The Health Importance of Copper

Copper is a trace mineral that is essential for the healthy function of the human body. Copper is involved in the uptake of iron into the body, so a lack of copper can lead to anemia. Copper is also involved in many enzyme reactions, as well as electron transport. A copper deficiency can lead to a variety of problems, including increased chances of sunburn, depression, fatty liver disease and high triglycerides (increasing the chances of heart disease or stroke). It can also suppress the immune system. 

How Much Copper Do I Need?

The recommended daily amount of copper for adults is 900 micrograms per day, although modern research suggests that this amount is too low, and between 1500 to 3000 micrograms is a better estimate. Most people probably do not consume enough copper in their diets. Surveys have shown that the average copper intake for Americans is around 1000 micrograms daily. Generally, vegetarians and vegans are not at greater risk of copper deficiency.

Can I Have Too Much Copper?

While chronic copper toxicity, resulting from too much copper in the body, can occur, this is usually from a genetic defect that stops the body from eliminating copper (and can lead to Wilson’s Disease). Healthy adults can consume up to 10,000 micrograms of copper each day without apparent harm (although this is not recommended). Acute copper toxicity can occur when people consume more than this amount, for example, through eating acidic foods that have been cooked in copper saucepans or from contaminated water supplies. Normal food sources should not provide enough copper to cause copper toxicity, and small excesses of copper are easily eliminated by the body. 

How Can I Get More Copper In My Diet?

There are not many food sources with high amounts of copper, although most foods do contain some. Beans, mushrooms and potatoes are good sources, as are lentils, nuts and seeds. Organ meats, such as liver, are high in copper, and seafood, such as lobster, crab and shellfish are excellent sources. Eating a wide variety of whole foods is the best way to ensure a diet rich in copper (as well as other nutrients).

When eating foods that are good sources of copper, try to avoid combining them with milk or eggs, as these can block absorption of the mineral. Also, a diet overly rich in zinc can lead to a copper deficiency, as the two minerals seem to compete for absorption in the gut (the opposite can also be true, in that people who have diets too high in copper may have a zinc deficiency). Copper can also be leeched out of food by excess cooking, so try to cook vegetables in a minimum of water, and for as short a time as possible.

Consuming the daily recommended amount of copper is not difficult, if food is not overcooked, and a wide variety of foods are eaten. Copper is essential for the healthy functioning of most parts of the human body, and so it should be included and encouraged in the diet as much as any other nutrient.

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