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Copper in Human Health

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We can’t live without it

Copper is one of a relatively small group of metallic elements which are essential to human health. These elements, along with amino and fatty acids as well as vitamins, are required for normal metabolic processes. However, as the body cannot synthesise copper, the human diet must supply regular amounts for absorption.

source of dietary copper - chocolate
How much copper in your body?  

The adult body contains between 1.4 and 2.1mg of copper per kilogramme of body weight. Hence a healthy human weighing 60 kilogrammes contains approximately a tenth of one gramme of copper. However, this small amount is essential to the overall human well-being.

source of dietary copper - carrots
How does it work?  

Copper combines with certain proteins to produce enzymes that act as catalysts to help a number of body functions. Some help provide energy required by biochemical reactions. Others are involved in the transformation of melanin for pigmentation of the skin and still others help to form cross-links in collagen and elastin and thereby maintain and repair connective tissues. This is especially important for the heart and arteries. Research suggests that copper deficiency is one factor leading to an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease.

source of dietary copper - chicken
Do we get enough?  

Until recently, it was generally believed that most people consumed adequate quantities of copper. However, modern research has shown that this is not the case. In the United Kingdom and the United States for example, many typical meals have been analysed for their metals content. According to recent surveys, only 25% of the US population consume the amount of copper a day estimated to be adequate by the US Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. Typical diets in the US provide only about half of this amount and some diets in mainly industrialised countries contain less than 40% of the recommended dietary allowance. In the United Kingdom, it is now recommended that the daily intake should range from 0.4mg/day for 1-3 year old children to 1.2mg/day for adults. In addition, more recent studies are suggesting that there are serious doubts concerning the adequacy of diets containing less than lmg copper/day for adults.

source of dietary copper - lettuce
Can we have too much?  

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural Administration (FAA) are likely to suggest that the population mean intake of copper should not exceed 12mg/day for adult males and 10mg/day for adult females. These are regarded as the lowest intakes likely to produce the slightest biochemical evidence of undesirable effects in all but a small number of members of a population. Sufferers from Indian childhood cirrhosis or hereditary diseases such as Wilson’s Disease retain excessive amounts of copper in the body and suffer from liver damage, often with fatal consequences. The symptoms of acute copper poisoning include nausea, vomiting and abdominal and muscle pain. Excess body copper can be removed by means of specific chelating agents or by the consumption of high levels of zinc.

source of dietary copper - steak
What are copper rich foods?  

Some foods are especially rich in copper. These include most nuts (especially brazils and cashews), seeds (especially poppy and sunflower), chickpeas, liver and oysters. Natural foods such as cereals, meat and fish generally contain sufficient copper to provide up to 50% of the required copper intake in a balanced diet. In addition, a further part of the daily intake in the United Kingdom may be obtained from drinking water transmitted through copper pipes. However in most areas, the copper content of water is not sufficient to provide the balance of the required normal daily intake of this element. In addition, it should be appreciated that some water filters are claimed to remove metals including the essential element copper from drinking water.

source of dietary copper - brocolli
Copper in medicine  

Copper has been used as a medicine for thousands of years including the treatment of chest wounds and the purifying of drinking water. More recently, research has indicated that copper helps prevent inflammation in arthritis and similar diseases. Research is going on into anti-ulcer and anti-inflammatory medicines containing copper, and its use in radiology and for treating convulsions and epilepsy. Although there is no epidemiological evidence that copper can prevent arthritis, there have been claims that the wearing of copper bangles does alleviate the symptoms.

source of dietary copper - bread
Copper toxicity  

Acute copper poisoning is a rare event, largely restricted to the accidental drinking of solutions of copper nitrate or copper sulphate which should be kept out of easy access in the home. These and organic copper salts are powerful emetics and inadvertent large doses are normally rejected by vomiting. Chronic copper poisoning is also very rare and the few reports refer to patients with liver disease. The capacity for healthy human livers to excrete copper is considerable and it is primarily for this reason that no cases of chronic copper poisoning have been reported.

source of dietary copper - chicken
Copper for health  

Our daily diet must provide specific trace amounts of copper for a number of reasons in order to maintain human health. Plants and animals also require copper to maintain healthy growth which then benefits humans through the food chain. Copper is readily available in a range of foods and normal balanced diets should provide adequate daily amounts of copper without the need for additional supplements. However, it should be appreciated that changes in eating habits and the introduction of limited medically controlled diets may result in inadequate intakes of copper.

source of dietary copper - pineapple

Copper Development Association gratefully acknowledges the advice given by Dr. Ian Bremner, Deputy Director, The Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, and the financial support provided by International Copper Association Limited, New York. The illustrations were kindly provided by the Deutsches Kupferinstitut EV, Berlin.

For more detailed information see Copper in Health Wikipedia page.

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Essential for Life Video
Video outlining the benefits to human health of essential, dietary copper and problems caused by copper deficiency. Features commentary from internationally renowned scientists. Courtesy International Copper Association, Ltd. 2003. 6 mins. (Note this is a 120 MB download but well worth the wait).

Copper for Life (11-14) web link
Copper is one of a few elements that are essential for life. It is a part of a number of biological molecules. For example, some enzymes that are involved in respiration contain copper. This educational resource for 11-14 year old explains more.

Copper in Health (14-16) web link
Although the amount of copper found in the body (50–120 milligrams ) would fit on the head of a pin, this tiny quantity is essential. Research reveals that copper is vital for the optimal health of the human body - along with other mineral micronutrients such as iron, calcium and zinc. This education resource aimed at 14-16 year olds explains more.

TN 34 Copper and Human Health open pdf
A review of the vital role of copper in human health and of the association between copper deficiency and a number of diseases. 1984. (Out of print).

TN 35 Copper in Plant, Animal and Human Nutrition open pdf
Information is given on the occurrence of copper deficiency in both animals and crops. Details of the symptoms caused in crops and livestock by copper deficiency are given to assist in the recognition of deficiencies and information is provided on diagnostic procedures which should be used where problems are suspected. 1988. (Out of print).

Pub 96 Copper in Human Health open pdf
Describes the importance of copper in the human diet. 1992. 2pp

Pub 178 Copper Sustains Life open pdf
General information sheet on the role of copper in health. 2004. 2pp.

Pub 183 The Impact of Copper on Human Health order printed copy
Review paper exploring the impact of copper on human health (with scientific references). International Copper Association, Ltd. 2005. 16pp.

Copper Deficiency is a Global Problem open pdf
A one-page document on copper deficiency in the Public Service Series of International Copper Association, Ltd.

Copper, Iron and Zinc - An Essential Trio for Health open pdf
Fact sheet on copper, iron and zinc in the Public Service Series of International Copper Association, November 2009, 2pp.

 

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