Copper is a trace mineral that is essential for human health. It works with enzymes, which are proteins that aid in the biochemical reactions of every cell. Copper assists these many of these enzymes in crucial reactions in the body.
Copper’s functions include:
- Assisting in energy production
- Protecting cells from free radical damage
- Helping lysyl oxidase, an enzyme that strengthens connective tissue
- Assisting the conversion of the brain neurotransmitter dopamine to norepinephrine
- Helping your body make hemoglobin, which is needed to carry oxygen to red blood cells
- Keeping the immune system, bones, blood vessels, and nerves healthy
- Helping in the formation of the pigment melanin
Many studies show that Americans consume less than adequate amounts of dietary copper. However, copper deficiency in adults is rare. A deficiency may occur, though, due to certain genetic problems, long-term shortages of dietary copper, or excessive intakes of zinc and iron. In addition, premature infants and infants suffering from malnutrition may have deficiencies of copper. People who have had gastric surgery or have conditions that affect how their bodies absorb nutrients are also at risk for copper deficiency.
If you are unable to meet your copper needs through dietary sources, copper supplements may be necessary. Copper supplements are usually taken by mouth, but in some cases are given by injection. Your doctor should determine if you need such supplementation.
Cases of toxicity from copper are rare.
Excess copper intake may lead to liver and kidney damage. Symptoms of copper toxicity may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Signs of liver damage like yellow eyes or skin
Major Food Sources
Foods high in copper include:
- Beef liver
- Sunflower seeds
There are a number of health conditions and treatments that affect how your body absorbs, uses, or excretes copper. The most common examples include:
- Wilson’s disease—A genetic condition which include the inability of the body to excrete copper. This lead to a dangerous build-up of copper in the body.
- Menkes syndrome—A genetic condition that prevents proper copper absorption. It results in an accumulation of copper is some tissues, but not in others. This can lead to blood disorders or nerve problems.
- Medications or supplements—For example, high levels of zinc interfere with copper absorption, creating a deficiency.
If you are concerned about how much copper you are getting in your diet, talk to your doctor before supplementing.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
- Review Date: 06/2016 -
- Update Date: 02/16/2017 -