Copper For Your Health

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Copper is a metal more typically associated with piping and pots than our health, but in fact Copper is an essential trace element within our body. From aiding grey hair and skin pigmentation to regulating Iron concentration, Copper is an element well worth focusing on.

What is Copper?

Copper as we know it, is a metal. It’s more commonly seen in trendy restaurant décor than plastered over our health bulletins. Sadly, Copper is frequently ignored in nationwide health campaigns as it is a trace element in our diets. Being categorised as ‘Trace’ doesn’t demote it in anyway, it simply means that there is not a large volume found within the body.

In terms of chemistry Copper is known as Cu. It has an atomic number of 29 and has an atomic mass of approximately 63.5 [1]. It is red/gold in colour unless oxidised, then it appears green/grey. It’s known for a number of of chemical reactions that usually forms a coloured precipitate.

Let us delve into its History…

Copper has an extended history spanning many years. The name itself began as ‘coper’ which derived from the name ‘cyprium aes’, hinting to is origin meaning‘the metal of Cyprus’ [1]. Copper is thought to be the oldest known metal on the earth. It was discovered over 10,000 years ago, however the extensive chemical properties of Copper were not yet discovered. History dictates it was first founded by the Sumerian community, that now populates Iraq. The tradition was then continued by the Egyptians as they used their abundant natural source, The Red Sea Hills. Eventually, Cyprus developed its own copper mines and became one of the largest exporters of the mined metal.

Many years later in Britain, Copper mines began to spring up. The most popular ones were in Chesire, Anglesey, Shropshire and regions of Scotland. History books dictate that areas of Llandudno were responsible for the creation of the famous Copper coin of Aurelian. Majority of the Copper mined was in the 19th century mainly due to advancements in the tooling and methods used. In the early 19th century most of the Cornish mines were exhausted and we were having to rely on foreign mines to make up the Copper. This is the same in present day, from the boom of the 19th century to now there are next to no British ores being mined [2].

It wasn’t until 1926 that it was realised that copper is required for adequate health. The study was conducted on rats where it was found that Copper was needed for the synthesis of haemoglobin. Then finally, Copper deficiency was founded in 1962, this time evidence was conducted on a human [3].

What is it used in the body for?

In history, medical Copper has been used since the ancient Egyptian times. Medical papyrus' show the use of Copper to treat wounded skin and to purify drinking water to prevent illness. Whereas Copper was used avidly by Hippocrates to treat leg ulcers and varicose veins. Since this point, modern medicine has developed more accurate uses for Copper [4].

Copper within the body is kept between narrow limits, which means that absorption can fluctuate greatly day-to-day. Copper is absorbed through the intestinal lining via an ion transporter specific to the cuprous form of copper (Cu+1). This is then released to the blood, in which in travels to the liver. Copper is able to be stored within the body as ceruloplasmin, which plays a large role in the transport of both Copper and Iron.

Copper is well known within the body to maintain pigmentation of the skin and hair as we age. Grey hair is feared by many as it’s one of the first obvious signs of growing older. Premature greying can simply be the cause of too little Copper in the diet. Some studies have even shown that Copper is able to reverse the effects of grey hair! The production of melanin is controlled by the enzyme Tyrosinase, which at its core is Copper based. Without this we are unable to effectively produce melanin, which is thought to be the lead cause of greying hair and age spots [5].

Copper also promotes the health and functionality of our immune system. Research is scarce in this area, but has been repeatedly shown that even marginal Copper deficiency leads to a decrease in specific enzymes (Cu/Zn superoxide dismutase and cytochrome-c oxidase) and cells (T-cells and interleukin 2) that are required to fight off invasions from pathogens [6].

Lastly, Copper is used in the production of energy (ATP). Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the universal form of energy used throughout all cells of our body. The role of Copper in this, is again at the core of many essential enzymes, namely, cuproenzyme and cytochrome c oxidase. Much like in a chemistry room experiment, Copper is used as a catalyst for reaction. This simply means it increases the speed of the reaction by offering a much less chemically energetic alternative, thus producing more energy for us to utilise. Without these we would be unable to continually regenerate energy in the body [7].

Can you have too much or too little Copper?

The EU recommendation for Copper is no more that 1mg per day, which may sound very little, but can frequently be missed with a malnourished diet [8]. Although, in the cases that do show a deficiency the symptoms include:

  • Poor skin tone
  • Hypothermia
  • Poor Pigmentation of the hair
  • Brittle bones due to demineralisation.
  • Anemia
  • Hypothermia
  • Decline in neurological health.

This maybe caused by a lack of Copper in the diet or a disorder called Menke’s disease which is associated with poor absorption of the mineral Copper. This is a genetic disorder associated with symptoms including, kinked and brittle hair, sagging skin, seizures weak muscles and large fluctuations in weight [3,9]

On the other hand, toxicity is very difficult to come by as the body is usually very good at maintaining the concentration between these two narrow limits. However, anything is possible, Copper can become toxic if ingested by accident in large quantities (most common in industrial accidents). There is an inherited disorder called Wilson’s disease in which the body holds on to more Copper than it requires, this then deposits in the eye and liver which can cause damage to both organs [10].

What are its food sources?

There are a number of food sources including the following:

  • Seafood (oysters, and mussels)
  • Kale
  • Mushrooms
  • Legumes (Lentils, soy beans and chickpeas)
  • Avocados
  • Nuts and seeds (Sesame, cashew and almonds)
  1. RSC. (2016). Copper. Available: http://www.rsc.org/periodic-table/element/29/copper.
  2. B Webster Smith. (2016). 60 Centuries of Copper. Available: https://www.copper.org/education/history/60centuries/.
  3. Samman, S. (2012). 11.2: Copper. In: Mann,J. Truswell,S. Essentials of Human Nutrition. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pg. 175-177.
  4. Purest Colloids. (2016). A Brief History of The Health Support Uses of Copper. Available: https://www.purestcolloids.com/history-copper.php.
  5. Bhat.G, et-al. (2013). Epidemiological and Investigative Study of Premature Graying of Hair in Higher Secondary and Pre-University School Children. International Journal of Trichology. 5 (1), Pg.17-21 .
  6. Percival.SS. (1998). Copper and immunity.. American Journal of Clincal Nutrition. 67 (5), Pg. 1064-1068.
  7. Organic Facts. (2011). Health Benefits of Copper. Available: https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/minerals/health-benefits-of-copper.html.
  8. EU RDA. (2016). Minerals: what they do and where to find them.Available: http://www.eufic.org/pdfarticle/en/expid/miniguide-minerals/colour/G/?staging=1&rnd=48972720#8.
  9. NIH. (2016). Menkes Syndrome. Available: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/menkes-syndrome.

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