Is Copper an Essential Micronutrient?

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VB Health
April 5, 2023

Copper is an essential part of your mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. Copper is a monovalent cation found in foods such as spinach, sesame seeds, chocolate, nuts, parmesan, and mushrooms. The recommended daily value is 1100mcg for women and 1400mcg for men (1). 

Why does the human body need copper?

We know that copper is an essential part of mitochondria, but what else does copper do?

After oral ingestion, copper is absorbed in the stomach and the first part of the small intestine called the duodenum where it is then passed directly to the liver. 80-90% of that copper is secreted by the liver into bile, or the green stuff that helps you digest fats, which is subsequently excreted in the feces (1).

The other 10-15% is used by the liver to make enzymes, which you can think of as little machines to form complexes such as ATP (the main energy molecule in your body via cytochrome C oxidase), melanin (the molecule that gives your hair and skin color via monoamine oxidase and tyrosinase) and collagen (the protein that gives your skin and blood vessels elasticity, made by lysyl oxidase). 

Can you ingest too much or too little copper?

People at risk for copper deficiency include those who have had stomach surgery, like gastric bypass for obesity due to copper’s absorption sites. Others at risk are those who supplement with too much zinc. An abundance of zinc interferes with your stomach’s ability to absorb copper. Copper is a necessary cofactor for creation of red blood cells because it is essential for proper cellular iron transport and integration into hemoglobin. 

Copper deficiency leads to all blood cell line dyscrasia, sometimes mistaken for a pre-cancerous state called myelodysplastic syndrome, but whose cell morphologies and functions rapidly correct with appropriate copper supplementation.

Copper deficiency also can mimic vitamin B12 deficiency in a symmetrical lower extremity ascending numbness, weakness and eventually flaccid paralysis. This phenomenon is appreciated because B12 and copper metabolism cross paths in their role of DNA methylation. Interestingly, copper deficiency can manifest as optic neuropathy or vision difficulty, generalized cognitive dysfunction or even similar to schizophrenia as a wide variety of psychiatric disturbances. 

Due to its role in cellular respiration (the mitochondria’s job) to make energy molecules, hypocupremia can initially manifest as intractable hypothermia as well.

What’s the best way to make sure you’re getting the right amount of copper?  

Taking a multivitamin with minerals every other day is a great place to start. Recent studies have shown that supplementing micronutrients such as iron and copper every other day is superior to daily for absorption. 

When you supplement every day, your body thinks you are getting too much of these metals regardless of your true body stores and wastes them. You can also eat a varied diet full of nuts, shellfish, and even dark chocolate! In low resource settings, when copper supplementation is needed but conventional preparations are unavailable, cocoa powder is used.

✔️ References

1. Health Effects of Copper Deficiencies, National Research Council (US) Committee on Copper in Drinking Water.


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