When you think of copper, what comes to mind? Pennies, pipes, jewelry? What about anxiety, depression, or ADD? Fatigue, insomnia, brain fog? No? Well, believe it or not, copper is an important part of nutrition and metabolism. It drives 30+ enzymes that are essential to our day-to-day life, including immune function, growth, and energy metabolism, and when it’s in a state of deficiency, it’s a metabolic crisis, as those enzymes simply do NOT work. But as in everything in life, especially in health, it’s balance that’s key, not too much and not too little. Normally, blood copper levels are kept in a narrow range through the miracle of physiology. But unfortunately, things can go wrong. In our world, copper excess or overload is more common than copper deficiency. And copper overload is responsible for or is a major factor in many of our ailments.
As Dr. Ann Louise Gittleman notes in her book “Why Am I Always So Tired?”, copper overload is most often associated with fatigue, because of the importance of copper in the functioning of the adrenal and thyroid glands, as well as at the cellular level in the production of energy by the mitochondria.
But here I want to focus on copper’s effect on our emotions and mental well-being. It’s effect on emotions is profound, mainly because it is a necessary cofactor in the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine. If there is excess copper, this will cause a deficiency of dopamine and an excess of norepinephrine. As you may know, dopamine is a mood enhancing, feel good neurotransmitter, while norepinephrine is excitatory, especially in the sympathetic nervous system, getting us all revved up for fight or flight. Normally copper is stored in the liver, but when there is excess, guess where it’s sent- to the brain, where it causes more havoc on our emotions. This is why many people with copper overload suffer from fatigue during the day and insomnia at night, being unable to turn off the “busy brain” when it’s time to sleep. Copper overload also contributes to anxiety, mood swings and even true Bipolar Disorder. And according to studies by the Walsh Research Institute, 68% of patients with ADD/ADHD have copper overload, which helps explain why stimulants such as Ritalin or Adderall work- because they increase dopamine in the synapses where it has become deficient.
As for depression, the Walsh Research Institute estimates that 17% of all patients with depression have copper excess. Postpartum depression in particular is often caused by copper overload, because during pregnancy, copper retention is necessary to rapidly produce capillaries and blood vessels for the growing fetus. But after delivery some mothers are unable to eliminate the excess copper, leading to depression.
In the blood and body fluids, copper comes in two forms, “bound”, and “unbound” or “free” copper. It is so-called “free” copper, i.e. copper in its ionic elemental form that is toxic. Therefore, the body produces special proteins, ceruloplasmin and metallothionein, to bind and transport copper within the body. Both the adrenal glands and the liver are necessary to manufacture these proteins. So, if the adrenals are not functioning properly or the liver is impaired, these binding proteins will not be produced sufficiently, and copper remains in its free toxic form. Free copper is toxic because it acts as a free radical and leads to the formation of other free radicals, and we all know that an excess of free radicals, aka oxidative stress, is bad news for our health. But that’s not all. The excess free radicals in turn lead to an excess of free copper, because free radicals impair the formation of the copper binding proteins. So, you end up with a vicious cycle of excess free copper leading to the formation of free radicals, in turn leading to excess free copper, and so on, until the cycle is broken.
This is why when it comes to measuring copper levels, not only the total copper should be measured, but the total “free” copper needs to be calculated as well.
What are the causes of copper excess or overload? A combination of our environment (think copper pipes and cookware, copper sulfate on produce, IUD’s), nutrition (foods and supplements high in copper) and metabolism, such as metabolic aberrations like Pyrrole disorder or zinc deficiency (more on those in future blogs), or poorly functioning adrenal glands or liver because of the important role they play in copper metabolism as discussed previously.
What’s the solution to copper overload? The best solution would involve determining all, or at least the main causes of the overload, whether environmental, nutritional or metabolic.
Eliminating copper pipes, cookware and possibly installing a water filter are obvious solutions to environmentally caused copper overload. Nutritionally, eliminating foods high in copper and focusing on foods high in zinc is the way to go (see Ann Gittleman’s book for a more in-depth discussion of this diet).
Zinc is the key nutrient when it comes to copper overload, because copper and zinc are antagonists, competing for binding sites in the gut. Excess zinc will cause a deficiency of copper, and vice versa. But care must be taken to not overdo supplementing with zinc to avoid adverse side-effects. The proper balance, or ratio of copper to zinc is necessary for good mental and physical health.
In those with high copper levels, supplementing with just zinc might be enough. In one study, supplementing with 10 mg of zinc gluconate helped to improve the copper to zinc ratio. But often doses of 25mg, or rarely 50mg are necessary. But best to consult a healthcare professional with experience before trying higher doses.
Other supplements to boost adrenal gland functioning such as the B-complex vitamins and Vitamin C are often necessary and helpful.
I think it’s best to stop here for now before I contribute to your information overload and stress levels! If you find yourself tired, anxious, depressed, or think you suffer from mood swings or ADD, we would be happy to help you access your levels to see if something as simple as adding supplements to your daily routine would benefit you.