Copper | The nutritional source

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Copper is a naturally occurring metal found in soil, water and rocks. Nutritionally, it is an essential trace mineral found in certain foods and supplements. It works to help various enzymes that produce energy for the body, break down and absorb iron, and form red blood cells, collagen, connective tissue, and brain neurotransmitters. Copper also supports normal brain development and immune function, and is a component of superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant enzyme that dismantles harmful oxygen ‘free radicals’. Copper is absorbed in the small intestine and is found primarily in bone and muscle tissue.

Recommended amounts

GDR: The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults 19 years and older is 900 micrograms per day for both men and women. Pregnancy and breastfeeding in adults 19 years and older require 1300 micrograms per day, with a slightly lower amount of 1000 micrograms per day in young people 14 to 18 years old.

UL: The tolerable upper intake level (UL) is the maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects. The UL for copper for adults 19 years and older and pregnant and breastfeeding women is 10,000 micrograms per day.

Copper and Health

Because dozens of enzymes use copper to perform metabolic processes throughout the body, it is believed that both excess and deficiency of copper can interrupt these normal processes and a stable level is necessary for optimal health. The body is generally good at stabilizing copper levels (absorption increases if copper intake is low, and vice versa). [1] Abnormal copper levels result from genetic mutations, aging, or environmental influences that can predispose to conditions such as cancer, inflammation, and neurodegeneration. [2]

Food sources

Copper is found in greatest amounts in protein foods like organ meats, shellfish, fish, nuts and seeds as well as whole grains and chocolate. The absorption of copper in the body will increase if the diet contains less copper and will decrease if the body has enough.

Signs of deficiency and toxicity

Deficiency

Copper deficiency is rare in the United States in healthy people and occurs primarily in people with genetic disorders or malabsorption problems such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease. A genetic condition called Menkes disease interferes with copper absorption, leading to a severe deficiency that could become fatal without copper injections. Additionally, it is possible to create a copper deficiency by taking high doses of zinc supplements which can block copper absorption in the small intestine.

Signs of deficiency include:

  • Anemia
  • High cholesterol
  • Osteoporosis, bone fractures
  • Increase in infections
  • Loss of skin pigment

Toxicity

Toxicity is rare in healthy individuals because the body is efficient at excreting excess copper. This has been seen with Wilson’s disease, a rare genetic disorder, which prevents copper from leaving the body and therefore leads to high blood levels. Severe liver damage and digestive symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain may occur. Although very rare, it is possible to consume excess copper by continuously storing and then serving boiling liquids from corroded copper or brass vessels.

Did you know?

Although copper occurs naturally in water, excessive levels of copper in drinking water are usually caused by copper leaking from old, corroded household pipes and faucets. The risk is greater if the water is stagnant due to lack of use or by using hot tap water (copper dissolves more easily at higher temperatures). In these cases, exposure to excess copper can be reduced by running cold tap water for several minutes before use. It is also advisable to use only cold tap water for drinking and cooking, and to avoid drinking hot tap water.

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