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Copper is an essential mineral that plays an important role in iron absorption and transport. It is considered a 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, copper is an important nutrient that holds many vital functions in the body.
Copper is essential for normal development of the body because it:
Illustration by GGS Information Services/Thomson Gale.)
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.
It was discovered in 2001 that vegetarian diets generally contain more copper, but that the absorption
efficiency was lower for lacto-ovo vegetarians than for nonvegetarians. The study also showed that the increased amounts of copper in the vegetarian diets allow for greater copper content.
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:
Symptoms of copper deficiency include:
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, or brain.
Copper is a good antioxidant. It works together with an antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase (SOD), to protect cell membranes from 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. In 2001, a study reported that concentrations of copper sulfate and ascorbate may inhibit breast cancer growth. With further study, the combination may even prove useful as a chemotherapy agent for certain breast cancer patients.
Copper may also help prevent 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.Cin 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/min-eral preparations. It is also available as a single ingredient in the form of tablets. These tablets should be swallowed whole with a 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 irritating 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.
Those adding copper supplements to their diets should consider:
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.
A person should stop taking copper supplements and seek medical help immediately if having the following signs or symptoms:
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Passwater, Richard A. All About Antioxidants Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1998.
Gonzalez, M. J, et al. “Inhibition of Human Breast Carcinoma Cell Proliferation by Ascorbate and Copper.” The Journal of Nutrition 131, no. 11 (November 2001): 3142S.
Hunt, Janet R., and Richard A. Vanderpool. “Apparent Copper Absorption from a Vegetarian Diet.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 74, no. 6 (December 2001): 803–805.
Reginster, Jean-Yves, Anne Noel Taquet, and Christiane Gosset. “Therapy for Osteoporosis: Miscellaneous and Experimental Agents.” Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics(June 1998): 453–463.
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