Copper Rich Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
It’s interesting to write about the benefits of copper, as too many times in clinic I’ve needed to address copper overload and zinc deficiency for my clients (copper and zinc compete against each other). But the fact that copper is a very important mineral is often overlooked. We only need trace amounts of copper to be healthy, but there are times when a little more can help certain conditions…more to follow.
My dad used to wear a copper bracelet to help his arthritis and it used to be popular to use copper pots and pans (some chefs still do) and most of our plumbing pipes are made of copper. Newer houses have stainless steel pipes these days. With all this copper around us, a deficiency is quite rare, however it is worth knowing that a copper deficiency can harm the body in multiple ways.
Copper is important to produce the haemoglobin found in red blood cells (that’s what makes blood red) and for the proper utilization of iron and oxygen within the blood. When you look at common blood building supplements such as liquid chlorophyll, you see that it contains copper-chlorophylinate, which is the copper bound to the green pigment chlorophyll in all green vegetation.
Copper cannot be made by the body and must be obtained from our diet. Usually the body cannot store copper, so we need to eat copper containing foods daily to fill our needs. I say usually because there are certain conditions where the body does store copper. More on this later.
Copper has an important role in supporting bodily growth and repair and is necessary for many enzyme reactions and also to maintain our connective tissue health (connective tissue is what joins all our bits together). Copper is important for prevention of joint and muscle pain, which is why it is often used for arthritis.
Copper is also important to sustain energy levels, prevent premature aging, balance hormones, and much more.
Symptoms of copper deficiency
- Brittle bones
- Frequently getting sick
- Hair thinning or balding
- Joint pain
- Low body temperature, or always feeling cold
- Muscle soreness
- Skin inflammation and sores
- Stunted growth
- Unexplained weight loss
Copper plays a vital role in around 50 different metabolic enzyme reactions that take place in the body every day. These enzymatic reactions are needed for our organs to keep our metabolism running smoothly and allow nerves to communicate with each another.
Copper enzymes are most abundant in the parts of the body with the greatest metabolic activity such as the heart, brain, and liver. But copper is also important for other systems like the nervous system, cardiovascular system, digestive system, and pretty much every other part of the body because of its impact on metabolic processes.
Helps provide the body with energy
Copper is essential to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is the body’s source of energy. This is why a copper deficiency can result in sluggish metabolism, low energy, and other signs of poor metabolic health.
Involved in proper brain function
Copper impacts certain brain pathways involving conversion of dopamine into norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are needed to keep our energy up, to maintain a happy mood, and to help with focus, memory, and attention.
Important for the immune system
Copper is very important in the immune system response to infection and for the maturation and function of T cells (part of our immune system).
Important for your vascular system
Copper plays an important role in the contraction of the heart muscle as well as the function of the small blood vessels that control blood flow, waste removal and nutrient dispersion. Copper is also involved in the synthesis of prostaglandins, which are substances that regulate functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and wound healing.
Important for a healthy Thyroid
Copper is needed for proper thyroid function because it works with other trace minerals like zinc, potassium, selenium, and calcium that are needed to balance thyroid activity and to prevent either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
The relationships between these minerals are complex, because an elevation of one must be balanced by the others. Too much of any of these, and too little of others, can all cause problems with our thyroid gland. This can result in fatigue, poor tolerance to heat, changes in body temperature, weight gain or loss, and changes in appetite amongst other unwanted symptoms.
May help to prevent neurodegenerative diseases
Preliminary research shows that copper has positive results in helping various neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. Research has confirmed that a copper deficiency can increase the risk for impaired brain function and potentially age-related cognitive decline.
Conversely, copper toxicity can create potential brain function impairments. There is still ongoing debate about whether (or not) copper supplementation treatment is too risky to use as a potential treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.
The key is to first have a blood test with your doctor to see if there is a deficiency, and only use copper as a supplement if prescribed and if there truly is a copper deficiency, and not just because you fear or have a neurodegenerative disease.
May reduce symptoms of Arthritis
Copper has anti-inflammatory abilities that help to relieve the pain and stiffness from arthritis. It also helps with muscular strength and repair of connective tissue. Some people with arthritis choose to wear copper bracelets, copper bands, or use copper magnets because the copper can be absorbed through the skin and help decrease painful symptoms.
Supports a healthy nervous system
Copper helps to protect the myelin sheath, which is the layer surrounding the nerves, just like the plastic coating around electrical wires. Copper enables neural pathways to fully develop which positively affects creativity, decision making, memory, communication skills and other important cognitive functions that rely on a healthy nervous system and effective neurotransmitter signalling.
Important for a healthy skeletal system
Copper plays an important role in growing bones. Copper deficiency can lead to brittle bones (osteoporosis), low strength, muscle weakness, weak joints and more. Studies have shown that good levels of copper in combination with good levels of zinc, manganese and calcium may slow bone loss in menopausal women.
Prevents anaemia and releases iron for use
Copper and iron work together in haemoglobin production (the red pigment in red blood cells). According to studies, copper plays a part in the absorption of iron from the intestinal tract and facilitates iron’s release into the liver, which is where it is primarily stored to be later released as needed.
Iron from food and supplements are used to create red blood cells. When copper deficiency occurs, iron levels fall and anaemia can occur. Anaemia causes symptoms such as fatigue, muscle aches, digestive problems and impaired brain function.
Good for healthy hair, skin and eyes
Adequate copper is needed for the body to create the natural pigment and texture of the skin, hair and eyes. Copper plays a part in the development of melanin, which is responsible for giving our skin its colour, and the unique pigment of our hair and eyes. For melanin to be produced in the body, copper must be present to help create the enzyme called tyrosinase which allows melanin to develop.
Copper helps to build collagen, responsible for maintaining the skin’s youthful appearance and elasticity, as well as being involved in the production of elastin, a substance found in the connective tissue of skin that keeps skin flexible.
Copper helps to keep you looking younger as you age because of its antioxidant effect – protecting your skin, hair, and eyes from free radical damage. It’s also beneficial to keep hair from turning grey and thinning.
There are so many different sources of copper to list as just about all foods contain some copper, especially vegetarian and vegan foods. While animal products contain more zinc than copper, vegetarian foods contain more copper than zinc, so it is good to have a balance between animal and vegetable sources of foods (if possible) to get a good balance between these two vital minerals.
Here are some copper rich foods indicating the quantity of copper in milligrams:
- Beef Liver: ½ cup = 4.49 mg
- Shitake Mushrooms (cooked): 1 cup = 1.29 mg
- Cashews: 1 Tablespoon = 0.62 mg
- Chickpeas (cooked/think hummus): 1 cup = 0.58 mg
- Kale (raw chopped): 2 cups = 0.48 mg
- Cocoa Powder (unsweetened): 2 Tablespoons = 0.41 mg
- Sesame Seeds: 1 Tablespoon = 0.36 mg
- Quinoa (cooked): 1 cup = 0.36 mg
- Almonds: – 1 Tablespoon = 0.29 mg
- Lentils (cooked): 1 cup = 0.27 mg
- Chia Seeds (dry): 1 Tablespoon = 0.26 mg
- Avocado (half): ½ = 0.12 mg
- Raisins: 1 Tablespoon = 0.09 mg
You can ensure you receive plenty of copper from your diet by including nutrient-dense foods such as mushrooms, avocado, cocoa and almonds.
Recommended daily allowance (RDA) of copper
A copper deficiency is often seen in people suffering from serious digestive disorders that impair nutrient absorption, such as Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Celiac disease and ‘leaky gut syndrome’.
The absorption of copper can be impaired by taking high supplemental doses of iron or zinc. Iron and zinc together keep the body’s copper levels in balance, but very high levels of iron and/or zinc can have a negative impact on optimum copper levels.
From the above foods rich in copper, and the following recommended daily copper allowances for various age groups etc, you can estimate what foods and quantities are required.
- Infant 0-6 months: 200 mcg/day
- Child 6 months to 14yrs: between 220-890 mcg/day depending on age
- Adolescent 14-18 years: 890 mcg/day
- Adult: 900 mcg/day
- Pregnant woman: 1,000 mcg/day
- Breast feeding woman: 1,300 mcg/day
Copper is known to be toxic in large amounts, so it’s important to not overdo copper consumption, especially with supplements, as high levels can lead to acute and temporary copper poisoning which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and even kidney damage.
It is known that an overload of copper is associated with two genetic diseases called Wilson disease (WD) and Menkes disease (MD). These diseases are rare inherited disorders where excessive amounts of copper accumulate in the livers or brains of those affected with these diseases. People with these diseases have unregulated levels of copper, causing many health issues and they need to avoid high copper foods and any supplements containing copper.
Copper is commonly found in most multivitamins and multi-mineral supplements. It is generally safer to get copper from your diet rather than from supplementation, unless specifically prescribed.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.