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Copper Deficiency – Symptoms and Causes

Copper is not only a metallic element but also an essential mineral found in the liver, bones, and muscles. However, only a trace amount of this mineral is present in the body. Despite being present in a small amount, copper is a crucial component that helps maintain proper health. It is integral in performing various functions, including iron absorption, energy production, red blood cell synthesis, and promoting immune response.  Copper deficiency is rare since most people get enough from a diet, and the body needs only trace amounts. However, it is worth keeping close attention to it because copper levels in the body are a marker of nutritional status and general health. Therefore, copper deficiency can lead to anaemia, weakness and other, more severe symptoms. These symptoms vary and affect body systems differently depending on whether your copper deficiency is acquired or inherited.

Copper deficiency, medically known as Hypocupremia, can be acquired or inherited. It is a rare disorder among healthy adult individuals, while it is most common among infants diagnosed with other health problems or inherited a genetic abnormality. Acquired copper deficiency can be treated by supplements and a proper diet, while the effects of the inherited form are permanent.

Even though the condition is rare in healthy individuals, people with genetic irregularities, central nervous system abnormalities, and excessive vitamin C and zinc concentrations are more susceptible to copper deficiency. In addition, the copper level of an individual varies based on different factors, including their dietary intake, physiological fitness, gastrointestinal health, age, and copper regulators like Riboflavin.

According to a study, the recommended daily intake of copper for adult men and women is around 900 micrograms (0.9 milligrams) per day. Therefore, most people can obtain the required amounts of copper through their daily diet, supplements, and even drinking water from copper pipes. 

The USDA recommends the following amount of copper depending on the age of the individual:

Infants (0-12 months): 200 micrograms per dayChildren (1-3 years): 300 micrograms per dayChildren over age four and Adults: 900 micrograms per dayPregnant women and Breastfeeding mothers: 1300 micrograms per day

The HealthifyMe Note

Copper deficiency is commonly present in malnourished populations due to a lack of a healthy diet and copper-rich foods. However, in contrast to its deficiency, a study shows that over-consumption of copper will result in cramps, diarrhoea, and vomiting, eventually leading to neurological disorders in the long run.

Anaemia

A study shows that copper is an essential nutrient for iron absorption. Its deficiency leads to anaemia. In addition, the condition leads to the low production of healthy red blood cells. Moreover, bone marrow dysplasia is also related to copper deficiency, which can get corrected within a few weeks of copper supplementation.

A low level of the copper nutrient is associated with neutropenia, where the production of white blood cells (neutrophils) is down. Due to this, neutrophils in people with a copper deficiency cannot synthesise superoxides and prevent the invasion of microorganisms.

Copper deficiency also leads to the accumulation of neutrophils in the liver, resulting in inflammation. The condition also reduces the function of macrophage and T cell growth, making individuals more prone to bacterial infection.

Neurological Disorders

A study shows that a low level of copper is also associated with neurological defects in adults. The symptoms include nerve damage, muscle weakness, and optic nerve inflammation due to the decreased level of cytochrome C oxidase. Oral copper supplementation can improve the condition.

Children with copper deficiency show severe intellectual disability and development delay and will find it difficult to perform simple activities like sitting and walking.

Bone Diseases

A study shows that people with copper deficiency show reduced bone strength which is common for underweight infants and young children. As a result, they are prone to brittle bones, leading to fractures, osteoporosis, and other bone abnormalities. 

Cardiovascular Disease

According to research, copper deficiency can affect the cardiovascular system’s function and cause heart enlargement, resulting in congestive heart failure. It is also associated with low dilation of blood vessels, increased bleeding, and irregular heart rhythms.

Moreover, people with low blood copper levels have been diagnosed with high blood pressure compared to others. It also increases the LDL (bad) cholesterol level while reducing the HDL (good) cholesterol, increasing the chance of severe heart diseases.

Hair Loss

One of the main functions of copper is aiding in hair growth. When its level gets reduced, people tend to experience extensive hair loss. Affected individuals show sparse, steely, or tangled hair.

Pale Skin

Copper acts as the cofactor of the enzyme tyrosine, which plays a significant role in the production of melanin pigment. Melanin is responsible for one’s eyes, hair, and skin colour. Pale skin or decreased pigmentation of the skin, plump with rosy skin, and sagging skin are some common symptoms in copper-deficient individuals.

Hypothyroidism

Severe copper deficiency conditions result in impaired thyroid hormone metabolism. For example, a study shows that a low level of copper reduces the T3 hormone by 48% and T4 by 21%. It also interferes in converting T4 to T3, eventually resulting in Hypothyroidism.

Vision Problems

Even though it is not a prominent or immediate sign of copper deficiency, lack of copper level for a prolonged time will cause adverse effects on one’s visual ability and might result in vision loss.

Causes of Copper Deficiency

Although a rare occurrence, copper deficiency can affect your health progressively. At the basic level, copper deficiency occurs when copper is not absorbed or supplied in an adequate amount within the body. Below are some significant causes of developing the condition.

Low intake of dietary copper.Zinc toxicity impairs the absorption of copper. Therefore, excess zinc or zinc intake of more than 50 mg/day for an extended period can result in copper deficiency.Protein deficiency during childhood can trigger copper deficiency. For example, it is seen infants drinking only cow’s milk formula. Menkes diseaseHistory of bariatric surgery like gastric bypass and gastrectomyGastrointestinal diseases like celiac disease and short gut syndrome affect the ability of the gut to absorb copper. 

The occurrence of inherited copper deficiency is one in every 100,000 births. It can run in families and usually affect males. 

Copper Rich Foods 

The body uses copper frequently for various functions but cannot make it independently. Hence eating copper-rich food is considered the best way to prevent copper deficiency. 

Here are the top food sources of copper.

Dark Leafy Greens

In general, leafy greens are known for their health benefits due to their rich nutrient profile and ability to meet daily requirements. A study reveals that leafy greens, including spinach and kale, have an excellent copper content and other essential nutrients such as fibre, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, and folate.

Oyster

The critical mineral copper is generally found abundant in different types of seafood, especially oysters, a type of shellfish. A study shows that 100 grams of oysters contain 7.6 milligrams of copper that can quickly fulfil your daily copper allowance. Moreover, they are also a great source of vitamin D, zinc, and magnesium.

Animal Liver

Animal liver is also a good source of copper; a small slice of this organ meat is sufficient to meet the body’s daily need for copper. It is also rich in other nutrients, including vitamin B12, vitamin A, Riboflavin, folate, iron, and choline, which help form red blood cells, preventing anaemia and strengthening bone development.

Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitake Mushrooms are edible ones known as the powerhouse of nutrition. According to research, it contains a significant amount of copper that can fulfil this essential mineral’s daily requirement to carry out life’s critical functions. Besides copper, it also has selenium, manganese, zinc, and folate, along with vitamins B1, B2, 6, and D.

Dry Fruits

Despite their tiny size, dry fruits contain several vitamins and minerals, helping various functions. For example, they are the best vegetarian source of copper, fibre, protein, healthy fats, and other vitamins.

Dark Chocolate

Regarding the nutritional profile, dark chocolates are the best choice compared to milk and other chocolates. Dark chocolates offer a healthy dose of copper and antioxidants, improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure levels.

To get these benefits, make sure that you take at least 70% or more dark chocolate.

Seeds

Adding edible seed varieties, including sesame, flax, and sunflower seeds, will help you take the daily dose of copper. It is because they have higher amounts of copper, which helps promote the immune system’s function.

Nuts

Consuming nut varieties, including cashews and almonds, will give the human body an excellent level of copper to carry out the essential daily functions. Apart from being a healthy copper source, they also have a high level of fibre, protein, and healthy fats.

Side Effects of Excess Copper

Similar to the copper deficiency condition, high levels of copper would lead to specific side effects that can severely impact an individual’s overall health. Hence one should consume it at a moderation level. The symptoms include

Nausea and vomitingMuscle painJaundiceDizziness and fatigueIrritability

Consuming a high level of copper for a prolonged time would result in cirrhosis (liver disease), Wilson’s disease (genetic disease), and brain damage due to the accumulation of copper in the body. In addition, some studies show that high levels of copper cause tumours and cancer growth. 

Tips to Overcome Copper Deficiency

The first step in managing the copper deficiency is finding the condition’s cause. Then, seek professional help and get in-depth insights into the root cause.Make sure to take copper supplements prescribed by healthcare professionals.Plan and consume a balanced and healthy diet, added with copper-rich food sources to meet the daily nutrient requirements of an individual. Include seeds, nuts, oysters, and leafy greens in your daily portion.

The HealthifyMe Note

Depending on your condition, you can take copper supplementation either by mouth or intravenously. Copper sulphate is an oral supplement. People with limited capacity to absorb copper can take intravenous copper histidine. 

Conclusion

Copper deficiency or insufficient amount of copper in your body occurs due to malabsorption, poor diet, or an inherited disorder. Symptoms of copper deficiency are generally non-specific and often mimic vitamin B12 deficiency. However, if you are consistently experiencing fatigue, immune-related symptoms, and weakness, you should seek medical care immediately. Copper deficiency is reversible through supplementation and meeting the dietary requirements for copper. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. How do you know if you have a copper deficiency?

A. People with copper deficiency show common signs, including fatigue, weakness, anaemia, reduced body temperature, osteoporosis, lower white blood cell count, irregular heart rhythm, pale skin, premature grey hair, and thyroid problems. If you show one or more of these symptoms, it indicates a poor level of copper in the bloodstream.

Q. How do you fix copper deficiency?

A. Once you find that you have a copper deficiency, it is suggested to take copper supplements under the supervision of your doctor. However, in most situations, copper supplements are not always crucial for a healthy person with a healthy diet.

People can obtain the daily copper requirement through their diets. Make sure to include food sources that contain high copper levels, such as shiitake mushrooms, cashews, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, kale, chickpeas, and more, to maintain the optimal level of the essential nutrient.

Q. What can cause low copper?

A. Acquired copper deficiency arises from a lack of copper source in diet, combined with nutrient deficiencies and gastrointestinal diseases including celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, and short gut syndrome. In addition, conditions like Menkes disease and genetic mutations cause low copper. 

Q. Which foods are high in copper?

A. Copper is generally available in a wide range of foods, from vegetables to meat. The best dietary copper sources are shellfish, seeds, nuts, organ meats, wheat bran cereals, whole grain products, and chocolate. Consuming these food sources will effectively tackle the lack of copper in your blood.

Q. Can low copper cause anxiety?

A. A study has found that low copper level, along with zinc and manganese, is associated with depression and anxiety in individuals. Copper is the cofactor of the chemical reaction that converts dopamine into norepinephrine. When it is at a low level, it will affect the synthesis of the hormone, causing agitation, anxiety, panic, restlessness, and insomnia.

Q. What blocks the absorption of copper?

A. A rare genetic disorder known as Meknes Disorder interferes with copper absorption by the body. Even though zinc is a critical nutrient that helps in various functions of the human body, consuming more zinc sources will reduce copper absorption in your diet. In contrast, consuming food sources that are rich in protein and carbohydrates has an overall positive effect on copper absorption.

Q. Should I take zinc with copper?

A. Both copper and zinc are critical nutrients that ensure your health. However, since the intake of one of these elements causes the other one to decrease at its recommended level, it is vital to learn how to maintain a proper balance between these two nutrients. For example, higher dietary consumption of zinc can interfere with copper absorption, and excessive use of zinc supplements might lead to copper deficiency. 

Q. Who is most at risk for copper deficiency?

A. The people who are at risk of copper deficiency include

Infants (premature, recovered from malnourishment, fed cow’s milk formula alone, prolonged diarrhoea, cholestasis)People who intake zinc supplements and use zinc-rich dental creamsPregnant women and breastfeeding mothersIndividuals with digestive issues, Crohn’s disease, short bowel syndrome, and celiac diseaseHypertensive individualsPatients diagnosed with Cystic fibrosisPeople on prolonged parenteral nutrition that lacks copper

Weight-loss surgeries also put people at risk for copper deficiency. For example, gastric banding or gastrectomy can impair copper absorption. In addition, since inherited copper deficiency is X-linked recessive, males are at more risk than females. 

A. No, you should not take zinc and copper together. Experts suggest avoiding taking zinc, copper, iron, and phosphorus supplements simultaneously. To get the full benefit of each supplement, you can take these 2 hours apart. Zinc and copper generally work together to enhance disease resistance. It would help if you did not eat zinc and copper together, as zinc tends to interfere with the amount of copper in your body by reducing its absorption level. It means higher supplemental doses of zinc will eventually lead to copper deficiency.

Q. How can I raise my copper levels?

A. The most natural and reliable way to raise your copper levels is by adding copper-rich foods to your daily diet. It includes whole grains, beans, nuts, potatoes, oysters, other shellfish, leafy green vegetables, dried fruits, black pepper, etc.In addition, healthcare professionals recommend copper supplements as an alternative treatment to raise your copper levels. Intravenous copper treatments are when your deficiency level is severe, and your body can’t absorb copper from food sources or supplements. 

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