copper

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Copper is an essential trace element for humans and animals. The copper content of tissues varies with age.

It is found in higher concentrations in the liver and in smaller amounts in the brain, heart, kidneys and spleen.

Copper is found in a wide variety of foods and is most abundant in meats, shellfish, nuts and seeds. Cereals with wheat bran and whole wheat products are also good sources of copper.

Concentrations in plants can vary from place to place because the mineral content of soil varies geographically.

What is Copper

Copper, as a natural element, is found everywhere in the world around us. Life has evolved in its physical presence and the human body has developed biological mechanisms to manage its supply. Copper is inextricably linked to a balanced diet, recommended by doctors and dieticians.

Copper is not produced by our body. It is obtained from various external sources. As a natural element it is present in many foods and in water.

Our digestive system absorbs the amount needed to maintain good health through a system of regulation called homeostasis. This mechanism regulates and retains the required amount of copper for the human body, and eliminates the excess.

🛎 DID YOU KNOW?
Almost every cell in our body uses copper, which, along with iron and zinc, is the trio of essential minerals for the robust functioning of our body. Quite simply, without copper, the brain, nervous and cardiovascular systems could not function properly.

Copper is found in all organs and tissues of the human body in concentrations ranging from a few ppm to several hundred ppm, usually bound to proteins or organic compounds rather than as a free ion.

Bohr model of copper. Source Signal Garden

Copper Health Benefits

Copper is a critical functional component of several essential enzymes, known as copper enzymes for:

  • Energy production
  • Connective tissue formation
  • Iron metabolism
  • Central nervous system
  • Regulation of gene expression
  • Antioxidant action

The benefits of copper to our health are many. Copper is essential during infant development, in the formation of strong bones, in the maturation of red and white blood cells, in the transport of iron, in the metabolism of cholesterol and glucose, in the contraction of heart muscles, in brain development, and throughout our lives, including its effective antioxidant defense.

Furthermore, copper contributes to effective communication between nerve cells, maintenance of healthy skin and connective tissue, wound healing, structural integrity and function of the heart and blood vessels, and the growth of new blood vessels.

Finally, it is essential for the proper structure and function of circulating blood cells, as well as in the formation of our immune system cells (white blood cells), maintaining a healthy and effective immune response by producing and storing energy in the “production units” of our cells, which are the mitochondria.

The presence of copper in the diet is particularly important for pregnant women, fetuses and newborn babies.

🛎 FUN FACT
Its English name Copper comes from the Latin word Cuprum and the symbol Cu comes from the Latin ”aes Cuprium” which means ”from Cyprus” because the Romans first received copper from there.

Foods Rich In Copper

Some foods are particularly rich in copper. These are walnuts (especially Brazil nuts and peanuts), cashews, seeds (especially poppy and sunflower seeds), chickpeas, liver and oysters.

Natural foods such as grains, meat and fish generally contain enough copper to provide up to 50% of the required copper intake in a balanced diet.

Here are some foods with high concentrations of copper.

Foodmg of copper per 100g
Oysters7.6
Sea snails7.2
Lamb liver6
Crabs4.8
Sesame seeds4.0
Brewer’s yeast3.3
Sunflower seeds4.8
Dark chocolate1.1 – 1.7
Olives1.6
Hazelnuts1.4

Interactions with other nutrients

Iron

Adequate nutritional status of copper appears to be essential for normal iron metabolism and the formation of red blood cells.

Anaemia is a clinical sign of copper deficiency and iron has been found to accumulate in the liver of copper-deficient animals, indicating that copper (probably in the form of a serum proteolytic enzyme) is required for the transport of iron to the bone marrow for the formation of red blood cells.

Copper (Cu) Health Benefits, Sources, Deficiency, RDA, Toxicity
– Oysters are one of the best food sources of Copper

Zinc

Zinc appears to inhibit the absorption of copper. High dietary supplemented zinc intakes (50 mg/day or more) for extended periods of time can lead to copper deficiency.

Zinc increases the synthesis of an intestinal cell protein called metallothionein, which binds certain metals and prevents their absorption by trapping them in intestinal cells.

Metallothionine has a stronger attraction for copper than for zinc, so high levels of metallothionine caused by excess zinc cause a decrease in intestinal absorption of copper.

High copper intakes have not been found to affect the nutritional status of zinc.

🛎 DID YOU KNOW?
According to archaeologists it is the first of the metals used by man since 9000 BC! In ancient Egypt (2000 BC) copper represented eternal life and was used to treat infections. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates (400 BC) used copper (or copper and honey) to treat open wounds while Romans, Aztecs, Persians, Indians and Mongols used it first and best for ulcers and infections. In modern history, in 1850 AD in France, during the cholera epidemic, it was observed that workers in copper mines were immune.

Absorption

Copper is absorbed from the small intestine and the stomach. Its absorption varies depending on the amount ingested.

Thus, ingestion of 7.5 mg of copper absorbs 12% while ingestion of 0.8 mg absorbs 56%. Its absorption can reach 71% if the intake is between 0.96mg -1.2mg per day.

Recommended Daily Intake

Recommended daily intakes for copper (mg/d)

AGEMENWOMEN
0-3 months0,30,3
4-6 months0,30,3
7-12 months0,30,3
1-3 years0,40,4
4-6 years0,60,6
7-10 years0,70,7
11-14 years0,80,8
15-18 years11
19-50+ years1,21,2
Pregnancy
Breastfeeding+0,3
source NHS

Copper Deficiency

Clinically apparent copper deficiency is relatively uncommon.

Serum copper levels and serum proteolytic enzyme levels can be reduced to 30% of normal in cases of severe copper deficiency.

  • Anemia – One of the most common clinical signs of copper deficiency is an anemia that does not respond to iron therapy but is corrected by copper supplementation.
  • Phagocytosis – Copper deficiency can also lead to abnormal low white blood cell counts known as phagocytosis (phagocytic pneumocytosis), a condition that can be accompanied by increased susceptibility to infection.
  • Skin & Color Discoloration – Copper deficiency also leads to the appearance of skin and hair discoloration and decreased immune system function.
  • Osteoporosis – Osteoporosis and other bone growth abnormalities related to copper deficiency are most common in copper-deficient infants with low birth weight and young children.

👉 Cow’s milk is relatively poor in copper and cases of copper deficiency have been reported in high-risk infants and children fed only cow’s milk.

Copper Toxicity

Copper toxicity is rare in the general population.

Symptoms of acute copper toxicity include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, which help to prevent additional ingestion and absorption of copper.

The more serious signs include severe liver damage, kidney failure, coma and death.

Of more concern from a nutritional perspective is the potential for liver damage as a result of long-term exposure to lower doses of copper.

Copper can be introduced into the body through breathing air or dust containing copper. It can even be introduced into the lungs of workers exposed to copper dust or fumes.

Copper (Cu) Health Benefits, Sources, Deficiency, RDA, Toxicity
People who live in homes that still have copper plumbing are exposed to higher levels of copper than most people because copper is released into the water they drink through corrosion of pipes.

Most copper compounds will be bound either in sediments in water or in soil molecules. Soluble copper compounds pose the greatest threat to human health. Typically, water-soluble copper compounds occur in the environment upon release during agricultural applications.

People who live in homes that still have copper plumbing are exposed to higher levels of copper than most people because copper is released into the water they drink through corrosion of pipes.

Occupational exposure to copper occurs frequently. In the workplace, the transmission of copper can lead to a condition similar to influenza, also known as metal fever.

This condition passes after two days and is caused by hypersensitivity. There are scientific articles indicating a link between long-term exposure to high concentrations of copper and a reduction in the level of intelligence in young adolescents. Whether this should be considered a cause for concern is a matter for further research.

🛎 Read Also: These 9 Vegetables Contain More Iron Than Meat

Final Take

Copper is an essential mineral for optimal health. It can become toxic though – although this is rare.

Those suffering from liver or kidney failure should also not take copper supplements without the advice of a doctor. They should also not drink from copper pipes, in which the water remains stagnant for long periods of time.

A rare genetic disorder called Wilson’s disease (hepatophakoid degeneration) is a condition where the body cannot excrete a large amount of copper. This can be fatal. Symptoms of this disorder include loss of appetite, abdominal pain, hand tremors or stiffness of the joints, jaundice and speech difficulties and symptoms associated with mental disorders.

Too much copper can damage the brain, as well as cause problems with kidney, nerve and liver function.

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