More than just for pipes and pots, it turns out copper has surprising health benefits as well. Here’s why you might consider adding copper to your daily supplement regimen.
What is copper?
Copper is rarely discussed, but it’s the third most abundant trace mineral in our bodies. Copper has many benefits: it strengthens blood vessels, bones, tendons and nerves; it helps maintain fertility, ensures healthy pigmentation of hair and skin, and promotes blood clotting. It’s available in nutritional supplements as several forms, including copper amino acid chelates, copper gluconate, copper oxide and copper sulfate.
You’d have to eat about six medium avocados to get the amount of copper you need each day. And although it can be obtained from a wide variety of foods, the typical Western diet is low in copper, because the foods that are the best sources, such as oysters and liver, are not eaten frequently.
What does copper do?
Copper is essential in the formation of collagen, a fundamental protein in bones, skin and connective tissue. Copper is necessary for the manufacture of many enzymes, especially superoxide dismutase (SOD), which is one of the body’s most potent antioxidants. It also may help the body use its stored iron and play a role in maintaining immunity and fertility.
Copper is involved in the formation of melanin (a dark natural colour found in the hair, skin and eyes) and promotes consistent pigmentation as well.
How else is copper beneficial to your health?
Evidence suggests that copper has other benefits as well: it can be a factor in preventing high blood pressure (hypertension) and heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias). Some experts believe that it may protect tissues from damage by free radicals, helping prevent cancer, heart disease and other ailments. Getting enough copper may also help keep cholesterol levels low.
It may also help stave off the bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis. In one study involving healthy women 45 to 56 years of age, those taking a daily 3 milligram copper supplement showed no loss in mineral bone density, but women given a placebo showed a significant loss. Another study found no benefit.
How should you take copper as a supplement?
Although there is no recommended dietary intake (RDI) for copper, adults are advised to obtain 900 micrograms daily to keep the body functioning normally.
Copper is usually found in multivitamin and mineral preparations; tablet and capsule forms containing only copper may be available. Individual copper supplements may be hard to find at the pharmacy or health food store. Ignore the label claims that one particular form of copper is better for you than another: There is no evidence that any one form is better absorbed than another or otherwise preferred by the body.
An adequate intake (AI) is 1.7 milligrams a day for men and 1.2 milligrams for women, increasing to 1.3 milligrams during pregnancy and 1.5 milligrams when breastfeeding. Don’t take more than 10 milligrams a day.
It is advisable to take a supplement at the same time every day, preferably with a meal to decrease the chance of stomach irritation.
If you take zinc supplements for longer than a month, add 2 milligrams of copper to your regimen. People who take antacids regularly may need extra copper as well.
Possible side effects include metallic taste, salivation, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Overdose can cause seizure, bleeding and coma. Liver and kidney damage may occur.
Talk to your doctor before taking supplemental copper if you have Wilson’s disease or are taking penicillamine, oral contraceptives or hormonal replacement therapy (HRT).
What are other sources of copper?
Shellfish (oysters, mussels, lobsters, crabs) and organ meats (liver) are excellent sources of copper. However, if you’re concerned about your cholesterol levels, there are many vegetarian foods rich in copper as well. These include legumes; whole grains, such as rye and wheat and products made from them (bread, cereal, pasta); nuts and seeds; vegetables such as peas, artichokes, avocados, radishes, garlic, mushrooms and potatoes; fruit such as tomatoes, bananas and prunes; and soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk and soy powder).
What happens if you get too little copper?
A true copper deficiency is rare. It usually occurs only in individuals with illnesses such as Crohn’s disease or Celiac disease or in those with inherited conditions that inhibit copper absorption, such as albinism. Symptoms of deficiency include fatigue, irregular heartbeat, broken bones and loss of skin pigment.
Even a mild deficiency may have some adverse health effects. For example, a preliminary study involving 24 men found that a diet low in copper caused a significant increase in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol as well as a decrease in HDL (“good”) cholesterol. These changes in their cholesterol profiles increased the participants’ risk of heart disease. A small study of copper supplementation found cholesterol levels dropped. However, another study found no beneficial effects on heart disease risk.
What happens if you get too much copper?
Just 10 milligrams of copper taken at one time can produce nausea, muscle pain and stomach ache. Severe copper toxicity from oral copper supplements has not been noted to date. However, some people who work with pesticides containing copper have suffered liver damage, coma and even death.