Copper Introduction

Copper is an essential trace mineral that is mainly obtained from diet and remains an essential mineral that is vital for optimal health. Copper fulfills various responsibilities within the many biochemical processes in human physiology. There are many benefits coupled with achieving a proper dietary intake of copper. Conversely, copper is a metal, and can also prove to be very toxic if consumed in large enough doses.

The essential aspect of copper was first demonstrated in Peru. Studies were conducted upon children whom were suffering from various unknown symptoms; now known to be caused by copper deficiency. Since this time, copper has been extensively researched. This mineral assumes roles in the overall development of the cardiovascular system (heart, arteries, and blood vessels), while also aiding in the development of the skeletal system. Copper’s most important function may be its role in the metabolic processes of enzymes that are in direct relation to the brain, and associated neuropath ways.

Copper’s use in infants is widely overlooked. It is significant in providing for such fundamental processes as; red and white blood cell maturation, brain and immune system development, and functions concerning the growth and overall health of the heart, particularly with rhythm (myocardial contractility).

As much as 2/3 of all absorbed copper is divided for miscellaneous processes taking place in the brain, liver, and bone structures. Other cells and tissues located throughout the body use the remaining supply. The liver and gall bladder regulate concentrations of copper through the process of excretion via bile. [1] The high bioavailability of this mineral is an undeviating result of copper bonding to certain proteins in the stomach, thereby making this mineral more usable in the absorption process of the upper intestine. It has also been suggested that in times of stress, the neurotransmitter epinephrine assists our bodies in the release of unbound and free copper. [2, 3]

There are various nutrients and enzymes related to the copper mineral compound, including certain minerals (azurite, bornite, and malachite) and sulfides (chalcosine, chalcopyrite, coveline, and cuprite). Alloys also represent copper in the form of brass and bronze, hence its toxicity to humans. Copper activity is also found in numerous “central” enzymes, including the copper/zinc enzyme superoxide dismutase, which supplies the oxygen carrying pigment hemocyanin; and most importantly, cytochroe C oxidase, which is fundamental in the oxygen regulation of the human body. [4] All of these biological properties are dependant upon the regularity of fluid balance in the body. A balance of fluid may produce an antioxidant effect against harmful free radicals.

Copper Food Sources

It is important to note that foods rich in phytic acid (e.g. raw beans, seeds, nuts) actually inhibit the absorption of copper. Individuals consuming higher amounts of fructose should also be aware of decreased absorption rates. Anywhere from 15 to 97 percent of copper is assimilated from a given food source or nutritional supplement.

Food Amount per serving Micrograms (mg)
Beef liver 3.5 oz. 450
Oysters, cooked 3.5 oz. 200
Oysters, raw 3.5 oz. 110
Cashews, dry/roasted ½ cup 80
Molasses, blackstrap 2 Tbs. 84
Pumpkin seeds, roasted ½ cup 78
Black-eyed peas, cooked ½ cup 70
Clams, steamed 3.5 oz 69
Sunflower seeds ½ cup 60
Unsweetened chocolate 1 oz. 62
Brewers yeast 2 Tbs. 52
Beans, refried ½ cup 50
Instant fortified breakfast 1 packet 50
V-8 juice 1 cup (8 oz.) 48
Tofu, firm ½ cup 24
Prunes, dried 2 servings (10) 40
Salmon, baked 3 oz. 30

Copper Uses

Copper has been targeted in many clinical applications. One particular use of copper that has gained notability is the treatment of anemia. Iron works synergistically with copper for the overall maintenance and development of red blood cells, thereby reducing the occurrence of this condition.

Copper is a key component in the formation of elastin connecting tissues. The majority of these tissues comprise important organs and skeletal structures. More common body parts consisting of elastin, include our skin, lungs, and bronchial tubes. [5] A deficiency of elastin is paralleled with a severe deficiencies of copper. Both are attributed to the bursting of blood vessels. One can not survive if this event where to occur. Interestingly, death among arthritic persons caused by the bursting of blood vessels (likely caused by this mineral deficiency), is only second to heart failure. [6]

Overall cognitive functioning of the brain is also directly linked to the presence of copper in our bodies. There are several neurotransmitters that are used and catabolized by the copper enzymes, tyrosine hydroxylase and dopamine-beta-hydroxylase. These important enzymes include both dopamine and norepinephrine. [7] The previously mentioned enzymes provide for proper mental functioning (motor response and reflex), and muscle tone.

As previously stated, copper may serve in protecting those exposed to numerous pollutants in the environment. This may be caused by its antioxidant properties. Zinc and copper contain the enzymes dismutase and ceruloplasmin, and antioxidant productivity may be a direct result of these two compounds. The most interesting form of protection lies within icopper’s ability to provide against tumor growth caused by both abnormalities in our RNA structures and carcinogens. [8]

There has been a recent trend in the last three decades for the wearing of copper based bracelets (mainly in the elderly) by both men and women. It has been a controversial issue in the medical community since its initial introduction to this age demographic. The claim made by these bracelet companies is that the copper compound is absorbed through sweat during physical activity, therefore reducing pain and inflammation associated with arthritis. Although most researches remain speculative, copper does contain ceruloplasmin and superoxide dismutase (SOD), which are chelated minerals that have been proven to aid in the treatment of symptoms related to arthritis. [9, 10] More research is necessary to validate this claim.

Minerals are also lost in conditions such as burns, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and diabetes. A substantial amount of micronutrients are also lost when a person suffers from a sever bun. Copper may be beneficial, along with other vitamins and minerals, in reducing the risk of infections from these burns, and to also aid in the nutrients lost with burn victims. [11]

Low blood concentrations of copper have also been directly linked to both inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes. Those suffering from ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease (forms of IBD), may benefit from mineral supplementation, especially copper, because of its antioxidant properties. [12] The opposite, however, may be true for diabetics. The higher the content of copper in the blood, the greater chance of increase in diabetes-related complications (i.e. elevated blood pressure, vascular disease).

Copper Dosages

Like many of the trace minerals, there is no current RDA (recommended dietary allowance established for copper. The Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Academy of Sciences has recommend “adequate and safe daily dietary intakes” for copper. This is commonly referred to as the ESSADI. [13]

Age Group Infants Children Adolescents Adults
Under 6 months 0.4-0.6 mcg
6-12 months 0.6-0.7 mcg
1-3 years 0.7-1.0 mcg
4-6 years 1.0-1.5 mcg
7-10 years 1.5-2.5 mcg
11 years and older 1.5-3.0 mcg 1.5-3.0 mcg

Copper Toxicities and Deficiencies

Copper Deficiencies

Copper deficiencies are very rare. They typically occur in children, but may also be found in adults receiving parental nutrition (a long-term diet that is derived intravenously). In children for instance, the anemia, protein malnutrition, prolonged diarrhea, and other inhibiting diseases resulting from this mineral deficiency, all lead to further complications. In both children and adults, certain enzymatic properties can cease and lead to a variety of disorders. The most critical of all disorders are those associated with the heart and arteries, due to the increased risk of heart attack and blood clot formations. [14] Other signs and symptoms of a copper deficiency in children and adults include:

  • Skin Sores
  • Immunological Disorders
  • Elevated Low Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol Levels
  • Reduced High Density Lipoprotein Levels
  • Neutropenia and Osteoporosis
  • Intolerability to Glucose
  • Arthritis
  • Myocardial Diseases
  • Neurological Problems
  • Bone and Joint Abnormalities
  • Loss of skin color due to copper-dependant pigment (Menkes’ syndrome)

The immune system in infants is extremely sensitive to dietary intakes of copper. Lower white blood cell counts (neutropenia) are among the first symptoms to manifest in copper deficient babies. [15] The supplementation of copper in newborns should be closely monitored by a medical practitioner.

*Individuals supplementing with the nutrients Zinc, Molybdenum, and Vitamin C; and those taking penicillin medications, should be advised that these nutrients and medications cause interactions with copper and limit the mineral’s overall absorption percentage.

Copper Toxicities

Extremely large amounts of copper are needed to cause toxicity in the human body. This usually results from either inappropriate consumption or a contamination / ingestion of a metallic compound containing copper. Overdoses are usually witnessed by amounts ingested of those receiving greater than 20 milligrams of dietary copper per day. This may lead to damage of the liver, inhibition of red blood cell formation, produce muscle fatigue (lethargy), and extreme nausea.

The toxicity of copper is also associated with the underlying disorder - Wilson’s disease. This is a condition from birth, causing the body to retain copper and not release it properly through the liver and into the bile. It traumatically impacts the central nervous system, causing tremors, drooling, lack of coordination, mental retardation, and/or permanent brain and liver damage. Oral penicillamine and a copper restricted diet are the current treatments for this inborn disease.


1. Sarkar B 1981 Transport of copper. in; Metal Ions in Biological Systems. eds.; Sigel H & Sigel A eds. Macel Dekker NY & Basil.

2. Weiner AL & Cousins RJ 1983 Hormonally produced changes in ceruloplasmin synthesis and secretion in primary cultured rat hepatocytes. Biochem. Journal 212;297-304.

3. Evans GW 1973a The biological evaluation of copper homeostasis in the rat. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics 17; 225.

4. Frieden E 1974 The biochemical evolution of the iron and copper proteins. In; Hoekstra WG Suttie JW Ganther HE Mertz W eds. Trace Element Metabolism in Animals –2. University Park Press, Baltimore Frieden E 1980 Caeruloplasmin: a multifunctional metalloprotein of vertebrate plasma. Biological roles of copper. Exerpta Medica NY, Ciba Foundation Symposium #79.

5. Sage EH & Gray WR 1977 Evolution of elastin and elastin structure, p 291. in; Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, vol. 79 LB Sandberg & C Franzblaw, eds) Plenum Press, NY & London.

6. Matsuoka Y Obana M Mita S Kohno M Irimajiri S Fujimori I & Fukuda J :: Studies of death in autopsied cases with rheumatoid arthritis, p 27. in; New Horizons in Rheumatoid arthritis, (Shiokawa Y Abe T & Yamauchi Y, eds.). exerpta Medica International Congress Series #535.

7. Tyrer SP Delves HT Weller MP 1979 CSF copper in schizophrenia. American Journal of Psychiatry 136; 937-939.

8. Kirshmann, G. % J. Nutrition Almanac, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1996.

9. Murray, M. Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1996.

10. Walker WR, Keats DM. An investigation of the therapeutic value of the ‘copper-bracelet’ dermal assimilation of copper in arthritic/rheumatoid conditions. Agents Actions. 1976;(4):454-459.

11. De-Souza DA, Greene LJ. Pharmacological nutrition after burn injury. J Nutr. 1998;128:797-803.

12. Lih-Brody L, Powell SR, Collier KP, Reddy GM, Cerchia R, Kahn E, et al. Increased oxidative stress and decreased antioxidant defenses in mucosa of inflammatory bowel disease. Digest Dis Sci. 1996; 4(10):2078-2086.

13. Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. National Academies Press. 2002. (Chapters 1, 2, and 8)

14. Somer, E. The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

15. Cordano A 1998 Clinical manifistations of nutritional copper deficiency in infants and children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 67; 1012s.