Are you tired? Depressed? Achey? Anxious? It's possible that you may have copper toxicity or an imbalance between copper and zinc in your body.
Our bodies function optimally in a state of balance (also known as homeostasis) and they are constantly working to maintain what can sometimes be a very delicate balance of fluids, vitamins, and minerals. When it comes to supplementation, something that is often overlooked is that the balance of minerals and other supplements can be more important that the actual numbers that appear on lab tests. Relying solely on lab testing and not understanding the importance of this balance can have profound impacts on health in the same way that being deficient in many of these vitamins or minerals can.
Copper and zinc are essential to sustain proper health and function of the human body. Both of these minerals can be found naturally in our food and water, but they can have some serious health consequences if they are deficient or imbalanced within our bodies. Copper and zinc imbalance is fairly common and can come from some pretty surprising places. It can have a huge impact on your health and how you feel.
Copper and zinc work together in processes such as immune response, nervous system function, and healthy digestion. They are antagonists, meaning that levels of one decreases the other increases and vice versa. While excess zinc and copper deficiency can both occur, the reverse (excess copper and deficient zinc) is far more common.
What does zinc do?
Zinc is one of the most important trace elements in the body and is associated with a huge number of processes in the body. It might actually be easier to talk about what zinc doesn't do.
Zinc is important in enzyme function, the metabolism that is required for DNA coding, immune cell signaling that helps to defend the body, and programmed cell death (a normal processes called apoptosis). This means that zinc is needed for growth and development, cellular energy, brain function, and immune function.
Zinc deficiency has been linked to birth defects, metabolic disorders, and may be linked to autism.
What does copper do?
Copper is also necessary for overall healthy functioning of the body. It is responsible for the function of many enzymes, carbohydrate metabolism, and is an important component of liver tissue, brain tissue, kidney tissue, and hair.
It appears that copper may play a very important role in the mental decline that is sometimes associated with again as well as many mood and behavioral disorders. Copper is required to create the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Too much copper can show up as everything from chronic fatigue to nausea to mood disorders. An excess of copper can also prevent proper bone remodeling and may be a major player in the development of osteoporosis.
As mentioned earlier, copper excess is far more common than copper deficiency. Some people are more prone to copper build up than others. Anyone who suffers from chronic stress or has adrenal insufficiency is also more likely to develop a copper overload (copper overload can also cause adrenal fatigue) because stress decreases zinc levels.
Copper is much more abundant in the environment than zinc is and as a result many of us are exposed regularly. Copper water pipes, drinking water, dental fillings, birth control pills, copper IUDs, and a shift in our diet away from meats have all been implicated in copper overload.
Ideally zinc and copper should be present in an 8:1 ratio, but foods such as soy products, beans, grains, and nuts all have high levels of copper in them. Meat is a source of both copper and zinc, but the two are present in an appropriate balance. Unsuspected exposures combined with a diet high in copper can cause the zinc-copper ratio to be skewed and lead to a buildup of copper in the system.
Most people with an overload of copper don't realize it. In conventional medicine, there is only one type of copper toxicity that is recognized, known as Wilson's disease. This is a very serious and rare condition. However, there is a range of copper toxicity cases that aren't Wilson's disease, they range from mild to severe.
Lab testing for copper overload is tricky. Hair mineral tests can be used, but they are often misinterpreted. Blood testing can also be done but does not show if excess copper is bound in the tissues (which can result in low plasma copper levels). To add to the already tricky testing situation, some people don't test high in copper because it is stored in their tissues. If plasma copper levels are low or normal, copper overload can still be a problem. The zinc-to-copper ratio can also be a less obvious sign of copper toxicity (the ratio should be between 8:1 and 12:1).
Assessing symptoms and risk factors can be another way to determine copper overload. The more symptoms and risk factors you have, the more likely you are to have overload.
Common copper overload symptoms
- A tired body and an overactive mind
- Premenstrual syndrome or painful periods
- Frequent headaches
- Cravings for high-copper foods such as chocolate, nuts and avocados
- Depression, mood disturbances, or behavior changes
- Frequent colds, flus and viruses
- Easy or frequent bruising
Risk factors for copper overload
Excessive stress or adrenal insufficiency
- High estrogen levels
- The birth-control pill or a copper IUD
- Some silver amalgam or gold alloy dental fillings
- Zinc deficiency
- Vegetarian diet
Regaining your balance
When working towards regaining balance, it's important to take your time as working too quickly can have some effects that are worse than the symptoms that you are already experiencing. Every person is unique and navigating the sometimes intricate physiological patters can be difficult on your own. We recommend that you work with a practitioner to get your copper and zinc back into balance. However, we understand that you want to feel better quickly, so here are some things that you can easily to do get yourself started:
- Limit copper exposure. Make sure your multivitamin doesn't have copper in it, filter your water, and try to avoid copper cookware. Avoid high copper foods such as soy, yeast, nuts, and mushrooms.
- Increase zinc intake. Consume meats and seafood in addition to plenty of vegetables, and ask your healthcare provider about zinc supplementation. Avoid substances that deplete zinc such as alcohol, sugar, and grains.
- Heal your adrenals. Stress increases the rate zinc gets depleted in your body and your adrenals need to be working properly to stimulate your liver to create ceruloplasmin which binds to copper.
- Supplement with other nutrients that help decrease copper levels. Supplementing with manganese, vitamin C, B6, and A can also be helpful in lowering your copper levels. These vitamins all act in opposition to copper. Be careful when supplementing on your own (we always recommend that you work with a practitioner when it comes to supplements) as sometimes less is more. Alpha-lipoic acid can also help because it enhances your body's natural detoxification pathways.
Be aware that as you increase your intake of zinc containing foods or start supplementation, you may being to feel worse. This is because increasing zinc stimulates copper elimination making you feel achy, tired, and emotional. If you have not been eating meat, start adding it gradually to avoid overwhelming your digestion.
Dairy and high phytate foods (such as gluten, grains, and beans) can make an already existing zinc deficiency worse. The calcium in dairy slows metabolism and when combined with phytates can dramatically decrease the ability of the body to absorb zinc. Also important to note that alcohol, coffee, and sugar deplete zinc while chocolate and some tea are high in copper.
The balance of copper and zinc are important for maintenance of glutathione levels (and glutathione may play a role in removing excess copper from your system). Glutathione is an important antioxidant that plays a role in immune health as well as the detoxification process. Zinc deficiency may also decrease glutathione production.
As you can see this issue can be complex and often involves a relatively slow recovery time due to the symptoms that occur when copper is released from your tissues. Working with a qualified practitioner can help you safely navigate this complex process and have you feeling better than ever!