Copper is an extremely important mineral for our health. But when it builds up excessively in our bodies, copper toxicity can be quite detrimental.
Copper is involved in everything from energy production to pigment formation in hair and skin. It’s essential for bones and joint formation, for forming hemoglobin and red blood cells and for neurotransmitter synthesis. Copper plays a role in reproduction and the proper functioning of the adrenal and thyroid glands.
Too little copper can result in rheumatoid arthritis, high cholesterol, multiple sclerosis and lowered immunity.
High levels of copper, on the other hand, can build up and lead to overall tiredness.
Excess copper is normally eliminated via the bile flushed from the gallbladder through the liver and eventually out into the toilet. It makes sense that if the liver or gallbladder aren’t functioning well, excess copper can build up in the liver, brain, heart, kidneys and adrenal glands.
Copper vs. Zinc
Copper and zinc are antagonists, meaning that they exist in our bodies in a delicate balance (more zinc than copper). When copper is elevated, zinc is lowered and vice versa. Stress, overexposure to copper, or low intake of zinc can throw the balance off and cause these and many other health problems:
- Hypothyroidism–Copper-zinc imbalance affects the conversion of T4, the inactive thyroid hormone, to the active thyroid hormone, T3.
- Adrenal insufficiency–Zinc is necessary for the production of adrenal cortical hormones.
- Liver Problems–The ability of the liver to eliminate toxins, including excess copper, can become diminished.
- Diminished Energy Production–Too much copper can diminish cellular oxidation or energy production.
Conventional medicine only recognizes the extreme forms of copper toxicity: Acute copper poisoning and Wilson’s disease, a hereditary disorder that causes copper to accumulate in tissues. But copper imbalances can affect our health anywhere from mildly to severely.
Causes of Zinc Deficiency
Copper can become excessive when zinc is low. There are a number of reasons why zinc deficiency has become so prevalent in our society:
- Soil levels of zinc–acid rain and over-aggressive farming have depleted the zinc levels in our soil.
- Food processing–the milling of grains removes up to 80% of the zinc along with other essential nutrients.
- Stress–healthy adrenal glands send signals to the liver to excrete excess copper. Stress impairs those signals.
- Medications–diuretics, antacids and cortisone can zap zinc.
- Foods–coffee, alcohol and sugar are well-known causes of low zinc levels.
Sources of Copper
Copper is everywhere in our world and our exposure to it is frequent. Copper is found in these sources:
- Water supply–many municipal water departments add copper sulfate to the water supply as a fungicide. Swimming pool chemicals are especially high in copper sulfate.
- Dental fillings–many silver and gold amalgams contain copper.
- Pesticides, Plastics and Household cleaners–can contain xenoestrogens, which are estrogen-like molecules that can build up estrogen in the body, inhibiting the body from eliminating copper.
- Copper cookware–copper tea kettles and even the popular copper mugs for drinks.
- Vitamins and supplements–many multi-vitamins contain copper.
- Copper IUDs–these birth control devices are a direct source.
- Birth control pills and Estrogen medications–these medications are well-known to make the liver and gallbladder sluggish in eliminating copper.
- Heredity–excess copper can be passed on from mother to child.
- Food–copper is high in foods like shellfish, nuts, legumes and whole grains.
Some of these external sources of copper are hard to eliminate, for sure, but you can reduce your exposure to copper in many ways.
Symptoms of Copper Toxicity
Because of copper’s link to adrenal and blood sugar health, symptoms of copper overload may appear as adrenal fatigue or hypoglycemia. However, fatigue is the number one symptom of copper excess. Other symptoms can be:
- Racing mind–the combination of racing mind and fatigue is a telltale sign.
- Panic attacks
- Brain fog
- Insomnia–copper stimulates stimulating neurotransmitters like epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin.
- Roller coaster emotions
- Migraine headaches
- Skin problems–dark areas of pigmentation, slow healing of wounds and bruises, blemishes, rashes, etc.
- Yeast overgrowth–copper is the body’s natural yeast killer.
- PMS–estrogen is closely linked to copper levels and progesterone is linked to zinc. Those hormone levels fluctuate during the menstrual cycle.
- Immune system disorders–copper has antifungal and antibacterial qualities while zinc has antiviral effects. A balance of the two minerals helps our immune system.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome–associated with low adrenal function.
- Cravings for high copper foods
In addition, zinc deficiency symptoms can be important to recognize as well. Frequent colds and flu, slow wound healing, lack of taste or appetite, and white spots on fingernails are all symptoms of zinc depletion.
Testing for Copper Overload
So how do you know if you have too much copper? Certainly symptoms are the best indicator, but testing can be a helpful tool.
Blood tests, by their nature, are unreliable at detecting sub-clinical and physiological deficiencies of necessary minerals. A blood test measures the amount of copper in the blood at a brief moment in time.
Most people who have high tissue copper levels have normal copper levels in the blood. The body controls the levels of copper in the blood very tightly and will shuttle copper off to the tissues to prevent illness.
Similarly, urine tests measure the minerals that are being excreted from the body, not necessarily what is being absorbed.
The best indicator of copper overload is in the soft tissue. Hair is a soft tissue and can be analyzed by a Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA).
An HTMA test is a simple, inexpensive test involving the analysis of about one tablespoon of hair (at the roots) by a lab. All you need is a pair of scissors to collect the sample at home! For more information, read how to conduct an HTMA test here. Not only will you get a picture of your copper and zinc levels, but you will also receive a complete picture of 30+ minerals and toxic metal levels in your tissue.
Interpreting the results from an HTMA test for copper overload is not as straightforward as it may seem. Simply looking at the level of copper may not be enough. Dr. Paul Eck, renowned copper toxicity expert, along with Dr. Lawrence Wilson share these criteria to determine HIDDEN levels of copper. Copper is often normal on hair tests, but may actually be locked in body tissues. Test indicators of a hidden copper imbalance are:
- Calcium level greater than 75 mg%
- Potassium level less than 3 mg%
- Sodium/potassium ratio less than 2.2:1
- Mercury toxicity often indicates a hidden copper toxicity
- Copper level less than 1.0 mg%
- Zinc/copper ratio less than 6:1
Biounavailability, where copper is present in excess in the body but cannot be utilized, often occurs due to a deficiency of the copper-binding proteins, ceruloplasmin or metallothionein. Without sufficient binding proteins, unbound copper may circulate freely in the body, where it may accumulate primarily in the liver, brain and female organs.
When copper is biounavailable, symptoms of both copper toxicity and copper deficiency can occur. Copper toxicity is most often combined with biounavailability. These occur almost always in people who are slow oxidizers. Copper deficiency occurs most often in people who are fast oxidizers. Most HTMA tests will indicate which type of oxidation state you have.
Reducing Copper Levels
Removing environmental and external copper sources is an important first step. Rebuilding energy levels is critical to recovering from copper overload. We can accomplish this by emphasizing a diet of zinc-rich foods and avoiding high copper foods.
Protein is critical for preventing and overcoming copper overload.
Copper can also cause a lack of essential fatty acids, thus good fats are needed. Butter and unrefined oils such as olive oil and coconut oil are good sources of fat. Avocados, sadly, are relatively high in copper.
Carbohydrates in the form of vegetables should be eaten cooked, not raw, according to Dr. Lawrence Wilson and with each meal. Avoiding fruit and starchy vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and corn will help keep sugar in balance.
Emphasize high zinc foods such as:
- Poultry (chicken and turkey)
- Fish (but not shellfish)
- Red meats
- Wild game
- Pumpkin seeds
Avoid high copper foods:
- Soy products (tofu, soy sauce, soy milk, etc.)
- Wheat bran and wheat germ
- Nuts, nut butters and seeds (except pumpkin seeds)
- Dried fruits
- Organ meats
Avoid zinc depletors:
- Whole grains
If zinc and copper are in a seesaw relationship, it would make sense to take zinc supplements to reduce copper levels, right? Yes, you can, however zinc is best absorbed in foods rather than in isolated supplements.
Other nutrients can help too. Manganese helps displace copper from the liver. Molybdenum and sulfur bind to copper in the intestines and facilitates its excretion. Vitamin C helps chelate (bind and remove) copper in the blood. Vitamin B-6 and Niacin (B-3) also can help.
A well-balanced nutrient-dense diet will supply these critical nutrients. In most cases, a quality multi-vitamin (copper free) will be sufficient, but people with moderate to severe cases of copper overload may find supplementation of additional amounts of zinc, manganese, vitamin B-6 and C to be helpful.
Boosting essential fatty acid levels with fish oil, high in EPA and DHA, is important. Cod liver oil and evening primrose oil can be a good idea too.
Contact me for dosage recommendations of these supplements.
Caution: Using supplements and chelation agents sometimes can cause the detoxification process to occur too fast resulting in copper dumps, whereby copper is removed from the tissue into the bloodstream too quickly. Copper dumps can have unpleasant side effects such as nausea, digestive disorders, anxiety, mental racing, hyperactivity, irritability, emotional volatility, headaches, insomnia, skin rashes and flu-like symptoms. These symptoms are typically temporary and can usually be relieved by additional Vitamin B-6 and C.
Here’s your simple change for the day: Check your copper levels with an HTMA and reduce fatigue caused by copper toxicity.
If you would like more great tips for healthy living, sign up for my blog posts to be sent to your email, just once per week.
Joli Tripp and Simple Changes Healthy Results are not medical doctors nor licensed medical professionals. No comment or recommendation should be construed as being a medical diagnosis. If you suffer from a medical or pathological condition, you should consult an appropriate healthcare provider.
Simple Changes Healthy Results is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Simple Changes Healthy Results is also an affiliate for Thrive Market receiving a small commission for new memberships.
Why Am I Always So Tired?, Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., 1999