Copper Toxicity: Symptoms, Causes, and What to Do

author avatar Dr. Eric Berg 06/17/2024

Copper is an essential trace element vital for various bodily functions such as red blood cell production and strengthening immune defenses. 


However, too much copper can be detrimental to health and lead to side effects such as mood issues, fatigue, and sleep problems.


Discover the most common copper toxicity symptoms and primary causes of excessive copper exposure.


Copper-rich foods

Copper basics 


Copper is an essential trace mineral, which means it’s a necessary nutrient for optimal bodily function and survival.


The body cannot produce copper, so it must be obtained from food or dietary supplements to support cognitive health, immune functions, and tissue formation. 


Copper also helps form hemoglobin, a vital component of red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body.


Other benefits of copper include energy support, strong bones and nails, and a reduced risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.


Here are the daily average intake recommendations by age for copper, as suggested by the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

  • 0 to 6 months: 200 micrograms (mcg)

  • 7 to 12 months: 220 mcg

  • 1 to 3 years: 340 mcg

  • 4 to 8 years: 440 mcg 

  • 9 to 13 years: 700 mcg

  • 14 to 18 years: 890 mcg

  • 19 and older: 900 mcg


Pregnant and breastfeeding women are recommended to consume between 1000 and 1300 mcg of copper daily to meet heightened requirements during gestation and lactation. 


Copper is abundant in soil and water and readily absorbed by vegetation and aquatic organisms. This explains why vegetables and seafood are particularly rich sources of copper.


Here are some of the best copper-rich foods:

  • Oysters

  • Crabs

  • Lobster

  • Liver

  • Mushrooms

  • Avocados

  • Almonds

  • Cashew nuts 

  • Sesame seeds

  • Dark chocolate


Elemental copper

What is copper toxicity?


Copper toxicity, also known as copper poisoning, refers to a buildup of copper in the body. 


It typically results from environmental exposure to heavy metals, excessive intake of copper supplements, or genetic health conditions associated with dysfunctional copper metabolism. 


Deficient, normal, and toxic copper level ranges

The normal range for blood copper levels is between 62 to 140 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). 


Levels below 62 mcg/dL may indicate a copper deficiency, while ranges above 140 mcg/dL signify copper toxicity.


Watch the video below to learn more about the signs and symptoms of copper toxicity.

Do You Have Copper Toxicity?

Symptoms of copper toxicity 


Excessive copper accumulation in the body can disrupt cellular functions, prevent protein and enzyme production, and may trigger oxidative stress and inflammation. This can result in multiple symptoms associated with copper toxicity, ranging from mild to life-threatening. 


The most common signs of copper poisoning include:

  • Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and anger

  • Inability to focus

  • Fatigue

  • Insomnia

  • Hyperactivity

  • Black, tarry stool

  • Stomach cramps

  • White spots on nails

  • Metallic taste


More severe symptoms include:


Extreme cases of chronic copper toxicity can lead to: 

  • Heart failure

  • Liver failure

  • Kidney disease

  • Brain damage 

  • Neurological disorders


If you are concerned about excessive copper exposure or show signs of toxicity, it’s vital to consult a healthcare provider for a thorough evaluation of your symptoms.  


Woman holding contraceptive pills

Causes of copper toxicity


Copper toxicity is a form of heavy metal poisoning that commonly occurs from drinking water with elevated copper concentrations. 


Tap water can contain copper particles from corroded copper pipes, which can lead to overexposure and accumulation in the bloodstream over time.


Copper toxicity is rarely caused by overconsumption of copper-rich food. However, excessive copper intake can also be a result of using old copper cookware or taking dietary supplements containing high levels of this trace mineral. 


In addition, birth control leads to copper overload. While copper-containing intrauterine devices (IUDs) can release small particles of copper into the body, oral contraceptives can contribute to copper toxicity due to their effect on hormone and nutrient levels.


Contraception pills boost estrogen and can increase the risk of zinc deficiency. Estrogen can increase copper retention, which can be exacerbated by mineral deficiencies due to zinc competing with copper for intestinal uptake.   


A combined zinc and copper supplement is typically recommended to maintain a balanced mineral ratio as too much zinc can also cause a copper deficiency.


A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that Elevated serum copper concentration was found in users of all types of oral contraceptives.”


Certain health conditions may also increase the risk of copper poisoning, such as:

  • Liver disease

  • Liver cancer 

  • Wilson’s disease

  • Indian and non-Indian childhood cirrhosis

  • Hemolytic anemia


Blood test vials

How is copper toxicity diagnosed?


Chronic and acute copper toxicity are diagnosed with blood tests measuring copper and ceruloplasmin levels, which is a protein that stores and carries copper in the bloodstream. 


However, a urine test or liver biopsy may also be performed to determine how much copper is excreted or stored in the liver.


Additionally, chest X-rays or electrocardiograms (ECGs) may be used to check for cardiotoxicity or heart damage commonly associated with long-term acquired copper toxicity. 


Doctor with a zinc supplement

What to do if you have high copper levels


Medical professionals often treat copper toxicity with gastric lavage, widely known as stomach pumping. This procedure removes recently ingested food, water, or other substances that may be contaminated with excess copper. 


Chelators, which are medications injected into the blood, are used to bind to inorganic copper salts. Chelation therapy facilitates the binding of copper, allowing it to be filtered through the kidneys and excreted via urine.


However, natural remedies may also help reduce the risk of copper poisoning. Eating more zinc-rich foods while reducing the intake of dietary copper can mitigate the effects of mild copper overload.


“One way to help counter the toxicity of copper is to take zinc,” explains Dr. Berg. “Red meat and fish are among the richest sources of bioavailable zinc and can help balance copper levels.”


Estrogen-dominant women or those using hormonal contraceptives may be at risk of elevated copper blood levels, due to estrogen's role in enhancing copper absorption in the gut. 


Diindolylmethane (DIM) is a concentrated, naturally occurring compound found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale. DIM helps balance estrogen, which supports normal copper absorption and may help prevent toxicity. 


Additionally, to reduce copper exposure, avoid cooking with copper pots and pans. Foods and liquids can absorb copper particles and other toxic heavy metals released from corroded pans, increasing the risk of toxicity.  


Copper kitchenware

Key takeaways


Copper is an essential nutrient that supports the nervous system, enhances cognitive function, and promotes immunity. However, too much copper can lead to toxicity linked to detrimental health effects.  


Copper toxicity symptoms include depression, anxiety, fatigue, and black, tarry stools. Those with heavy metal toxicity may also experience learning difficulties, white spots on nails, and vomiting. 


While acute copper toxicity requires immediate medical attention, mild copper overload can be remedied with zinc supplementation or by consuming zinc-rich foods. 



FAQ


1. What are the symptoms of too much copper in the body?

High levels of copper in the body can lead to mood disorders, fatigue, an inability to focus, or a metallic taste in the mouth. Tarry stools, vomiting, stomach cramps, and low blood pressure are also adverse effects of copper overload. 


In severe cases, excess exposure to copper can cause liver failure, heart failure, kidney disease, and brain damage.


2. How do I get rid of excess copper in the body?

There are various ways to remove excess copper naturally, including supplementing with zinc, eating fewer copper-rich foods, and avoiding copper-containing cookware. 


However, severe cases of copper overload may require medical attention, such as gastric lavage or chelation therapy. 


3. What causes copper toxicity?

Copper toxicity is primarily caused by environmental exposure, such as unbound copper ions in drinking water. However, toxicity can also occur from taking contraceptive pills or having a copper-containing intrauterine device (IUD).


In addition, taking supplements with high concentrations of copper or having a zinc deficiency can also lead to copper toxicity, as zinc competes with copper for intestinal absorption.


4. What foods should I avoid if I have copper toxicity?

Liver, oysters, lobster, mushrooms, avocados, nuts, seeds, and chocolate are rich sources of copper. These foods should be avoided by individuals diagnosed with copper toxicity and those at risk of excessive exposure.  


5. What lowers copper in your body? 

Taking zinc supplementation and consuming zinc-rich foods, such as beef, shellfish, eggs, and dairy products, can help reduce copper absorption and toxicity. 


Additionally, women who are estrogen-dominant or taking hormonal contraceptives may benefit from a Diindolylmethane (DIM) supplement. DIM has been found to promote sex hormone balance, which may help reduce intestinal copper absorption. 



Sources


  1. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Copper-Consumer/ 

  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9805216/

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