Essential in preventing cardiovascular disease, maintaining good skin and hair colour and promoting fertility, copper is the third most abundant trace mineral in the body. Even so, some experts believe that many people may be marginally deficient in this important nutrient.
What it is
Copper, the reddish brown malleable metal commonly used in cookware and plumbing, is also found in at least 15 proteins in the human body. It's often included in multivitamin formulas, but an excess of copper can be a problem in Australia and New Zealand because many houses still have copper water pipes. Overnight, water standing in the pipes, especially if chlorine and fluoride have been added to the water supply, will dissolve copper into the water. Letting the water run for a minute or so before use will reduce the problem. Too much copper can lead to a zinc deficiency. Copper can be obtained from a wide variety of foods, though the foods that are the richest sources, such as oysters and liver, are not eaten frequently.
What it does
Copper is essential to the formation of collagen, a fundamental protein in bones, skin and connective tissue. It may also help the body to use its stored iron, and may 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 so promotes consistent pigmentation as well.
Evidence suggests that copper can be a factor in preventing high blood pressure and heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias). And some experts believe that it may protect tissues from damage by free radicals, helping to prevent cancer, heart disease and other ailments. Getting enough copper may also help to keep cholesterol levels low.
Copper is necessary for the manufacture of many enzymes, especially superoxide dismutase (SOD), which appears to be one of the body's most potent antioxidants. It may also help to stave off the bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis.
- Strengthens blood vessels, bones, tendons and nerves.
- Helps to maintain fertility.
- Ensures healthy hair and skin pigmentation.
- Promotes blood clotting.
- Helps to regulate blood cholesterol.
- Usually included in multivitamin and mineral formulas.
How much you need
Although there is no daily RDI for copper, adults are advised to obtain 1.5-3 mg daily.
If you get too little: A true copper deficiency is rare. It usually occurs only in people with illnesses such as Crohn's disease or coeliac disease or in those with inherited conditions that inhibit copper absorption, such as albinism. The symptoms of defiency are fatigue, heart rhythm disorders, brittle, discoloured hair, high blood pressure, skeletal defects and infertility.
But even a mild deficiency may have some adverse health effects. For example, a preliminary study in the US involving 24 men found that a diet low in copper caused a significant increase in LDL ('bad') cholesterol and a decrease in HDL ('good') cholesterol. These changes in their cholesterol profiles increased the participants' risk of heart disease.
If you get too much: Just 10 mg 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, leading in some cases to coma and even death.
How to take it
There's no need to consume megadoses of copper, but it's preferable to get amounts in the upper range of the recommended intake: 3 mg a day from food and supplements. If you take zinc supplements for longer than one month, add 2 mg of copper to your regimen (unless you have copper pipes and regularly drink tap water). People who take antacids regularly may need extra copper as well.
Guidelines for use
It is advisable to take a supplement at the same time every day, preferably with a meal.
Shellfish (oysters, lobsters, crabs) and organ meats (liver) are excellent sources of copper. However, if you're concerned about your cholesterol levels, there are vegetarian foods rich in copper as well. These include legums; whole grains such as rye and wheat, and products made from them (bread, cereal, pasta); nuts and seeds; vegetables such as peas, artichokes, avocadoes, radishes, garlic, mushrooms and potatoes; fruits such as tomatoes, bananas and prunes; and soy products.
Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.