Copper is an essential trace mineral needed for both physical and mental health. However, copper is a heavy metal that can be toxic to humans and animals in its unbound form. The human body binds copper to proteins, causing the number of unbound copper ions to be nearly zero. Normal healthy and balanced diets contain about 2-5mg of copper daily. This amount will provide the body with the small amount of copper that it needs and not cause toxicity. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that the upper limit of copper consumption be no more than 10-12mg per day. Copper toxicity can be caused by over supplementation, low levels of dietary zinc, contaminated food and water sources, elevated estrogen levels or external exposures and the mthfr gene mutation.
Symptoms and Signs of Copper Toxicity
Copper toxicity is frequently overlooked as a cause for many symptoms, as it is not easy or simple to detect. Copper has a tendency to build up in the liver first, and then the brain and reproductive organs. However, it can affect any organ in the body, giving copper toxicity a vast array of signs and symptoms. Symptoms and signs of copper toxicity include:
• High blood pressure
• Unexplained nausea
• Constant fatigue
• Trouble concentrating
• Problems with short-term memory
• Frequent difficulty failing asleep
• Unsound sleep
• Joint pain and stiffness
• Tender calf muscles
• Low blood sugar
• Hair loss
• Weight gain
• Abdominal pain
• Discoloration of the skin and hair
• Yeast overgrowth
• Elevated liver enzymes
• Lower back pain
• Metallic taste
Risks of Copper Toxicity
Many diseases and lifestyle choices can raise the risk of developing copper toxicity. Women on birth control pills or other hormonal preparations can be at risk due to the hormone causing copper retention in the kidneys. Patients who have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis are also at an increased risk of developing copper toxicity. This is because in this condition the body sometimes absorbs excess copper in the intestines. As a result, other extra-intestinal disorders can develop, as well as impaired health and an increased risk of infections.
Copper Toxicity Testing
The best way to test for copper toxicity is by testing a 24 hour urine sample for copper levels or by drawing blood and assessing serum ceruloplasmin levels. Testing the copper level of red blood cells has also been proven as an effective diagnostic test. Home 24 hour urine test kits are available to test copper levels at home. If urine and blood testing reveal abnormal or inconclusive results, doctors may order a hepatic, or liver, copper biopsy test. However, with a copper hepatic biopsy test, results can still be inconclusive as excess copper is unevenly distributed in the liver, and the sample biopsy may not contain the excess copper. Testing the hair for copper levels has been determined to be subject to external contamination and is therefore not recommended.
Copper toxicity can be difficult to diagnosis. Physicians should explore all symptoms that a patient is having, as well as past medical history, and complete thorough diagnostic workup before making this diagnosis. With vague symptoms among nearly all body symptoms, it can be challenging not to confuse copper toxicity with other conditions.