Copper

a variety of copper-rich foods including nuts, seeds, beans, fish, whole grains, and organ meat

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

Recommended Amounts

RDA:  The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults 19+ years is 900 micrograms daily for men and women. Pregnancy and lactation in adults 19+ years requires 1,300 micrograms daily, with a slightly lower amount of 1,000 micrograms daily in younger ages 14-18 years.

UL:  The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) is the maximum daily intake unlikely to cause harmful effects on health. The UL for copper for adults 19+ years and those pregnant and lactating is 10,000 micrograms daily.

Copper and Health

Because dozens of enzymes use copper to perform metabolic processes throughout the body, it is believed that both an excess and deficiency of copper may interrupt these normal processes and a stable level is required for optimal health. The body is typically efficient 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 may predispose to conditions such as cancer, inflammation, and neurodegeneration. [2]

Food Sources

Copper is found in highest 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 decrease if the body has enough copper.

Signs of Deficiency and Toxicity

Deficiency

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

Signs of deficiency include:

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

Toxicity

Toxicity is rare in healthy individuals as the body is efficient at excreting excess copper. It has been seen with Wilson’s disease, a rare genetic condition, that prevents copper from exiting the body and therefore leading 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 if continuously storing and then serving boiling liquids from corroding copper or brass vessels.

Did You Know?

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

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