Despite being a trace mineral that is essential for survival, we don’t hear a lot about copper and the vital role it plays in our health. In fact, most of the time copper has a bad rap and is considered toxic, with the focus often placed on iron and zinc.

Billions of protein molecules need copper to function

Copper is found throughout the body, with particularly high concentrations in organs that have a high demand for energy such as the liver, kidneys, brain, and heart. Copper plays an important role in producing new red blood cells, assisting in the absorption and transport of iron, regulating heart rate and blood pressure, supporting immune function, brain development, gene expression and the development and maintenance of connective tissue, bones and organs.

Enzyme function

There are 12 enzymes that rely on copper to work properly. These are called cuproenzymes and are particularly important in the mitochondria of our cells where they have cell signalling properties that affect our ability to produce energy and help with our antioxidant status.

Another of copper’s crucial functions is in an enzyme called Ceruloplasmin, where most of our copper stores are found. This enzyme transports copper to the cells that need it.

Ceruloplasmin also plays key role in loading iron onto transferrin so it can be transported to the bone marrow to make new red blood cells. Find out more about copper, Ceruloplasmin and iron here.

Essential for survival

Alongside its vital role in the transport of iron, producing energy in the mitochondria and antioxidant properties, there is a long list of symptoms that are associated with copper deficiency.Heart disease

– Heart disease

Copper is one of the nutrient deficiencies that causes an elevation in cholesterol, blood pressure and homocysteine, increasing the risk of heart disease. It’s implicated in an irregular heartbeat in men, impaired glucose tolerance and adversely affects the health of arteries.

– Brittle bones

Copper works with enzymes and other nutrients to incorporate collagen and elastin into bones and help with mineralization. A deficiency is often found in osteoporosis and metabolic bone disease in children, resulting in stunted growth and decreased bone mineral density.

-Difficulty in walking straight and steadily

This happens if the signals between your brain and muscles are not relayed properly. Copper helps enzymes in a process called spinal cord insulation. This involves sending signals from your brain to the rest of your body. Walking is a movement that’s heavily dependent on these signals and if you’re copper deficient you may walk unsteadily.

-Neurological function

We need copper to produce dopamine and adrenaline and it plays a vital role in neurological function. Deficiency is associated with the development of Parkinson tremors and loss of muscle tone. Copper supports the brains defense system, helping to protect against Alzheimer’s disease. It’s reported that those with Alzheimer’s have 70% less copper than those who don’t.

-Immune function

Copper is used by our immune cells to help fight infection and protect us from certain diseases. Chronically low neutrophils and getting sick often may be a sign of copper deficiency.

Testing copper status

Like most of the nutrients in our body, blood testing has its limitations. The best test is called leukocyte copper levels, but imagine the reaction of your GP if you rocked up and asked for this!

Unfortunately, this means we need to settle for serum tests and even then you may experience GP resistance, due to the limited training they receive in nutrition and criticism they receive from the MOH for running unnecessary tests.

Ideally you would check copper, zinc and Ceruloplasmin, along with a full iron panel and a complete blood count. Then it’s a process of understanding how these interact to assess their status and bioavailability. For example, inflammation causes serum iron to decrease while copper increases. This doesn’t mean you’re iron deficient and copper toxic; it means your body is protecting itself from harm and we need to figure out what is driving the inflammation. There are many other combinations of these markers and it’s important to understand the nuances.

Alternate tests are available through private companies such as hair analysis and RBC nutrient testing. Each of these has strengths and drawbacks and requires a comprehensive understanding of the interactions between nutrients to make sense of the results.

Copper in foods

Many foods in our diet contain copper, with beef liver and oysters the best sources. Other animal foods such as beef, lamb, crayfish and squid are good choices. For the chocolate lovers amongst us, dark chocolate (80%) is high in copper.

For those eating a mixed or plant-based diet, mushrooms, cashew nuts, sunflower seeds, potatoes and tofu all contain good levels. However, remember these foods can contribute to digestive inflammation in some people and may not be ideal for those with metabolic syndrome or type-2 diabetes.

What causes copper deficiency

There are several causes including celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and digestive inflammation. Surgery’s involving the digestive tract are well known to affect copper absorption.

Prolonged supplementation with zinc, vitamin D and ascorbic acid (synthetic vitamin C) can affect copper status. Zinc competes with copper for the same receptor cell and can result in copper deficiency. Vitamin A in the retinol form helps with the absorption and use of copper; vitamin D supplementation can reduce retinol levels contributing to copper deficiency.

Because the signs and symptoms of low copper are very similar to vitamin B12 deficiency, it can be very easy to miss.

Other causes are a processed diet, that is high in PUFA’s and is fortified with the copper depleting nutrients above.

Diseases of copper metabolism

There are three inherited diseases of copper metabolism. Menkes disease and occipital horn syndrome are characterised by copper deficiency. Wilson’s disease is characterised by copper toxicity and severely affects the liver, brain, and nervous system. These very serious diseases required proper medical identification and management.

Copper is an essential nutrient, that we can only get from our food or supplementation, that plays a vital role in almost every component of our health. Don’t ignore it! 😊

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