Copper was the first metal humans utilized for work, and it's commonly known as the metal we use to make pennies. However, copper is also an essential mineral for our bodies to function properly. This article will discuss what copper is, its role in the body, how to test for it, and how to ensure you have proper levels.
What is Copper?
Copper is a reddish gold metal that is used in the production of wires and other materials. The reaction of copper and tin gave way to the creation of bronze, and thus the Bronze Age began, the time period when humans used metals for tools rather than stone. While the material utilization of copper has been important for humans, it also serves as a required mineral for our bodies. The majority of copper in the body, about two-thirds, is located in the skeletal and muscle tissue.
What is Copper's Role in The Body?
Copper is a trace mineral involved in numerous processes in the body. Copper is required for the production of melanin, giving skin its pigmentation, the creation of blood vessels, brain development, immune system regulation, expression of genes, and regulation of hormones in the brain. Additionally, copper is a part of the potent antioxidant superoxide dismutase. Antioxidants function to reduce free radicals, which cause damage to the cells and are linked to various diseases, including cardiovascular disease, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and more.
Copper also serves as a cofactor for cuproenzymes. Cofactors are vitamins and minerals required for enzymes to function. So, reactions and processes in the body depend upon cofactors. Cuproenzymes are utilized in energy production, iron absorption and degradation, red blood cell creation, collagen and connective tissue synthesis, and the production of neurotransmitters.
The cuproenzyme ceruloplasmin is also a protein responsible for carrying 95% of copper throughout the body.
Copper homeostasis, or the amount of circulating copper, is tightly controlled by the small intestine, where it is absorbed, and the liver, where the excretion process begins. When too much copper is circulating, the small intestine will lower its absorption of copper, and the liver will excrete the excess copper into the bile, a substance used to break down fats. Bile will eventually end up in the stool for excretion.
How to Test Copper Levels
Copper can be checked in the blood and urine.
Copper levels can be detected in red blood cells (RBCs) and in the serum. RBC copper tests show the intracellular levels of copper and can usually show a deficiency earlier than serum testing. Serum testing shows the amount of copper in the serum of the blood, and normal values range from 62 to 140 micrograms per deciliter. Inflammation can skew the results of serum copper levels, and thus c-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, should be drawn simultaneously.
Copper levels can also be found on micronutrient panels like the Spectracell Laboratories Micronutrient Test.
Urine measurements of copper may be done to assess copper excretion, which can be helpful in the diagnosis of certain conditions such as Wilson's disease, where the body cannot excrete copper.
Additionally, ceruloplasmin, a protein that carries copper in the blood, can also be measured and aid in diagnosing conditions causing copper deficiencies and surpluses. Normal ceruloplasmin levels range from 20-35 milligrams per deciliter.
How to Make Sure You are Getting Enough Copper in Your Diet
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for copper is dependent upon age:
As pregnancy and lactation create an increased need for nutrients, the RDAs for these physical states are unique: the RDA for pregnant women is 1,000 mcg and for lactating women is 1,300 mcg.
Foods Containing >50% of Recommended Daily Intake of Copper
Copper deficiency may be seen in people with digestive issues that lead to malabsorption, such as Crohn’s disease and Celiac disease, or kidney conditions. Additionally, high levels of zinc can cause copper deficiencies.
Signs of copper deficiency include loss of skin pigmentation (color), high cholesterol, anemia, bone fractures due to osteoporosis, and an increase in infections.
Severe copper deficiency is seen in Menkes disease, a genetic condition that inhibits the absorption of copper. Without copper injections, this disease can be fatal.
High levels of copper can be the result of hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, leukemia, lymphoma, biliary cirrhosis, anemia, hemochromatosis, rheumatoid arthritis, over-supplementation, and certain infections.
Additionally, high copper can be the result of drinking tap water from corroded copper pipes. The amount of copper excreted increases if the water is hot, as copper dissolves readily in hot water, or if the pipes have not been used recently. It's recommended to avoid drinking hot tap water and to run the water for a few minutes if it has not been used recently.
Copper toxicity can be seen in Wilson’s disease, a genetic condition that inhibits copper excretion. Wilson’s disease, and thus high copper, cause liver damage, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.
Copper is an essential mineral that is required for a variety of processes in the body ranging from skin pigmentation to gene expression. It’s important that copper levels do not go above or below expected values, as both abnormalities can lead to a host of problems. Copper testing may be necessary to ensure levels are appropriate, as interventions are often needed for both deficient and excess levels.