Copper is an important trace mineral for health and well-being. Fortunately, it is found in foods that are common to most diets. It is found in small amounts in plants and animals, and hence enters our bodies as part of our food chain. Copper is also found naturally in rocks, and is mined for use in industry.

What is Copper?

Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu and the atomic number 29 on the Periodic Table of Elements. Copper is classed as a metal. The name Copper is derived from the Old English name ‘coper’ in turn derived from the Latin ‘Cyprium aes’, meaning ‘a metal from Cyprus’.

Copper Health Benefits

Copper assists with proper growth in children, helps the body use iron, and plays a role in enzymatic reactions and energy production. Copper is essential for healthy connective tissues, eyes, and hair, as well as slowing down the aging process and preventing arthritis.

The body also uses copper to regulate heart rhythm, the thyroid glands, wound healing, and red blood cell formation. Copper works to ensure proper metabolic processes in conjunction with amino acids and a variety of vitamins.

Food Sources of Copper

Since the body does not produce copper, the mineral has to be obtained from food or supplements. Fortunately, these are foods that most people commonly eat, unless they are on a special diet or experiencing starvation.

Copper is present in the following common foods:

Effects of a Low Copper Diet

These foods are common to those who eat a carnivorous, omnivorous or vegetarian diet. However, if for one reason or another, a person does not eat any of these foods, then they are at risk for copper deficiency.

If a diet is low in copper, a person may show symptoms of anaemia, low body temperature, brittle bones, osteoporosis, dilated veins, and a low white cell blood count. They may also experience an uneven heartbeat, elevated cholesterol levels, low resistance to infections, low skin pigmentation, and thyroid disorders, dermatitis, diarrhoea, hair loss, paleness, and lethargy.

A pregnant woman who has insufficient copper in her diet may give birth to a child with birth defects.

Copper Supplements

Usually, if a person is eating a balanced diet, they will be getting enough copper. However, if they are not getting enough copper, they may have to use a supplement. When supplementing, it’s essential not to exceed the recommended dosage as that can cause toxicity problems. Toxicity may also arise due to certain hereditary conditions.

Copper Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)

When there is a copper deficiency, a person may have to take supplements to restore copper levels in the body.

When the deficiency is low, physicians recommend 0.1 mg/kg per day of cupric sulfate. When deficiency is severe, a health care provider may supplement copper intravenously. In cases of osteoporosis, 2.5 mg of copper should be taken with 100 mg of calcium, 5 mg of manganese, and 15 mg of zinc.

Here are the Adequate Intake levels and the Recommended Dietary Allowance established by the National Institute of Medicine:

Adequate Intake (AI) for infants 0 to 6 months is 200 mcg and for infants 7 to 12 months is 220 mcg. Infants should get their copper from formula or food. If supplements are used, a healthcare provider should monitor dosage.

For children and adults, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the following:

  • Children between 1 to 3 years of age should take at least 340 mcg per day.
  • Children between 4 to 8 years of age should take at least 440 mcg per day.
  • Children between 9 to 13 years of age should take at least 700 mcg per day.
  • Adolescents between 14 to 18 years of age should take at least 890 mcg per day.
  • Men and women who are 19 years or older, should take at least 900 mcg a day
  • Women who are pregnant should take at least 890 1000 mcg a day.
  • Women who are breastfeeding should take at least 1300 mcg a day.

Additionally copper supplementation may be necessary for those who have kidney problems and are being treated with haemodialysis.

  • Women who are pregnant should take at least 890 1000 mcg a day.
  • Women who are breastfeeding should take at least 1300 mcg a day.

Copper Overdose

Although taking too little copper can cause health problems, taking too much can cause toxicity. One of the most noticeable symptoms of the body not metabolising copper properly, and therefore having an excess in the body, is copper rings around the edge of the iris (coloured part of the eye). These are known as Kayser–Fleischer rings.

When copper is supplemented to treat a deficiency it is usually safe. However it is unsafe when taken in large amounts on a daily basis. For those 19 years or older anything over 10 mg of copper a day can cause severe problems like kidney failure, nausea and vomiting, stomach pains and bloody diarrhea, and low blood pressure and heart problems. Additionally taking too much copper can result in anemia and fever.

For children, the Tolerable Upper Limit is the following:

  • Children 1 to 3 years should not take more than 1 mg per day.
  • Children 4 to 8 years should not take more than 3 mg per day.
  • Children 9 to 13 years should not take more than 5 mg per day.
  • Adolescents should not take more than 8 mg per day.

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Copper Notes / Side Effects

Extra copper can make certain hereditary conditions worse, including childhood cirrhosis and idiopathic copper toxicosis. Extra copper can also interfere with the treatment for Wilson’s disease.

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