various foods such as liver, fish, legumes, vegetables on a cutting board.
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
October 6, 2022 ·  6 min read

The Poorly-Understood Role of Copper in Anemia

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You have probably heard the term anemia before. Most likely, if you are aware of what that term might mean, you associate it with a lack of or low iron in the body. Anemia is actually quite a bit more complex than that. Not only is it an umbrella term that could mean a variety of different deficiencies, but those deficiencies often come somewhat intertwined with one another. In fact, iron deficiency anemia is usually treated with iron supplements, however, it can often be actually caused by a deficiency in something else – such as copper.

What Is Anemia?

To start, it is important to define what anemia actually means. As I already mentioned, when you say anemia, people often automatically think of iron deficiency. While they are not exactly wrong, they are not exactly right, either. Iron deficiency can cause iron deficiency anemia, which is just one kind of anemia that can exist in the body. What anemia actually refers to is a condition where you lack enough healthy red blood cells in order to carry sufficient oxygen to your body’s tissues. Also known as low hemoglobin, this will leave you feeling tired and weak. Anemia can be temporary or long-term and range from mild to severe. (1)

There are many forms of anemia and each of them has its own causes. Anemias can also be a sign of other, more serious illnesses. If you suspect that you have anemia of any kind, it is important that you see your doctor as soon as possible. There are various types of anemia, these include:

  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Vitamin deficiency anemia
  • Aplastic anemia
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Thalassemia

The focus of this article will be on the first two of this list: Iron deficiency anemia and vitamin deficiency anemia. It will also focus on some of the nutrients and minerals that are often overlooked in the role of preventing these, primarily copper.

Signs and Symptoms of Anemia

The signs and symptoms of anemia will be somewhat different depending on the kind of anemia you have and also the severity of it. Depending on the causes of your anemia, it could also be asymptomatic, meaning that you have no symptoms. Most often, however, you will experience the following:

  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Pale or slightly yellow skin
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heart beats)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches

Symptoms may start off so light that you barely even notice them. As the anemia gets worse, however, they will become more apparent. If let go on long enough without treatment, eventually they will be pretty hard to ignore.

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Diagnosis and Treatment

Just because you’re tired doesn’t mean that you’re anemic. If you are finding that you are chronically fatigued, however, the first step is to go and see your doctor. There are many reasons why you may be constantly tired. Your doctor won’t only check for anemia, but will also look at other reasons that could be causing it, including your lifestyle factors. 

To diagnose anemia, most often this will include a blood test. They’ll do a complete blood count, which includes the total number of blood cells in your blood. The doctor will specifically be looking at red blood cell count and hemoglobin. They will also sometimes do a test to determine the size and shape, and even color, of your red blood cells. If from those tests they diagnose you with anemia, they will then do further tests to determine the cause. 

For iron deficiency anemia, treatment usually involves iron supplementation and perhaps a diet change as well. This can be done via supplements taken orally or intravenously if required. (2) For vitamin deficiency anemia, which can be folic acid, vitamin C, or vitamin B12, supplementation again will be required. These are important because if you are low in either of these vitamins, your body will have trouble absorbing and using iron. In these cases, iron supplementation won’t help you, which is why supplementation of whichever vitamin is causing the anemia is critical. (3) Iron supplements will often be sold in formulas that will contain iron, as well as other nutrients.

Understanding Anemia

Red blood cells are the vessels that carry oxygen around your body to where it needs it most. For example, when you are exercising, the red blood cells will travel to your working muscles to deliver oxygen there. After you’ve eaten, the blood cells go there to help facilitate digestion. In order to have adequate red blood cells, there are several vitamins and minerals required to make them. These include iron, vitamin B12, folic acid, vitamin B6, copper, and vitamin A.

Iron is responsible for creating a substance that allows your red blood cells to carry oxygen. If you have iron deficiency anemia, this either because you aren’t consuming enough iron through your diet, or your not absorbing enough through the digestive process. Without sufficient oxygen flowing through your body, you will feel tired and short of breath, especially if you try and exercise.

Vitamin deficiency anemia is a lack of healthy red blood cells because of a deficiency of vitamins, usually vitamin B12 and folate. Without them, the body produces red blood cells that are too big and don’t work properly, inhibiting their ability to carry oxygen. Usually supplements or injections will correct these deficiencies.

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The Role Of Copper In Anemias

One mineral that doesn’t get enough attention when it comes to preventing anemias is copper. Adequate copper nutritional status is critical for normal iron metabolism and red blood cell formation. In fact, those with low hemoglobin can actually have more than enough iron in their bodies, they just lack the necessary copper to process it. Thankfully your body doesn’t actually need that much copper to function properly – you just need to make sure you are getting enough through your diet. Foods high in copper include (4):

  • Liver
  • Oysters
  • Clams
  • Crab meat
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Lentils
  • Mushrooms
  • Peanut butter
  • Shredded wheat cereal
  • Semi-sweet chocolate

In cases where people are deficient, supplementation can be used. Copper supplementation, however, is only recommended under the supervision of a doctor. Too much copper in the body can cause toxicity, which can lead to a number of health problems. Excess copper has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. (5)

The Bottom Line

Anemia can be reasonably common, particularly for menstruating women. In most cases, dietary changes to include foods that are high in the missing nutrients are enough to bring levels into the healthy ranges. For iron, B12, and folate, look to include (6):

  • White and red meat
  • Organ meats
  • Dark, leafy green vegetables
  • Iron fortified cereals or bread
  • Brown rice
  • Pulses and beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fish
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Dried fruit

Supplementation may be required, particularly for anyone who is a vegetarian or vegan. This is because the iron and other vitamins and minerals in plants are often harder to absorb into the bloodstream than those found in animal products. For those concerned about their copper status, talk to your doctor before supplementing. As already mentioned, supplementing when you don’t have a deficiency could cause serious health complications. Never start taking a supplement before first consulting your doctor.

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  1. Anemia.” Mayo Clinic.
  2. Iron deficiency anemia.” Mayo Clinic.
  3. Vitamin deficiency anemia.” Mayo Clinic
  4. Copper.” Oregon State
  5. Vitamin deficiency anemia.” Examine. Kamal Patel, MPH, MBA. September 28 2022.