copper-rich foods can help reverse these effects.
Summary Copper deficiency may weaken the immune system, which can cause people to get sick more often. This can be reversed by increasing copper intake.
Osteoporosis is a condition characterized by weak and brittle bones.
It becomes more common with age and has been linked to copper deficiency ().
For example, an analysis of eight studies including over 2,100 people found that those with osteoporosis had lower levels of copper than healthy adults ().
Copper is involved in processes that create cross-links inside your bones. These cross-links ensure bones are healthy and strong (, , ).
What’s more, copper encourages the body to make more osteoblasts, which are cells that help reshape and strengthen bone tissue (, 15).
Summary Copper is involved in processes that help strengthen bone tissue. Copper deficiency may promote osteoporosis, a condition of hollow and porous bones.
Copper deficiency could make it harder to learn and remember.
That’s because copper plays an important role in brain function and development.
Copper is used by enzymes that help supply energy to the brain, aid the brain’s defense system and relay signals to the body ().
Conversely, copper deficiency has been linked to diseases that stunt brain development or affect the ability to learn and remember, such as Alzheimer's disease (, ).
Interestingly, a study found that people with Alzheimer’s had up to 70% less copper in their brain, compared to people without the disease ().
Summary Copper helps ensure optimal brain function and development. Consequently, copper deficiency could cause problems with learning and memory.
People with copper deficiency may find it harder to walk properly (, ).
Enzymes use copper to maintain optimal health of the spinal cord. Some enzymes help insulate the spinal cord, so signals can be relayed between the brain and body ().
Copper deficiency may cause these enzymes to not work as effectively, resulting in less spinal cord insulation. This, in turn, causes signals to not be relayed as efficiently (, ).
In fact, animal studies have found that copper deficiency may reduce spinal cord insulation by as much as 56% ().
Walking is regulated by signals between the brain and body. As these signals are affected, copper deficiency may cause loss of coordination and unsteadiness (, ).
Summary Copper is used by enzymes that help maintain a healthy nervous system, ensuring signals are sent efficiently to and from the brain. A deficiency can compromise or delay these signals, causing a loss of coordination or unsteadiness while walking.
People with copper deficiency may feel more sensitive to cooler temperatures.
Copper, along with other minerals like zinc, helps maintain optimal thyroid gland function.
Studies have shown that the T3 and T4 levels of thyroid hormones are closely linked to copper levels. When blood copper levels are low, these thyroid hormone levels fall. As a result, the thyroid gland may not work as effectively. (24, 25).
Given that the thyroid gland helps regulate your metabolism and heat production, low thyroid hormone levels could make you feel colder more easily (26, ).
In fact, it’s estimated that over 80% of people with low thyroid hormone levels feel more sensitive to cold temperatures ().
Summary Copper helps ensure healthy thyroid hormone levels. These hormones help regulate your metabolism and body heat. As a result, copper deficiency could make you feel cold.
Skin color is greatly determined by the pigment melanin.
People with lighter skin usually have fewer, smaller and lighter melanin pigments than people with darker skin ().
Interestingly, copper is used by enzymes that produce melanin. Therefore, copper deficiency could affect the production of this pigment, causing pale skin (, ).
However, more human-based research investigating the link between pale skin and copper deficiency is needed.
Summary Copper is used by enzymes that make melanin, the pigment that determines skin color. Copper deficiency may cause pale skin.
Hair color is also affected by the pigment melanin.
Given that low copper levels can affect melanin formation, copper deficiency may cause premature gray hair (, ).
While there is some research on copper deficiency and melanin pigment formation, hardly any studies have looked at the link between copper deficiency and gray hair specifically. More human-based research in this area would help clarify the link between the two.
Summary Like skin color, hair color is affected by melanin, which requires copper. This means copper deficiency may promote premature gray hair.
Vision loss is a serious condition that may occur with long-term copper deficiency (, ).
Copper is used by many enzymes that help ensure the nervous system works properly. This means that copper deficiency can cause problems with the nervous system, including vision loss (36).
It seems that vision loss due to copper deficiency is more common among people who have had surgery on their digestive tract, such as gastric bypass surgery. This is because these surgeries can reduce the body’s ability to absorb copper ().
While there is some evidence that vision loss caused by copper deficiency is reversible, other studies have shown no vision improvement after increasing copper intake (, ).
Summary Copper deficiency may cause vision loss. This is because your vision is closely linked to your nervous system, which relies heavily on copper.
Thankfully, copper deficiency is rare, as many foods contain a good amount of copper.
In addition, you only need a small amount of copper to meet the recommended daily intake (RDI) of 0.9 mg per day ().
The following foods are excellent sources of copper (39):
|Beef liver, cooked||1 oz (28 g)||458%|
|Lobster, cooked||1 cup (145 g)||141%|
|Lamb liver, cooked||1 oz (28 g)||99%|
|Squid, cooked||3 oz (85 g)||90%|
|Dark chocolate||3.5 oz bar (100 g)||88%|
|Oats, raw||1 cup (156 g)||49%|
|Sesame seeds, roasted||1 oz (28 g)||35%|
|Cashew nuts, raw||1 oz (28 g)||31%|
|Sunflower seeds, dry roasted||1 oz (28 g)||26%|
|Mushrooms, cooked||1 cup (108 g)||16%|
|Almonds, dry roasted||1 oz (28 g)||14%|
Simply eating some of these foods throughout the week should provide you with enough copper to maintain healthy blood levels.
It’s also worth noting that you can get some copper by simply drinking tap water, as copper is commonly found in pipes that deliver water to your home. That said, the amount of copper found in tap water is very small, so you should eat a variety of copper-rich foods.
Summary Copper is found in many staple foods, which is why deficiency is rare. Eating a balanced diet should help you meet the recommended daily amount.
While copper is essential for optimal health, you only need to eat a small amount daily.
Consuming too much copper can cause copper toxicity, which is a type of metal poisoning.
Copper toxicity can have unpleasant and potentially fatal side effects, including (, ):
- Vomiting (food or blood)
- Stomach pain
- Black, “tarry” stools
- Difficulty breathing
- An irregular heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Yellow skin (jaundice)
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
However, it’s very rare to eat toxic amounts of copper through a regular diet.
Instead, it tends to happen if you’re exposed to contaminated food and water or work in an environment with high levels of copper (, ).
Summary While copper toxicity is rare, the side effects can be very dangerous. This toxicity tends to occur when you’re exposed to food and water contaminated with copper or work in an environment with high copper levels.
Copper deficiency is very rare, as many foods provide sufficient amounts of the mineral.
If you’re concerned about your copper levels, it’s best to speak with your doctor. They will see if you are at risk of copper deficiency and may test your blood copper levels.
Simply consuming a balanced diet should help you meet your daily copper needs.
Nonetheless, it’s estimated that up to a quarter of people in American and Canada do not eat enough copper, which may increase the risk of copper deficiency.
Common signs and symptoms of copper deficiency include fatigue and weakness, frequent sickness, weak and brittle bones, problems with memory and learning, difficulties walking, increased cold sensitivity, pale skin, premature gray hair and vision loss.
Thankfully, increasing copper intake should correct most of these signs and symptoms.