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Vitamins, Minerals and Dietary Supplements

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Copper

What is copper?

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 water.

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 Wilsons 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.

References

  • 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 1995;61(suppl):62S-64S.
    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.

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