Copper in the body is mostly found bound to copper proteins. When it is unbound copper can be toxic. It is used by the body to manufacture red blood cells and keep the immune system and nerve cells healthy. The body’s requirements of copper are minimal and most people do not become deficient. However, you must be careful because excess of copper can be dangerous. The best way to get copper is through natural foods, get a list of copper rich foods here.
Causes of copper deficiency
There are two types of copper deficiency – acquired and inherited.
Acquired copper deficiency
If the body’s metabolism is normal, copper deficiency rarely occurs. Some causes of acquired deficiency are persistent infantile
diarrhea because of a baby being solely fed milk, kwashiorkor – a form of acute protein-energy malnutrition in babies, excessive intake of zinc and severe cases of malabsorption such as in sprue. Such a deficiency causes abnormal bone calcification, neutropenia and hypochromic anemia that does not respond to iron supplements.
This deficiency is detected based on low serum levels of ceruloplasmin and copper although these tests are not wholly reliable. Copper sulfate is given to treat this deficiency.
Symptoms of Acquired copper deficiency
- Low body temperature
- Bone fractures
- Irregular heartbeat
- Low WBC count
- Thyroid problems
- Loss of skin pigmentation
Inherited copper deficiency
Male babies sometimes inherit an X-linked gene that is mutant. This can result in inherited copper deficiency called Menkes syndrome. Every 1 in 50,000 live births babies can be affected by this. In such cases, copper is found lacking in the serum, liver, essential copper proteins like lysyl oxidase, ceruloplasmin, cytochrome-c oxidase.
Menkes syndrome is a condition that causes inborn error of metabolism. As a result, the body cells are unable to absorb sufficiency quantities of copper needed by the body. The ATP7A gene causes this inherited copper deficiency and prevents the body from absorbing or distributing copper. Hence, certain parts of the body, especially the brain does not get the required quantities of copper. Low copper levels due to Menkes syndrome causes an unhealthy build-up of copper in the kidneys and small intestine. It also affects nerve functioning, structure of hair, bone, skin and blood vessels.
Recommended Dosage of Copper
Alternative names for Menkes syndrome are Menkes kinky hair syndrome, steely hair disease or kinky hair disease. Signs of this include very low body temperature, slow growth of the fetus, bleeding from the brain and an abnormal look to hair follicles when examined under a microscope. Sometimes females do carry Menkes genes but in them only half of the examined hairs will be abnormal whereas in males all the hairs will show the same traits.
Diagnostic tests for inherited copper deficiency are similar to the acquired tests. Presence of low levels is indicated by serum levels of copper, dopamine and ceruloplasmin. If it is detected early (before the infant is 2 weeks old) then treatment offers good prognosis. Copper histidine is given for treatment although regardless of early detection and treatment abnormal neurodevelopment persists in some babies.
Symptoms Inherited copper deficiency
- Bone spurs
- Brittle hair
- Feeding difficulties
- Mental deterioration
- Poor muscle tone (hypotonia)
- Pudgy and rosy cheeks
- Skeletal abnormalities
Excess of Copper
Sometimes the body stores excess amounts of copper. This causes Wilson’s disease that is inherited but very rare. If excess copper cannot be excreted, it damages the eyes, kidneys and brain. If left untreated, it can lead to severe medical conditions like liver disease, dysfunction of the central nervous system and death. Early detection and appropriate treatment allows patients to live normal lives.
Wilson’s disease starts at birth. However, symptoms will be detected much later in life (6 – 40 years). Diagnostic feature is the ‘Kayser-Fleischer ring’, which is a deep copper-colored ring that can be seen encircling the edges of the cornea. This happens due to excessive deposits of copper in the eyes. Children acquire Wilson’s disease from both parents who each have a copy of the ATP7B gene. A child who inherits both copies contracts Wilson’s disease. If detected and treated soon, patients can recover completely and lead normal lives. If left undetected or untreated, it can prove fatal before a person turns 30 years.
Symptoms of copper excess
- Liver disease
- Speech difficulty
- Grossly inappropriate behavior
- Personality changes
- For kids – poor performance at school
All forms of copper deficiency can be treated using copper supplements. Copper is available as a multivitamin and it is taken orally, or is used as a topical solution or gel. In rare cases, patients may need an injection of copper.
Precautions while using copper supplements
Excess of copper intake can cause vomiting, nausea, headache, stomach ache, dizziness, diarrhea, weakness and a metallic taste. Copper toxicity is extremely rare but if present can cause jaundice, heart problems, and coma and prove fatal in rare cases. If you suffer from diarrhea, do not take copper supplements. If water contains > 6mg/liter of copper it can cause various stomach problems. Those who use well water must test it for copper content.
Those who have homes with new copper pipes and use copper cookware can also be unknowingly ingesting copper. Cook with cold water and flush out pipes with cold water for a few minutes to minimize copper levels you ingest. If there are blue-green stains in the sink and faucet and if you keep getting a funny metallic taste in your mouth then test the water you use.
All those who suffer from excessive copper (Wilson’s disease) and other hereditary problems like childhood cirrhosis or idiopathic toxicosis must not take copper supplements.
The body requires copper for optimal usage of iron, sugar and various important nerve functions. Lack of copper causes various illnesses that can become deadly and prove fatal if not treated with the right copper supplements. Check with your health care provider for the right foods and supplements you need to take to avoid copper deficiency or reduce the intake of copper if you suffer have excess copper in your body.