What is copper? Why do we need it?
Copper is an essential trace element found throughout the body. The liver
and brain contain the largest amounts of copper in the body; other organs
contain smaller amounts.
Why do we need it?
Copper is essential to the absorption and utilization of iron; it also
works with iron in the formation of red blood cells. In addition, copper
is needed to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the substance the body's
cells convert into energy.
Several body hormones, as well as collagen (an important constituent
of connective tissue) and tyrosinase (the enzyme that puts pigment into
the skin), require copper in order to be synthesized properly.
How much copper should I take?
According to the National Academy of Sciences, the recommended daily
allowance (RDA) of copper is as follows:
- Adult men: between 1.5-3.0 milligrams/day
- Adult women: between 1.5-3.0 milligrams/day
- Children aged 7-10: between 1-2 milligrams/day
- Infants: between 0.6-0.7 milligrams/day
- Pregnant/lactating women: between 1.5-3.0 milligrams/day
What are some good sources of copper?
Large amounts of copper can be found in seafood, especially oysters and
other shellfish. Nuts, dried legumes, whole grain products, seeds, potatoes,
prunes, chocolate and liver also contain copper. People whose homes have
copper pipes also obtain significant amounts of copper through their drinking
What can happen if I don't get enough copper?
Copper deficiency has been shown to cause anemia and a drop in HDL cholesterol
(the "good" cholesterol). Other symptoms of copper deficiency include
diarrhea and stunted growth; some studies have found that patients with
mental and emotional problems also have low levels of copper.
It should also be noted that a high intake of zinc interferes with copper
absorption. Therefore, it is recommended that people taking zinc supplements
for more than a few weeks should also increase their copper intake (unless
they have Wilson’s disease, a genetic disorder which causes an excess
buildup of copper in the body).
What can happen if I take too much?
Although small amounts of copper are essential, excess amounts can be
toxic. Too much copper can lead to a variety of conditions, including
hemolytic anemia, emotional problems, behavioral disorders, mood swings,
depression, liver damage, schizophrenia, excema, sickle cell anemia, and
severe damage to the central nervous system. Using oral contraceptives
and smoking (tobacco) may also lead to a rise in the amount of copper
found in the blood and may cause hypertension.
- Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th ed. Washington,
D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989.
- Murray M. Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements.
Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1996.
- Sandstead HH. Requirements and toxicity of essential
trace elements, illustrated by zinc and copper. Am J Clin Nutr
- Broun ER. Greist A, Tricot G, Hoffman R. Excessive
zinc ingestion. A reversible cause of sideroblastic anemia and bone
marrow depression. JAMA 1990;264:1441-43.
- Jacob RA, Skala JH, Omaye ST, Turnlund JR. Effect
of varying ascorbic acid intakes on copper absorption and ceruloplasmin
levels of young men. J Nutr 1987;117:2109-15.