Copper is a heavy metal that’s perfectly safe to consume at low levels. In fact, a certain amount of it is actually important for your health. What happens, however, if you have too much copper in your body? Copper toxicity is dangerous for your health and longevity. These are the signs you might have it, and how you can bring your copper levels back into normal range.
What is Copper and Why Do We Need It?
Copper is an essential nutrient that you need to be healthy. It helps maintain the health of your bones, connective tissues, and blood vessels. It also plays a role in energy production and the development of red blood cells. Copper works with iron to form hemoglobin, which transports oxygen throughout your body. (1)
You have about 50 to 80 milligrams (mg) of copper in your body that’s mostly found in your muscles and liver, where excess copper is filtered out into waste products like urine and feces. The normal range for copper levels in the blood is 70 to 140 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). (2)
Foods That Contain Copper
Copper is a mineral that naturally occurs in many foods we eat daily. These include:
- Beans and lentils
- Seafood, especially shellfish like oysters, shrimp, and crab
- Dark chocolate
What can cause copper toxicity?
Copper toxicity is rare but can happen if you have too much of it in your body. This can happen due to water contamination, copper salt-containing topical creams for burn treatments, and acidic foods cooked in uncoated copper cookware. Some people are more likely to develop a condition called Wilson’s disease, which means they have trouble getting rid of excess copper from their bodies and may need medicine to help with this process. (3)
Some people worry that their IUD, particularly if they have a copper IUD, could push them toward copper toxicity. So far, no evidence suggests that anyone with a healthy, functioning liver should have problems with a copper IUD and toxicity. (4)
Signs of copper toxicity
There are many signs of copper toxicity. Some of them are more obvious than others. The list of signs of copper toxicity includes:
- passing out
- feeling sick
- throwing up
- blood in your vomit
- black poop
- abdominal cramps
- brown ring-shaped markings in your eyes (Kayser-Fleischer rings)
- yellowing of eyes and skin (jaundice)
- feeling anxious or irritable
- having trouble paying attention
- feeling overexcited or overwhelmed
- feeling unusually sad or depressed
- sudden changes in your mood
Long-term copper toxicity can be very damaging, if not fatal. It can cause kidney, liver, heart, and brain damage – all of which can be fatal.
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The Role of Zinc in Copper Absorption
Zinc is an essential mineral in your body. It is involved with hundreds of processes and functions. Zinc can also help to regulate copper levels in your body. Higher levels of dietary zinc cause your body to produce more of an intestinal cell protein called metallothionein, which means “metal-binding protein.” This protein binds to copper, limiting its absorption. Research shows that zinc supplementation of 10 mg/day for eight weeks was able to restore normal plasma copper/zinc ratios in 65 subjects on long-term hemodialysis who initially exhibited low zinc levels and elevated copper levels. (5) While zinc may be useful for balancing levels of copper in the body, too much zinc can also cause copper deficiency. Supplemental zinc intakes of 50 mg/day or more taken for extended periods of time can result in copper deficiency. (1)
Foods That Are High in Zinc
Thankfully, there are many foods that are naturally high in zinc. These foods include:
Zinc is also present in some grains, cereal, vegetables, and fruits.
The Bottom Line
Copper toxicity is not something that most healthy adults need to worry too much about. Our livers do a sufficient job of filtering out any excess copper that we may consume through our diet. That being said, it is important to be aware of the signs of toxicity in case you accidentally drink water or eat food that has been contaminated. If you have certain health conditions, you may also be at greater risk.
Zinc helps to counterbalance copper levels in the body; however, excessive zinc can lead to a copper deficiency. If you eat a healthy, well-rounded diet, then you will have no trouble having balanced levels of copper and zinc in your body. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are concerned about your copper or zinc levels.
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- “Copper.” Oregon State
- “Total Copper (Blood).” Rochester
- “Copper Toxicity.” NCBI. Amor Royer and Tariq Sharman. March 26, 2022.
- “A Literature Review of the Effects of Copper Intrauterine Devices on Blood Copper Levels in Humans.” Science Direct Lena Crandell and Natalie Mohler. February 2021.
- “Effects of zinc supplementation on plasma copper/zinc ratios, oxidative stress, and immunological status in hemodialysis patients” International Journal of Medical Sciences. 2013
- “Zinc.” NIH