Copper: Deficiency Symptoms, Health Benefits, Best Food Sources

By , Category : Food and Nutrition

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copper deficiencyMany people know copper as a building material and a constituent in sterling silver and some coins. Copper is also a trace mineral needed for nerve, bone, and skeletal health. It is essential for red blood cell and hemoglobin production, utilizing oxygen and iron within the body, helping with collagen formation, and balancing hormones—while also playing a vital role in energy production. So, unsurprisingly, copper deficiency can have a serious impact on your health.

Are you getting enough copper? Copper is the third most abundant mineral in the body; however, it must be obtained in the diet since the body cannot make it naturally. A diet high in copper-rich foods like liver, nuts, seeds, and certain vegetables is considered the best approach for preventing copper deficiency.

Symptoms of Copper Deficiency

Most adults living in developed nations obtain enough copper from their diet, supplements, and drinking water due to copper pipes. Copper deficiency is more of a problem in famished populations lacking copper-rich foods in the diet.

Some cases of deficiency are hereditary in nature. Menkes disease is a rare genetic disorder that affects copper levels in the body, and leads to copper deficiency. Symptoms of sparse, kinky hair; failure to gain weight; and pale skin usually appear during infancy, and many babies do not survive past age 3. Copper deficiency can also signal a severe digestive disorder that impairs nutrient absorption, such as Crohn’s disease.

Additionally, copper absorption may be impaired by high amounts of zinc or iron in the body, often from supplements. Iron, zinc, and copper all work together to keep the body in balance, but having higher levels of one mineral can have a negative impact on the others.

What happens when there is not enough copper in the diet? The most common copper deficiency symptoms include:

  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Arthritis
  • Osteoporosis or brittle bones
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Pale skin
  • Poor blood circulation
  • Stunted growth or unexplained weight loss
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Frequent illness
  • Thinning hair
  • Skin inflammation, sores, or bruising
  • Ruptured blood vessels
  • Brain disturbances
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Poor thyroid function

Health Benefits of Copper

What are the health benefits of copper? Copper acts as a brain stimulant and enables neural pathways to fully develop, which could increase communication, memory, creativity, decision-making, and other important cognitive functions that rely on neurotransmitter signaling and a healthy nervous system.

Studies also show that copper impacts important brain pathways that involve galactose and dopamine, which are needed for focus and maintaining a positive outlook and mood.

The anti-inflammatory abilities of copper may also help relieve stiffness and pain from arthritis. Studies have found that taking copper with calcium, manganese, and zinc could also slow bone loss in older women. Copper is also needed for proper growth and development in children. The mineral promotes proper thyroid function because it works synergistically with other minerals like calcium, potassium, and zinc, which are needed to prevent hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. The following are other key copper health benefits you should consider.

1. Neurodegenerative Diseases

Preliminary studies on copper and brain function show that copper displays positive results in various neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. That being said, both copper deficiency and excessive amounts of copper can cause potential age-related cognitive decline and brain function impairment.

2. Anemia

Anemia results without sufficient amounts of hemoglobin, which leads to inadequate oxygen levels in the cells. As a result, the muscles, brain, and other issues begin to slow down, and common symptoms include digestive problems, impaired brain function, fatigue, and muscle aches. Together, iron and copper synthesize red blood cells and hemoglobin. Research shows that copper helps with iron absorption in the intestinal tract. Copper will also release iron into its primary storage location of the liver.

3. Potential Energy Booster

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the main fuel source of energy of the body. Copper is needed for proper ATP production to take place within the mitochondria cells. Copper is considered a catalyst for decreasing molecular oxygen to water. Copper also frees up iron in the blood, and makes protein more available. Since copper influences protein and ATP metabolism, it is important for maintaining high levels of energy.

4. Metabolism

Copper is essential for up to 50 different metabolic enzyme reactions that take place daily within the body. Enzymatic reactions are required for smooth metabolism and needed for the various organ systems since they allow the nerves to communicate with each other. Copper enzymes are particularly abundant in body tissues with the great metabolic activity, such as the brain, liver, and heart. As a result, copper is important for the nervous, digestive, and cardiovascular systems. Low copper levels could result in low energy, sluggish metabolism, and other signs of poor metabolism.

Recommended Daily Intake of Copper

Although copper is the third highest mineral in the body, the body cannot make it; therefore, copper must be obtained from food. How much copper does the body require from food? According to the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences, the following is the adequate intake (AI) levels for copper for infants up to one year old on a daily basis, as well as recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for everyone older than one year:

  • Infants and babies 0 to 6 months: 200mcg
  • Infants and babies 7 to 12 months: 220mg
  • Children 1 to 3 years: 340mg
  • Children 4 to 8 years: 440mg
  • Adolescents 9 to 13 years: 700mg
  • Adolescents 14 to 18 years: 890mg
  • Adults 19+ years: 900mcg
  • Pregnant women 14 to 50: 1mg
  • Lactating women 14 to 50: 1.3mg

Top Food Sources of Copper

What are the best copper food sources? Eating a diet rich in whole foods can help you fulfill your daily needs of copper. Some of the top copper-rich foods include beef liver, shiitake mushrooms, cashews, chickpeas, sesame seeds, quinoa, almonds, lentils, avocado, chia seeds, and raisins. However, it is important to be aware that copper content can substantially be reduced in foods that require long-term cooking. For instance, half of the copper content is lost after cooking beans. On the hand, cooking with cast iron or copper cookware can increase the amount of copper in foods.

The following is a copper foods chart that can help you learn what foods allow you to avoid copper deficiency. The chart will help you become aware of what whole foods are highest in copper.

Food Serving Size Amount (mg) Daily Value %
Beef liver 3 oz. piece 4.49 641.0%
Calf’s liver 4 oz. piece 9.0 451.0%
Shiitake mushrooms 1 cup cooked 1.29 184.0%
Cashews 1 oz. 0.62 88.0%
Chickpeas 1 cup cooked 0.58 82.0%
Kale 2 cups chopped, raw 0.48 68.0%
Cocoa powder 2 tbsp. unsweetened 0.41 58.0%
Sesame seeds 1 tbsp. 0.36 51.0%
Quinoa 1 cup cooked 0.36 50.0%
Almonds 1 oz. 0.29 41.0%
Lentils 1 cup cooked 0.27 39.0%
Chia seeds 1 oz. dry 0.26 37.0%
Crimini mushrooms 5 oz. 0.70 35.5%
Pumpkin seeds 1/4 cup 0.50 24.0%
Goat cheese 1 oz. semi-soft 0.16 23.0%
Walnuts 1/4 cup 0.40 20.0%
Potatoes 1 cup 0.40 18.5%
Avocado 1/2 fruit 0.12 17.0%
Spinach 1 cup 0.30 15.5%
Swiss chard 1 cup 0.30 14.5%
Raisins 1 oz. 0.09 13.0%
Sweet potatoes 1 cup 0.30 13.0%
Asparagus 1 cup 0.20 10.0%
Summer squash 1 cup 0.20 9.5%
Winter squash 1 cup 0.20 9.5%

Copper Precautions

Copper toxicity is thought to be more of a concern than copper deficiency. This is why it is important to somewhat stick close to the recommended daily amounts of copper. Excessive copper can cause temporary copper poisoning, and lead to nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and cramps, diarrhea, anemia, kidney damage, and liver damage.

Postpartum depression is also linked to high copper levels. This is because copper levels will increase throughout pregnancy to about twice the normal amounts, and it may take up to three months after giving birth for copper levels to return to normal.

Wilson’s disease is a genetic condition where there is a toxic overload of copper in various organs such as the liver. In this case, treatment involves avoiding copper supplements or foods rich copper. Drug treatment of chelating agents will also remove excess copper from the body.


Related Articles:

Zinc: Health Benefits, Recommended Intake, and Top Food Sources


Sources:
Mateljan, G., The World’s Healthiest Foods: Essential Guide for the healthiest way of eating (Seattle: George Mateljan Foundation), 750-751.
“Top 10 Copper Rich Foods,” Dr. Axe; https://draxe.com/top-10-copper-rich-foods/, last accessed May 4, 2017.
“Copper Deficiency Symptoms & Sources to Cure It!” Dr. Axe; https://draxe.com/copper-deficiency/, last accessed May 4, 2017.
Ware, M., “Copper: Health Benefits and Recommended Intake,” MedicalNewsToday , Feb. 4, 2016; http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/288165.php, last accessed May 4, 2017.
“Health Benefits of Copper,” European Copper Institute; http://copperalliance.eu/copper-and-society/health, last accessed May 4, 2017.
Lazarchick, J., “Update on anemia and neutropenia in copper deficiency,” Current Opinion in Hematology, January 2012; 19(1): 58-60, doi: 10.1097/MOH.0b013e32834da9d2.
Medeiros, D., et al., “Role of copper in mitochondrial biogenesis via interaction with ATP synthase and cytochrome c oxidase,” Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes, Oct. 2002; 34(5):389-95; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12539966, last accessed May 4, 2017.
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Jon Yaneff is a holistic nutritionist and health researcher with a background in journalism. After years of a hectic on-the-go, fast food-oriented lifestyle as a sports reporter, Jon knew his life needed a change. He began interviewing influential people in the health and wellness industry and incorporating beneficial health and wellness information into his own life. Jon’s passion for his health led him to the certified nutritional practitioner (CNP) program at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. He graduated with first... Read Full Bio »