Copper is an essential mineral, required in minute quantities by the human body. It is considered a trace element and performs important functions in the body. Though found in all the tissues, it is concentrated maximum in the liver. Appreciable quantities are also found in the brain and muscles. Part of body copper circulates in the blood as ceruloplasmin.
Copper forms an integral part of many enzymes in the body. These enzymes take part in a number of reactions for energy production by the cells, and formation of pigment melanin, which causes pigmentation of the skin and hair. Copper maintains the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system as it is required for the synthesis and metabolism of neurotransmitters. It also preserves the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves.
Copper acts as an antioxidant and protects against free radical damage. It works with vitamin C to make elastin, an important constituent of the connective tissue and plays a role in bone formation. It is very important in iron metabolism as it is not only required for the formation of red blood cells, but is also important for the utilization of iron. Copper may have a role in reducing arthritis symptoms due to its anti-inflammatory role.
Copper is found in a variety of foodstuffs, including both animal and plant foods. One of the richest sources of copper is organ meats, especially liver, as copper is concentrated maximum in the liver. Seafood such as oysters and shellfish also contain copper in appreciable amounts.
Good plant sources of copper include nuts, legumes such as soybeans and peanuts, whole grains, vegetables like mushrooms, potatoes and tomatoes, and fruits like bananas and grapes. Cooking in copper utensils can also increase the copper content of foods if food i cooked for a long time and processing of whole grains leads to loss of copper.
The recommendations of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences for copper on a daily basis are as follows:
- 0-6 months : 200 micrograms (Adequate Intake)
- 7-12 months : 220 micrograms (Adequate Intake)
- 1-3 years : 340 micrograms
- 4-8 years : 440 micrograms
- Children 9-13 years : 700 micrograms
- Adolescents 14-18 years : 890 micrograms
- Adults 19 years and above : 900 micrograms
- Pregnant women 14-50 years : 1000 micrograms
- Lactating women 14-50 years : 1300 micrograms
Though copper deficiency is rare, it does occur in people who are at an increased risk for it. Conditions such as impaired absorption due to certain diseases, malnutrition and chronic diarrhea can result in copper deficiency. Premature infants and children solely fed on cow’s milk are also at a greater risk.
The body systems which utilize copper are most affected with copper deficiency. Symptoms include anemia as copper is essential for the utilization of iron. This type of anemia is not responsive to iron, but improves with copper supplementation. Abnormalities of bones and joint problems are observed and there is an increase in the cholesterol levels. Sometimes, there is loss of pigmentation and overall growth maybe impaired. Neurological symptoms, though not very common, are also observed.
Copper toxicity from dietary sources is not very common. However, copper poisoning from supplements and contaminated water supplies has occurred and can result in acute copper toxicity. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, headache, dizziness and diarrhea. Long term exposure to copper at low doses also results in copper toxicity. It leads to liver damage, coma and even death.
Wilson’s disease is an inherited disorder characterized by abnormal accumulation of copper. Supplements are contraindicated in this disorder as there are already very high levels of copper in the body which damage organs like liver and kidney. The Upper Intake Level of copper from both, diet and supplements, for adults is 10 milligrams/day. However, because of the serious consequences of copper toxicity, supplements should be taken only in consultation with a medical expert.