Low Copper Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Copper is often given a bad name in the health industry, sometimes for very good reasons, which we will look at soon. But there are also many benefits to have copper in our diet. There is a great article (if I say so myself) on this website about the Copper Rich Diet which covers many of the good virtues of copper, which I encourage you to read so you get the full picture on copper.
However for many people, copper is excessive in their bodies and their health practitioners may encourage them to use the minerals zinc and manganese as well as vitamin C to help clear the toxic excess of copper.
A Low Copper Diet is designed to support those who want to keep their copper consumption as low as possible. Bear in mind that many foods contain copper, so it is almost impossible to have a healthy diet without copper. This diet eliminates high copper foods and includes foods rich in zinc, manganese and vitamin C, along with other supportive nutrients (details below).
Please note that all vegan foods are rich in copper and not rich in zinc as zinc is predominantly an animal and seafood/fish derived mineral, so it is extremely difficult to have a low copper diet if you are vegan. Having said that, I had a client several years ago who needed to reduce her copper levels due to an overload related to pyrrole disorder. She was a devout vegan for religious purposes and was most upset when her doctor diagnosed copper overload and told her she had to eat meat.
This went totally against all her religious beliefs and as you can imagine, was very hard to hear. Fortunately, she found me and I suggested to cut out the very high copper foods such as soy products and chocolate, and eat plenty of foods rich in vitamin C and manganese, plus pepitas (pumpkin seeds) which are rich in zinc, and also take a zinc supplement to help push out and balance her copper levels. So it can be done, but extra care needs to be taken.
We also looked at other factors such as the oral contraceptive pill, adrenal fatigue, and stress which can raise copper levels in the body. My client was on the ‘pill’ and also felt stressed because of what the doctor told her. Once she knew that there was another way to approach the problem, her stress dropped and she also went off the pill and used another form of contraception.
These factors made a huge difference and within six months she cleared the copper toxicity and her minerals balanced, even on a vegan diet. But as I mentioned, extra care needed to be taken.
Copper is known to be toxic in large amounts so it’s important to not overdo copper consumption, especially from supplements as high levels can lead to copper poisoning which can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting 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 are rare, inherited diseases where excessive amounts of copper accumulate in the liver or the brain, causing many health issues. People with these diseases need to avoid high copper foods and any supplements containing copper.
It is not just these genetic diseases that generate copper toxicity, as it is also common with other conditions, especially with metabolic disorders like pyrrole (aka pyroluria), MTHFR genetic defects, mental health conditions, for women on the contraceptive pill, people with poorly functioning adrenal glands, and those with a deficiency of zinc.
Copper is commonly found in most multivitamin and multi-mineral supplements. It is generally safer to get copper from the diet rather than from supplementation unless prescribed for specific conditions.
If you want more information on copper toxicity or copper overload, there are some great articles on the web produced by Dr Wilson, and from ARL, a company that conducts hair mineral and heavy metal analysis.
One of the ways that copper can become toxic and overloaded in the body is when copper is not binding to the protein called Caeruloplasmin. Caeruloplasmin is made by the liver and its role is to bind to copper and then, via the blood plasma, transport the copper to where it is needed in the body.
Caeruloplasmin not only carries copper but also iron, so low Caeruloplasmin levels can result in low availability of iron and copper for the body to use, which can result in both copper and iron toxicity.
In other words, if these minerals are not bound to this protein they can’t be used by the body, which gives rise to deficiency symptoms even though they are in the body in abundance, often leading to toxicity issues. Another term for this is called copper bio-unavailability.
Free unbound copper can then become a powerful free radical that results in oxidative stress, body tissue and cellular destruction, neurological damage and many health issues. Some of these can include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Thyroid conditions
- Pyrrole disorder
- Oestrogen dominance
- Chronic candidiasis
- Liver toxicity
- OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
- ADD & ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Caeruloplasmin levels can be tested and it is also a good idea to get your blood and hair levels tested for copper, zinc and their ratios to see where you stand before making changes to your diet. Your practitioner will be able to help you with any supplements needed to support your mineral levels.
Your Caeruloplasmin levels should be ½ to ¾ up your reference range, which will be different for different labs and countries (your health provider can advise you). Low levels can be related to certain conditions, which you and your practitioner can explore, but one of the most common reasons is due to low adrenal activity, so supporting your adrenal glands will also help with copper overload. For further information have a look at the Adrenal Fatigue Diet.
Apart from the adrenal glands, other things to consider include:
- Genetics: mutations on the following genes can have an impact. CP, HTT, ATP7B, MTHFR, CBS, COMT. You would need genetic testing to look at these.
- Environmental sources: metal dental fillings, copper pipes, tap water, plants, paint and furnishing protectors, copper IUD’s, copper cookware, copper jewellery, spa baths and Jacuzzis that use copper bromide antibacterial/antifungal agent, anti-fungal agents used on seeds.
- Nutrient deficiency: vegan and vegetarian diets are naturally high in copper and low in zinc. But for anyone, low zinc can have an impact.
- Pyrrole disorder: with this disorder, it is common to have imbalances with copper (usually high) as well as low zinc levels and ratio imbalances.
- Oxidative stress/free radical excess: deficiencies in glutathione and metallothione (both antioxidants) can lead to copper toxicity as these antioxidants bind to free copper floating in the body not bound to caeruloplasmin.
As mentioned earlier, it is almost impossible to have a diet that has no copper as it is present in most foods, but some foods are higher than others, so those foods can be avoided.
It is also important to know that the body needs to have adequate levels of copper, so we don’t need to get rid of all of it, but it is good to consume copper in a bio-available form that the body can use. This requires adequate levels of the protein caeruloplasmin and the antioxidants glutathione and metallothione. Other nutrient factors will also help to keep the balance.
The nutrients and foods that help to support healthy copper levels include:
- Zinc: found in oysters, all seafood and fish, beef and other animals
- Molybdenum: found in all legumes and nuts. Because these are high in copper, take care with them. You may need to talk to your practitioner about a supplement if needed, depending on your situation with copper
- Manganese: found in nuts and leafy vegetables
- Arachadonic acid (omega 6): found in red and white meats and fish
- Sulfur amino acid cysteine is essential for the formation of glutathione and metallothionein, both of which bind to free copper. Found in all sulfur containing foods such as onion, garlic, leeks, shallots and eggs
- Vitamin B-6: found in bananas, meats (red and white), fish (salmon), spinach, sweet potato, hazelnuts
- Vitamin E: found in nuts, seeds, avocado, sweet potato, spinach
- Vitamin C: all colourful fruits and vegetables and green vegetables
- Glutathione: foods that increase glutathione include brassica vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower etc), spinach, parsley, beetroot/beets
- Alpha Lipoic Acid: spinach, yams, Brussel sprouts, carrots, organ meats
- Beta Carotene: found in carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin, kale
- Polyphenols: found in cloves, star anise, flax, celery seed
The foods highest in copper that are best avoided if you wish to reduce your copper overload include:
- Soybean products: tofu, miso, tempeh, tamari, soy sauce, soymilk
- All foods containing chocolate and cacao as cacao beans contain high levels of copper
- Avocados are unfortunately very high in copper
- Almonds: all nuts, grains and legumes contain high levels of copper, but the highest of the nuts is almonds
Because it is hard to eliminate all high copper foods, those listed above are the best to avoid when reducing copper levels.
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.