The essential trace mineral copper forms a vital component of several enzyme systems in the human body. These enzymes are active in biochemical processes such as cellular energy generation, the formation of links in collagen molecules, and in the formation and synthesis of melanin - skin pigment, and elastin - a skin protein. Copper is also used as an important structural element in the formation of the myelin sheath, which covers the nerve fibers and aids in the rapid transmission of nerve impulses. Many important oxidation reduction reactions in the body are catalyzed by copper; these include the formation of water from the free hydrogen and oxygen present in the cells. The catalytic action of copper reduces the impact of this reaction; this biochemical reaction could be very explosive if the copper were not present. The sense of taste generated in the human tongue is also influenced by the presence of copper. Copper must also be available in sufficient quantities in the body to allow for the full utilization of iron, the absorption of the mineral iron into the body is also stimulated by copper.
Abnormal pigmentation of the skin and hair is a direct result of a deficiency in copper. A deficiency also results in defects in the elastic tissues lining the blood vessels, if this persists, it can gradually lead to the rupturing of the blood vessel, copper deficiency can also induce anemia, it can cause faulty development of the bone and nerves, and can results in a complete loss of the sense of taste in the affected person. Dietary copper deficiency recognized as affecting infants occurs when babies are maintained on a diet consisting solely of cow's milk for several months at a stretch - this is the only recognized dietary factor related copper deficiency affecting children. The cause of the deficiency is that the mineral copper is not found in significant amounts in cow's milk. Infantile copper deficiency is also induced by an incidence of chronic diarrhea in the child. This deficiency of copper can induce severe anemia in addition to osteoporosis and other forms of bone irregularities in these affected infants.
The malabsorption or the effects of extensive bowel surgery are the usual causative factors for the development of copper deficiency in the body of adults. Copper is also related to an inherited disease, often called Menke's kinky hair syndrome - that affects the normal absorption of copper. This disorder affects infants and results in the slowing down of the growth and development of the hair, the hair is hard, twisted and kinky. The child may also suffer from convulsions, from different types of skeletal deformities, from arterial degeneration and some form of progressive deterioration of the brain and central nervous system.
Copper present in excessive amounts in the body may also compete with other minerals present in the body - these include trace metals like zinc, manganese and magnesium. Copper present in very high amounts in the body can induce long term to short term insomnia; it can cause an elevation of blood pressure and induce restlessness in the person. Psychotic symptoms are often displayed by patients who accumulate too much copper in their blood during the process of undergoing dialysis of the kidneys. The blood of some schizophrenics also contains copper at higher than average levels.
Copper has an RDA of two to three mg per person daily.
Copper is found abundantly in foods like nuts, organ meats and seafood, mushrooms, chocolate and legumes - some or all of these foods must be included in the diet of a person from time to time. Some amount of copper can also be found in most other types of fresh foods. Supplemental copper can be taken in small doses of up to a milligram as a part of multi-mineral supplemental dose. Oysters are the single best dietary source for the mineral copper. Meats and poultry as well as cereals, potatoes and other vegetables also contain copper in significant amounts.
A deficiency of copper is rare. Menke's syndrome affected children are not able to absorb copper normally this can result in the child becoming very severely deficient in the mineral, unless he or she is treated for the deficiency early in life. People taking a lot of supplemental zinc can also be affected by a deficiency of copper particularly if they supplement with zinc without a corresponding increase in the intake of copper. Copper absorption rates are affected by the presence of zinc in the body - when zinc is present in the body in very high amounts, it could interfere with the normal absorption of copper. A zinc induced deficiency of copper can also have severe consequences for the health of the person affected by the deficiency. There are reports that metabolism of copper can be mildly impaired if supplementation using vitamin C is taking place in the absence of supplementation using copper supplements. Anemia can be induced by a copper deficiency; this can cause a drop in the levels of HDL cholesterol - the so called "good" cholesterol, and lead to several other types of health disorders and complications for the person.
Copper intake of the majority of people is less than the amount normally recommended for this mineral in the diet. However, supplements are not required by the majority of peoples and supplements using 1-3 mg copper daily is necessary only for people taking zinc supplements of any kind - including the zinc present as a component of general multiple-vitamin/mineral supplements. Copper supplements are used to counter the effects of excess zinc on the body.
Side effects and cautions
The real bio-chemical basis under which excess copper induces problems in the body is still not fully understood. At any rate, the use of supplemental copper if taken in combination with zinc can be taken safely at doses of up to 3 mg daily per person. Supplementation for people who drink tap water out of new copper pipes must be started only after consultations with a nutritionally oriented doctor - this is due to the fact that, these people might already be receiving sufficient, even excess, copper from the water running through new copper pipes. Copper supplements must never be consumed by individuals affected by Wilson's disease.
The rate of absorption of copper into the body can often suffer due to interference from the abundant zinc present in the body. Copper supplements must also be taken by all individuals already using zinc supplements for more than a few weeks - unless they are affected by Wilson's disease, in which case they must not use copper supplements at all. Vitamin C can also interfere with the metabolism of copper in the body in the absence of copper supplementation. The absorption rate and utilization of iron in the body is also improved by copper.