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Copper

Other name(s):

chelated copper, copper histidinate, cupric acetate

General description

Copper is a soft, reddish-orange metal and an essential trace element. Its functions in the body are still being researched. Copper may effectively treat some types of anemia unresponsive to iron therapy. Wilson's disease and Menkes (kinky hair) disease are related to the inability to properly utilize copper.

Copper concentrations are highest in the liver and brain. Copper is also found in the kidneys, pancreas, and the heart. Copper concentrations in the body are increased by the presence of estrogens. Therefore, copper concentrations are highest in the body during pregnancy.

Copper helps to form hemoglobin. It is essential for the production of red blood cells and in the energy production cycle of the cell.

Copper facilitates the absorption of iron from the intestine. It also plays a role in the production of new bone and connective tissue.

Medically valid uses

Copper is taken as a supplement, often in a multi-vitamin/mineral formulation to ensure that the adequate daily requirement for copper is met.

If copper deficiency is present, supplements can improve anemia caused by the deficiency and help balance cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and heart rhythm.

Copper is used in the treatment of Menkes (kinky hair) disease.

Unsubstantiated claims

Please note that this section reports on claims that have NOT yet been substantiated through scientific studies.

Copper may be useful in treating arthritis. (Copper bracelets are often worn on wrists to treat arthritis.) Copper is also claimed to help prevent heart disease and cancer.

Recommended intake

Supplements are supplied as chelated (non-toxic) copper. As indicated below, copper is measured in micrograms (mcg). The RDA is the Recommended Dietary Allowance.

Group

RDA

Infants 6 to 12 months

220 mcg

Children 1 to 3 years

340 mcg

Children 4 to 8 years

440 mcg

Children 9 to 13 years

700 mcg

Adolescents 14 to 18 years

890 mcg

Adults 19 and older

900 mcg

Pregnant women

1,000 mcg

Breastfeeding women

1,300 mcg

Good dietary sources of copper include beef liver, nuts, beans, mushrooms, oysters and other shellfish, dark leafy greens, cocoa, and honey. 

Copper is common in food sources, so copper deficiencies are rare. However, the average American diet is relatively low in copper. Vegetarians have higher serum copper levels than do individuals on a typical American diet. Individuals who are receiving their nutrition by intravenous feeding (total parenteral nutrition or TPN) may require copper supplements to meet their daily allowances. Because copper competes with zinc for absorption, high levels of dietary zinc or excessive zinc supplementation may result in a copper deficiency.

Copper deficiency can lead to a low white-blood count, increased susceptibility to infections, and bone demineralization, which can contribute to osteoporosis.

Because copper plays a role in melanin synthesis, copper deficiency can cause problems associated with the skin and tissues, such as defective collagen formation and decreased skin and hair pigmentation. Additionally, the central nervous system may be impaired because of a reduced energy metabolism. Other symptoms of copper deficiency may include arthritis, inflammation, anemia, weakening of connective tissue, and cardiovascular damage. 

Side effects, toxicity, and interactions

Excessive amounts of copper can lead to symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, irritability and restlessness, dizziness, jaundice, and muscle pain. Long-term accumulation can lead to cirrhosis (liver disease). Wilson's disease, an extremely rare genetic disorder (about one birth in half a million), causes the rapid accumulation of copper in the liver, blood, brain, and other organs. This causes cirrhosis and brain damage. Excess copper must then be removed with chelating (detoxifying) agents.

Keep all copper compounds away from children. The inorganic salts of copper, such as copper sulfate, are extremely poisonous.

Copper-medication interactions are possible. Increased serum copper levels have been reported with estrogens and thiazide diuretics. Antacids may deplete copper levels.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a physician before taking any mineral supplements. 

Zinc and iron can interfere with the absorption of copper from the intestinal tract.

High intakes of vitamin C may deplete copper levels.

Additional information

Click here for a list of reputable websites with general information on nutrition.

Online Resources

Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academics  http://iom.edu/activities/nutrition/summarydris/~/media/files/activity%20files/nutrition/dris/rda%20and%20ais_vitamin%20and%20elements.pdf
The Merck Manual  http://www.merckmanuals.com/media/professional/pdf/Table_005-1.pdf
The Merck Manual  http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/nutritional_disorders/mineral_deficiency_and_toxicity/copper.html
MedLine Plus encyclopedia  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002419.htm?debugMode=false
Up to Date: Copper: Natural Drug Information  http://www.uptodate.com
Up to Date: Overview of Dietary Trace Minerals  http://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-dietary-trace-minerals?view=print