COPPER AND IRON ABSORBTION Author/s:
Copper is an essential mineral that plays an important role in iron
absorption and transport. It is considered trace mineral because it
is needed in very small amounts. Only 70-80 mg of copper are found in
the body of a normal healthy person. Even though the body needs very
little of it, copper is an important nutrient that holds many vital
functions in the body.
Copper is essential for normal development of the body because it:
Participates in a wide variety of important enzymatic reactions in the
Is a component of or a cofactor for approximately 50 different enzymes.
These enzymes need copper to function properly.
Is essential for iron absorption and transport. Iron is needed to make
hemoglobin, a main component of red blood cells. Therefore, copper deficiency
is often linked to iron-deficiency anemia.
Is required to build elastin and collagen, which are an important components
of bones and connective tissues. Therefore, copper is believed to protect
the bones and joints against degeneration and osteoporosis.
Is required for melanin production. People with copper deficiency may
have pale skin and hair.
Is a key mineral for the immune system. Copper promotes wound healing.
Studies show that premature infants or children with genetic copper
defects are at high risk of getting infections and would significantly
improve with copper supplementation.
Attacks free radicals. Copper is a strong antioxidant. It works by attaching
itself to the enzyme Superoxide dismutase (SOD). Copper also binds to
a protein to form ceruloplasmin, which is an antioxidant.
Helps the body produce energy. Copper participates in many oxidative
reactions that break down fats in fat tissue to produce much needed
energy. Copper deficiency has been associated with high cholesterol
Is necessary for normal functioning of insulin. Copper deficiency is
also associated with poor blood glucose control.
Is needed for normal functioning of the cardiovascular system.
Protects the structure and function of the nervous system, including
the brain. Copper protects nerve fiber by maintaining myelin, the insulating
sheath that surrounds nerve cells. It also aids the transmission of
nerve signals in the brains.
Copper supplements may be beneficial in treating or preventing copper
deficiency. Copper deficiency used to be relatively rare because the
body requires so little of it, only about 2 mg per day. In addition,
it is available naturally in a variety of foods such as whole grains,
shellfish, nuts, beans and leafy vegetables. Additional sources of copper
are the copper water pipes that run through homes or the copper cookware
in the kitchen. These sources leach copper into the water we drink and
the food we eat. The level of copper in drinking water is sometimes
so high that it becomes a public concern. However, scientists now realize
that copper deficiency, especially borderline cases, is more common
than once thought. Copper deficiency is currently on the rise due to
a decrease of whole foods in the diet and high consumption of fatty
and processed foods.
Besides dietary causes, certain diseases or conditions may reduce copper
absorption, transport or increase its requirements, resulting in abnormally
low copper blood levels. Increased copper intake through diet or supplementation
may be necessary in the following conditions:
premature infants fed only cow's milk
celiac disease, sprue, cystic fibrosis, or short-bowel syndrome (These
diseases cause poor absorption of dietary copper.)
high consumption of zinc or iron (These minerals interfere with copper
highly processed foods (Copper is stripped away during food processing.)
Menkes syndrome (In this disease, copper deficiency is caused by genetic
defects of copper transport. Menkes syndrome patients cannot use copper
supplied by the diet efficiently.)
Symptoms of copper deficiency include:
prominently dilated veins
pale hair or skin
poorly formed bones
nervous system disorders
high cholesterol levels
loss of taste
increased susceptibility to infections
Exceeding the daily requirement is dangerous, however, because copper
toxicity commonly occurs. Copper toxicity is a very serious medical
problem. Acute toxicity due to ingestion of too much supplement, for
example, may cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dizziness,
headache, and a metallic taste in the mouth. Chronic toxicity is often
caused by genetic defects of copper metabolism, such as Wilson's disease.
In this disease, copper is not eliminated properly and is allowed to
accumulate to toxic levels. Copper is therefore present at high concentration
where it should not be, such as in the liver, the lens of the eye, kidneys,
Copper is a good antioxidant. It works together with an antioxidant
enzyme, superoxide dismutase (SOD), to protect cell membranes form being
destroyed by free radicals. Free radicals are any molecules that are
missing one electron. Because this is an unbalanced and unstable state,
a radical is desperately finding ways to complete its pair. Therefore,
it reacts to any nearby molecules to either steal an electron or give
away the unpaired one. In the process, free radicals initiate chain
reactions that destroy cell structures. Like other antioxidants, copper
scavenges or cleans up these highly reactive radicals and changes them
into inactive, less harmful compounds. Therefore, it can help prevent
cancer and many other degenerative diseases or conditions such as premature
aging, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, arthritis, cataracts, Alzheimer's
disease, or diabetes.
Copper may play a role in preventing osteoporosis. Calcium and vitamin
D have long been considered the mainstay of osteoporosis treatment and
prevention. However, a recent study has shown that they can be even
more effective in increasing bone density and preventing osteoporosis
if they are used in combination with copper and two other trace minerals,
zinc and manganese.
Copper has been a folklore remedy for rheumatoid arthritis since 1500
B.C. in ancient Egypt. Some people believe that wearing jewelry made
of copper may relieve arthritic symptoms. To evaluate the effect of
copper for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Walker and his
colleagues conducted a study of 77 arthritic patients. Patients were
divided into two groups: treatment group wearing copper jewelry and
placebo group wearing nothing or aluminum jewelry. In this study, patients
who wore copper bracelets felt significantly better than those in the
placebo group. In addition, patients in the treatment group reported
recurrences of symptoms after the bracelets were removed. To explain
the effects of the copper bracelets, these researchers suggested that
copper contained in the bracelets was dissolved in sweat and then absorbed
through the skin. They suspected that copper's effectiveness may be
related to its role as an antioxidant. They also believe that copper
may function as both an anti-inflammatory agent and as an antioxidant.
Thus, it is possibly effective in reducing inflammatory response to
such conditions as rheumatoid arthritis.
Copper is contained in many multivitamin/mineral preparations. It is
also available as a single ingredient in the form of tablets. These
tablets should be swallowed whole with a whole cup of water preferably
with meals to avoid stomach upset. A person may choose any of the following
preparations: copper gluconate, copper sulfate, or copper citrate. However,
copper gluconate may be the least irritant to the stomach.
Zinc and copper compete with each other for absorption in the gastrointestinal
tract. As a result, excessive copper intake may cause zinc deficiency,
and vice versa. Therefore, a person should take zinc and copper supplements
together in ratios of 10:1 or 15:1.
Take heed to the following:
Persons who take copper supplements should inform their doctors for
proper instruction and monitoring of side effects. Copper toxicity due
to excessive doses of copper supplements have been reported.
Although there currently is no recommended daily allowance RDA established
for copper, 2 mg of copper per day is considered sufficient and safe.
Nausea and vomiting may occur in persons taking more than 20 mg of copper
It is not known if copper supplementation may harm a growing fetus.
However, as with any drugs, pregnant or nursing women should not take
copper or any other supplements or drugs without first consulting their
In certain areas, drinking water may contain high levels of copper.
Periodic checks of copper levels in drinking water may be necessary.
Because individual antioxidants often work together as a team to defend
the body against free radicals, the balance between copper, zinc, and
iron must be maintained. Excessive intake of one nutrient might result
in a deficiency of other minerals and decrease resistance to infections
and increase risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and other diseases.
A person should stop taking copper supplements and seek medical help
immediately if having the following signs or symptoms:
Factors that increase copper concentrations
Certain disorders have been known to increase copper levels. Persons
with these conditions should not take copper supplements as they may
cause copper toxicity.
recent heart attacks
cirrhosis of the liver
leukemia and some other forms of cancer
ulcerative colitis (This inflammatory bowel disease may cause accumulation
of copper in the body. Excessive amount of copper may worsen many symptoms
of this disease by increasing susceptibility to infections and inhibiting
Wilson's disease (This disease causes accumulation of copper in the
tissues. As a result, these patients have liver disease, mental retardation
, tremor and poor muscle coordination. They also have copper deposits
in the cornea of the eyes. To manage this disease, patients are put
on a low-copper diet and given penicillamine, a drug that attaches itself
to copper and increases its excretion.)
Antioxidants are nutrients that deactivate reactive molecules (free
radicals) and prevent harmful chain reactions.
Inorganic chemical elements that are found in plants and animals and
are essential for life. There are two types of minerals: major minerals,
which the body requires in large amounts, and trace elements, which
the body needs only in minute amounts.
For Your Information
Lieberman, Shari and Nancy Bruning. "Copper." In The Real
Vitamin & Mineral Book: Using Supplements for Optimum Health Garden
City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1997.
Passwater, Richard A. All About Antioxidants. Garden City Park, NY:
Avery Publishing Group, 1998.
Reginster, Jean-Yves, Anne Noel Taquet, and Christiane Gosset. "Therapy
for Osteoporosis: Miscellaneous and Experimental Agents." Endocrinology
and Metabolism Clinics (June 1998): 453-463.
Uauy, Ricardo, Manuel Olivarez, and Mauricio Gonzales. "Essentiality
of Copper in Humans." J Clin Nutr 67 suppl (1998): 952S-959S.
"Copper" The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. http://www.merck.com.
(9 April 2000).
Rosenstein, Elliot D. and Jacques R. Caldwell. "Therapies: Trace
Elements in the Treatment of Rheumatic Conditions." In Rheumatic
Diseases Clinics of North America. Part II. http://www.mdconsult.com.
(10 May 2000).
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