What Is It?
Copper is the third most abundant trace mineral in the human body. Most Americans readily identify it as the dark reddish, malleable metal used in cookware and plumbing. Numerous foods contain copper, although the particularly rich sources such as liver and oysters are not commonly consumed. In fact, most Americans get too little of this important nutrient.
An essential component of numerous enzymes and proteins, copper helps the body function normally. It’s necessary for the formation of one of the apparent superpower antioxidants, superoxide dismutase (SOD). It’s also critical for the creation of collagen, a core protein found in bones, connective tissues, and skin. And it is believed to help in the proper storage, use, and release of iron so critical to the formation of hemoglobin in red blood cells.
A role in maintaining immunity is suspected as well.
Specifically, copper may help to:
Prevent heart disease. Copper may play a role in staving off heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias) and high blood pressure, research indicates. With adequate stores of copper in your system, cholesterol levels also have a better chance of remaining low. And through its apparent antioxidant actions-its ability to protect against damage from free radicals-copper may also help to prevent heart disease (as well as other ailments such as cancer).
Maintain healthy skin and hair color. Copper is an essential component of the natural dark pigment, melanin, that colors skin, hair, and eyes. It is also believed to promote and preserve consistent pigmentation. When hair turns gray due to copper deficiency, taking copper supplements may well reverse the graying process.
Alleviate rheumatoid arthritis-related inflammation. Copper’s anti-inflammatory actions may help in reducing arthritis symptoms. An old folk remedy calls for wearing a copper bracelet; copper is thus absorbed through the skin. The modern approach is to take copper supplements, thus ensuring ingestion of consistent amounts. Rheumatoid arthritis sufferers also tend to be deficient in zinc, a mineral commonly combined with zinc in supplement products.
Encourage bone health and prevent osteoporosis. Through its role in maintaining collagen integrity, copper may minimize loss in mineral bone density over time, a development that can lead to osteoporosis. A study demonstrating this property found that women taking a daily 3 mg supplement experienced no apparent loss in mineral bone density, while the women given a placebo had significant loss of bone density. All of the participants, women between the ages of 45 and 56, were in good health at study start. Zinc is taken for similar bone-strengthening purposes; results with zinc/copper combinations may take at least six months. Copper may safely be added to a regimen of prescription drugs or estrogen therapy.
There is no RDA for copper. To keep the body running smoothly, however, most adults require 1.5 to 3 mg daily.
If You Get Too Little
Preliminary findings indicate that mild copper insufficiency may result in a cholesterol profile that increases heart disease risk. A study involving 24 men found that a diet low in copper was associated with not only a drop in levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol but a significant rise in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
True copper deficiency may cause such symptoms as fatigue, high blood pressure, heart rhythm disorders, skeletal defects, infertility, and hair that is brittle and discolored. Such deficiency is rare, however. When it does occur, it tends to be in individuals with Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or inherited conditions that inhibit proper absorption of copper (albinism, for example).
If You Get Too Much
As little as 10 mg of copper taken at one time can cause stomachache, nausea, muscle pain, and other unpleasant reactions. But there have been no reports of severe copper toxicity. Some people, however, develop anemia when exposed to large amounts over time.
General Dosage Information
For general health: Try to ingest close to 3 mg copper a day from food and supplement sources combined. Megadoses are not needed. In fact, most multivitamins contain copper.
Guidelines for Use
When possible, take copper supplements at the same time every day.
To reduce the risk of stomach irritation, take copper with a meal.
Because zinc will deplete your body’s copper reserves when taken for longer than a month–it inhibits copper absorption–the two minerals are often combined in supplement products. In other words, if you take zinc supplements for longer than one month, be sure to add 2 mg of copper to your daily regimen. Zinc is recommended for a wide range of ailments, from colds to ulcers.
When taken long-term (longer than one month), zinc can deplete copper reserves.
Chronic antacid use may decrease the absorption of copper.
Keep copper supplements away from children, as toxic and even lethal reactions can occur with high doses.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, take extra care to avoid high doses of copper.
David Edelberg, MD