Copper is an essential mineral that helps maintain metabolism, promotes bone strength, and aids in the functioning of our nervous system. Though copper deficiency is rare in the Western world’s population, it is nevertheless true that about 25% of people living in Canada and the United States are not getting their daily recommendation of copper. This article will detail the dangers of copper deficiency, certain medical conditions related to copper levels, as well as the symptoms of copper deficiency so you’ll be able to recognize the signs.
The Important Benefits of Copper
These are the health benefits copper brings to the body, and why it’s so important to get a sufficient amount.
- Cardiovascular health: Low copper levels are linked to high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, and some researchers believe copper supplements may benefit those with heart failure.
- Immune function: Low copper levels can lead to neutropenia, a deficiency of the white blood cells that fight off infection.
- Osteoporosis: Extreme copper deficiency is associated with lower bone mineral density, which then leads to a higher risk of osteoporosis.
- Collagen production: Copper is needed to maintain elastin and the crosslinking of collagen, without which the body’s connective tissue cannot regenerate or rebuild.
Copper Deficiency: Symptoms and Signs
If your copper intake is low, stay alert to these copper deficiency symptoms.
Fatigue or Weakness
Copper is needed to absorb iron in the gut. Low copper levels can cause iron deficiency anemia, which can lead to insufficient oxygen levels, as iron transport is needed in red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the bloodstream. Fatigue and weakness will result from the lack of oxygen. Another contributing factor: your cells use copper to generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the body’s main source of energy.
Osteoporosis has been linked to copper deficiency, as seen in this analysis of studies that suggests those with osteoporosis exhibit lower levels of copper than adults without the condition. Copper is involved in creating the osteoblasts that help strengthen bone tissue, and a deficiency of osteoblasts can contribute to a weakening of your bones.
If you find you’re getting sick more often than those around you, it may be due to a copper deficiency. Copper is needed to maintain a healthy immune system. Lower copper levels lead to lower white blood cell counts, making you more susceptible to infections. Neutrophils are white blood cells that act as the first line of defense in the body, and copper deficiency drastically reduces their production.
Difficulty with Memory
Copper is needed to help supply energy to the brain and to relay signals between the brain and the body. Copper deficiency has also been associated with diseases that inhibit learning and memory, like Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s have been found to have 70% less copper in their brains than people who don’t have the disease.
Copper is also needed to maintain spinal cord health, and those with a copper deficiency may find themselves with difficulty walking or poor balance. Copper deficiency has been shown to reduce spinal cord insulation in animal studies by up to 56%, which would in turn cause a loss of coordination as the signals between brain and spinal cord fail to relay.
Sensitivity to Cold
Copper and other minerals like zinc help to maintain the function of the thyroid gland. Studies show that the thyroid hormones T3 and T4 are closely linked with copper levels. When copper levels are low, these hormone levels fall as well. When the thyroid gland is not working effectively, the metabolism of your body (which includes heat production) becomes insufficient. There are estimates which say over 80% of those with low thyroid levels have an elevated sensitivity to cold.
Pale Skin and Prematurely Gray Hair
Both of these symptoms have to do with melanin pigments in skin and hair, and the fact that copper is used in melanin production. Without enough copper, skin may pale and hair may turn prematurely gray.
Loss of Vision
This is a most serious condition that could come about with prolonged copper deficiency. Copper’s role in our nervous system means an insufficiency could lead to vision loss, which is a devastating side effect sometimes experienced by those who have had gastrointestinal surgeries (like gastric bypass surgery or bariatric surgery) that reduce the body’s ability to absorb copper and other nutrients. It is as yet scientifically uncertain whether increasing copper levels can reverse this form of vision loss.
Sources of Dietary Copper
Copper deficiency is thankfully rare, as there are many foods that provide this essential nutrient. Know that you only need a small amount of copper, 0.9 milligrams per day, to meet the daily recommended intake value.
- Organ meats (lamb liver, beef liver)
- Dark chocolate
- Sesame seeds
- Cashew nuts
- Sunflower seeds
Short of an underlying risk factor that makes copper absorption more difficult, like celiac disease (a condition of the small intestines that causes a hypersensitivity to gluten), simply eating a fair amount of any copper-containing food each week should provide you with enough copper. One good trail mix and you ought to be good to go! In fact, you can even get copper from tap water, which is why it’s not a common deficiency in the Western world.
Copper Toxicity Symptoms
Though copper is essential for optimal functioning, we truly need only a small amount. Too much copper can result in copper toxicity, a type of metal poisoning that could cause dangerous side effects. The following is a list of potential copper toxicity symptoms.
- Irregular heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Tarry or black stools
- Stomach pains
- Vomiting food or blood
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
Eating toxic amounts of copper via food sources is rare, and copper poisoning is more often caused by a contamination of your water or environment with high copper levels.
Menkes disease or Menkes syndrome is an X-linked recessive genetic disorder that leads to copper deficiency due to mutations in the gene coding for ATP7A, a copper-transport protein. Another thankfully rare condition related to copper is Wilson’s disease, an inherited disorder that causes copper to accumulate in the brain, liver, and other vital organs. These conditions are diagnosed by measuring serum copper levels, and low levels may suggest either Wilson’s or Menkes disease, as it’s the measure of copper found in the blood.
It’s also interesting to note that copper deficiency can mimic myelodysplastic syndromes, which are blood and bone marrow disorders.
Copper: Worth Its Weight in Gold
Copper’s benefits are literally essential to human life, but copper toxicity is dangerous as well. For these reasons, copper supplementation should be done only under the advice of a trusted health care provider or MD. If you suspect a copper deficiency or some other mineral-related form of anemia, seek professional medical advice right away, because with the right diagnosis, you could be looking at a very quick and easy cure for what ails you. Short of that, you can’t go wrong with eating copper-rich foods, thus ensuring that you get all the health benefits copper can provide.