Copper

Copper is the third most abundant essential trace element in the body after zinc and iron. It is necessary for the function of a number of copper-containing enzymes involved in production of brain chemicals, the skin pigment, melanin and the red blood pigment, haemoglobin.

Why you need it

Copper is necessary for the function of a number of copper-containing enzymes involved in production of brain chemicals, the skin pigment, melanin and the red blood pigment, haemoglobin.

It is needed for healthy growth, immunity, bone strength, white and red blood cell development, iron absorption from the gut, and for cholesterol and glucose metabolism.

It is vital in small amounts for a healthy liver, brain and muscle function, and also plays an important role in the metabolism of vitamin C and the synthesis of collagen - a major structural protein. Copper is therefore involved in maintaining healthy bones, cartilage, hair and skin - especially their elasticity. In fact, if vitamin C intakes are optimal, copper deficiency can quickly occur.

Excess copper (e.g. from drinking water supplied through copper pipes) is toxic at levels just twice as high as the norm, and can lead to restlessness, nausea, vomiting, colic, diarrhoea and, in long-term cases, to copper-induced cirrhosis of the liver.

Research

Copper balance in the body is now known to be controlled by two genes. New research suggests that copper plays a role in regulating blood cholesterol levels and may protect against hardening and furring up of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Lack of copper can lead to heart muscle problems (cardiac myopathy).

Copper increases the effectiveness of intra-uterine contraceptive devices through its local toxic effects on egg and sperm in the womb.

Copper deficient diets have been shown to reduce bone mineralization and bone strength. Many people with arthritis have low blood levels of copper, and are helped by wearing a copper bracelet so trace amounts are absorbed through the skin.

How much you need

There is currently no EC RDA for copper. Intakes between 0.8mg-1.2mg are suggested as both safe and adequate for adults.

Up to 70 per cent of dietary intake remains unabsorbed because it is bound to other bowel contents. Supplementation is therefore important, especially if the diet is deficient.

The risk of copper deficiency is greater when zinc intakes are high. The ideal dietary ratio of copper to zinc is 1:10.

Symptoms due to copper deficiency

  • Anaemia
  • Low white cell count and increased susceptibility to infection
  • Fluid retention
  • Loss of taste sensation
  • Raised blood cholesterol levels
  • Abnormal structure and pigmentation of body hair
  • Abnormal pigmentation and loss of elasticity in skin
  • Nerve degeneration
  • Irritability
  • Impaired fertility
  • Thinning bones (osteoporosis)

Foods containing copper include

  • Crustaceans e.g. prawns
  • Shellfish e.g. oysters
  • Brewer's yeast
  • Olives
  • Nuts
  • Pulses
  • Wholegrain cereals
  • Green vegetables grown in copper-rich soil

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