Articles Login

Copper - an overlooked essential mineral

An essential element mired in controversy

Jeremy Leach
Jeremy Leach, PhD
Nov. 11, 2023

Table of Contents

Copper deficiency

Copper is essential to our health. Not consuming enough copper can lead to many chronic health issues.

While clinically diagnosed copper deficiency is rare, it is estimated that at least 25% of people in the USA are not getting enough copper according to the CDC and that number would be much higher if we go by UK or EU recommendations for adequate daily intake.

We've all heard of zinc for a healthy immune system, but few people think of copper deficiency when it comes to chronic ill health, malaise and other symptoms. Leslie M. Klevay 2022 discusses the increase in contemporary chronic diseases attributable to copper deficiency.

Why is copper important?

  • Copper is essential to the functioning of mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells. Copper plays a crucial role in the electron transport chain (ETC), a sequence of reactions in the mitochondria. Without sufficient copper, the ETC cannot function properly, resulting in a decrease in production of ATP, the energy used in cells. See Ruiz 2021 for a thorough review of the role of copper in mitochondrial function.
  • Copper is essential for the health and regeneration of the connective tissues, e.g. collagen and elastin. See Harris et al. 1980. Also take a look at this explainer video by Eric Berg
  • It helps stimulate the production of thyroid hormones, prevents over-absorbtion of T4 and controls calcium levels Zhou et. al. 2022. Higher blood copper levels are associated with higher free T4 levels Kim et al. 2020. Another study noted patients with hypothyroidism have lower levels of copper Arora 2018
  • Copper is crucial for nerve function and regeneration, perfomring key roles in:
    • Neuronal Development: Copper is involved in the development and maturation of neurons (Lutensko 2019).
    • Synthesis of neurotransmitters; for example it is a cofactor for enzymes such as dopamine beta-hydroxylase, which converts dopamine to norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation and stress response (also Lutensko 2019).
    • Myelin Formation: Myelin is a fatty substance that surrounds and insulates nerve fibers. Copper is essential for the formation and maintenance of myelin, contributing to efficient nerve signal conduction. Prodan 2002 describes how a patient with low copper and extensive central nervous system demyelination recovered after copper supplementation.
    • Antioxidant Defense: Copper serves as a cofactor for superoxide dismutase (SOD), an antioxidant enzyme that protects nerve cells from oxidative stress (Chen 2022).
    • Neurological Enzyme Function: Copper acts as a cofactor for various enzymes involved in neurological processes. For example, cytochrome c oxidase, a copper-containing enzyme, is essential for energy production in mitochondria (as described above), providing the energy required for nerve cell function.

It plays a role in the immune system.

For an excellent introduction to how copper works in the body watch this video:

Why copper is essential to the body and how it is used

What are the symptoms of copper deficiency

Copper deficiency can lead to symptoms such as:

  • Feeling cold all the time. Copper, along with other minerals like zinc help to maintain optimal thyroid gland function.
  • Excessive allergies / histamine intolerance. Copper is an important cofactor in the production of Diamine oxidase, (DAO), an enzyme which helps to break down histamine, the compound responsible for allergic reactions.
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Anemia. Caused not by a lack of iron, but by a lack of copper, since copper is needed to help the body use the iron is already has.
  • Heart Disease. Copper deficiency may be a leading cause of ischaemic heart disease according to DiNicolantonio 2018 and Kelvay 2016.
  • Raised cholesterol.
  • Iron deficiency anemia.

What are the causes of copper deficiency

  • Long term use of zinc supplements. Taking zinc depletes copper as zinc blocks internal absorption of copper. (Willis 2005, Hoffman 1988) This is why it is recommended to additionally supplement with copper but at a different time of the day.
  • Depleted soil concentrations of copper. Due to intensive agricultiural farming, the soil does not contain the same levels of minerals that exsited previously. Read this overview on the state of depleted soils worldwide

How to fix copper deficiency

Firstly, you need to identify that you have a copper deficiency. To do that there are a few tests that you can take:

  • Blood serum test for levels of copper.
  • Ceruloplasmin level test.
  • Hair analysis for copper levels.

Bear in mind that some popular figures online do not believe that you can be copper toxic - at least not from supplementation. Jason Hommel of the Copper Revolution here cites a paper by Olivares 2005, showing that daily supplementation of 10mg copper for 2 months resulted in detectable increases in liver enzyme production. However these increases remained below the cutoff levels needed to define clinical liver dysfunction.

Furthermore, this elevation in enzymes was transient and 12 months later had gone back to normal levels in all participants.