In this article you will learn:
Everything you need to know about copper and zinc supplementation, testing and maintenance
How copper and zinc work in the body and why they're important
What a "hidden" copper toxicity is and how to treat it
Little known facts that are vital for optimal health and rarely spoken of even in alternative health circles
A Tale of Two Minerals
The minerals copper and zinc are vital for optimal health and deficiency can predispose you to a weak immune system, poor recovery, low hormone levels, low energy, nerve issues, brainfog, low focus and a variety of other concerns. However zinc and copper can also be misused and the reverse can occur through mineral overload. This is especially true with copper, as some may even have a "hidden" copper toxicity - something which is only acknowledged in alternative health circles, and even there it is a very complex thing to diagnose and treat.
Nevertheless copper toxicity is more common than people realize, but this is because of special properties having to do with copper which we will outline below.
Zinc and copper also work in harmony with one another like many other nutrient pairs, and because of this it is vital to understand the information in this article. Most people are zinc deficient and copper overloaded, but this is not an absolute fact. In either case, because these minerals are related to each other it requires nuance and understanding to maintain (or regain) optimal health. Imbalances in your diet or from environmental exposure can lead to more serious consequences down the road as mentioned previously.
Understanding Copper(i) vs Copper(ii)
Unlike every other mineral, copper has 2 oxidation states, copper(i) and copper(ii). If you don't remember anything from chemistry class, don't worry. In nature, elemental
copper gets oxidized (it loses 2 electrons) and gets used by plants as copper(ii). This kind of copper is blue in color and it is the kind of copper that plants use for food, or why a penny looks blue when it's old.
As plants consume this kind of copper, they add another electron in this process, turning it into copper(i), or reddish copper, which is the bioavailable kind humans need.
Understanding the difference between copper(i) and copper(ii) is a little known yet crucial fact in the supplement industry, because copper(ii) is poisonous!
Why this point cannot be overstated is because copper in its fully oxidized state (blue) is toxic to humans. We do not have a way to process this kind of copper, and it accumulates in the soft tissues and organs of the body as a result - especially if you have genetic issues as we will discuss in this article. And because blood tests do not distinguish between these two states when they test your serum copper, diagnosing a copper toxicity (or a "hidden" copper toxicity) can be a very complex dance of several tests and considerations.
Nevertheless if you are very deficient in copper and you have ruled out a hidden copper toxicity (more on this later), there are two routes to replete your copper levels. Research has shown that foods high in copper, like cocoa, can help people restore their copper levels.(1) To me this is the preferred route as it is the most natural and cost effective. Remember that plants convert copper(ii) to copper(i) and that is why you should always get your copper from food.
With every other mineral I do not provide this stipulation because every other mineral does not have oxidation states like copper. Albion amino acid chelates have been the gold standard for mineral supplementation for over 50 years, yet when it comes to copper they use a copper(ii) chelate. You can tell from the blue powder in the pill, and what this means is that even though it is chelated - the bioavailability is very poor and can easily lead to toxicity if you have the genetic issues I will discuss in this article.
Nevertheless there is one supplemental solution and that is a patented copper(i) chelate by the company MitoSynergy.(2) I interviewed its founder, Charlie Barker, in
episode 240 on The Dance of Life Podcast on why this is important, why copper(ii) may be toxic and how to heal this area as well as some more advanced biochemistry surrounding copper in the body.
How to Supplement Zinc and Copper
As a general rule of thumb, if you take more than 50mg of zinc per day and also plan to take this dosage longer than a few weeks, consider taking copper along with your zinc to balance out a potential copper deficiency. The reason for this is that taking more than 50-60mg of zinc per day will activate a metal-gobbling protein called metallothionien, which has a preference for copper over zinc. This means that taking more than 60mg of zinc per day will affect your copper status,(3) but taking copper does not affect your zinc status. (4)(5)
Remember that for most minerals (except copper) the chelated version is the gold standard. If you are going to take zinc, then this product is one that I highly recommend. It has 30mg per pill, and you shouldn't ever need more than 1-2 per day depending on your situation.
In the blood, the ideal ratio of zinc to copper is around 1 to 0.8, with ideal zinc levels being toward the higher end of the range (around 120). This means that your copper levels should be around the middle to low end of the range, or around 100 (assuming hidden toxicity is ruled out), but the ratio of them in your blood is more important than the levels themselves.
The recommended ratio of supplementing copper to zinc is about 8-15mg zinc for every 1mg of copper. This means that if you are taking 60mg of zinc and want to include copper, an appropriate amount may be between 4mg to 7mg. It will require regular testing, both in your blood and through a micronutrient test, to keep tabs on your levels. I will discuss these tests later in this article.
A final thing to keep in mind is that taking lots of digestive enzymes without copper
and zinc in your nutrition or diet plan may lead to deficiencies. Enzymes can deplete these minerals because enzymes use copper and zinc to activate. Having a thyroid imbalance or using iodine therapeutically or being really sick or stressed out for a period with infection will also deplete your reserves.
“Copper toxicity led me into natural healing, into meditation and eventually into myself and my gifts. Copper imbalance, indeed, is often a sign that one is not living one’s gifts and truths. If it takes copper imbalance to move you in a different direction, then it is a wonderful thing, though the suffering may not seem worth it right now.” —Dr. Lawrence Wilson
Digging through some old research, I found a study from the 1980’s that compared the stimulatory effects of 5mg of copper to 5mg of Dexedrine (an amphetamine). Surprisingly, they were found to have similar effects on brainwaves.(6) The form of the copper that was used in this study was not copper chelate, and probably copper(ii), but this furthers the point: copper toxicity can have serious consequences comparable to taking amphetamines.
Another case sheds a little more light on this. In the literature there is one case of someone taking an obscene amount of chelated copper (30-60mg per day for 2 years) and they developed liver failure.(7) There are several important findings from this case study. First, the amount of copper this person was supplementing was totally outrageous. The highest amount per pill I have seen in any supplement is 3mg, meaning you'd have to take 10-20 pills per day to match this person's effort. In other words, you'd have to be seriously trying to poison yourself.
Second, the amount of time it took for this person to get liver failure was considerable. Why this is important is because supplementation (even if you've been doing it wrong) is not going to kill you and overload is a matter of long periods of time. With that however, what it does mean is that the real sources of overload are not supplements but environmental factors, as well as an imbalanced diet over time.
Determining copper status can be tricky, so this section will get much more detailed. You learned previously that zinc and copper have a relationship, and the reality is
that each nutrient has multiple relationships with many others that either keep it in check by reducing its levels or amplifying its absorption through synergy. Zinc has an antagonistic relationship to copper and helps to remove it from the body, but if you are deficient in zinc (and a few other things) and have exposure to copper from various sources as we’ll discuss soon – it can lead to a problem.
Copper is very important for the body, but too much of it and your body will hide it in your liver, brain and other organs. This can lead to a copper toxicity, but by this
point you may not see anything in the blood (because it’s been deposited in your organs), so blood testing is a bit useless. This is what is often referred to in the alternative field as a “hidden” copper toxicity, and it requires an experienced practitioner to treat and monitor.
There are many things that predispose people to having copper imbalances. Smoking, copper IUDs, copper pipes at home, copper cookware, work exposure, chemicals that raise estrogen like xenoestrogens, phytoestrogens or birth control pills all promote higher copper due to estrogen’s effect on copper levels. Eating a vegan diet (since most vegan foods are high in copper and low in zinc), nutritional deficiencies in key nutrients that help to chelate copper from the body (such as B6, vitamin C, zinc and manganese) and genetic issues all play a part in creating a copper imbalance over time.
Copper has a wide range of things it affects in the body, but most often the symptoms of toxicity are neurological in nature like anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, emotional issues, ADD, OCD and connective tissues diseases or iron anemia (since copper and iron work together). Ironically people can suffer from iron anemia even when they are copper toxic. Why? Because the copper that's causing the problem is unavailable copper(ii), not bioavailable copper(i).
In general, you first want to consider your history and lifestyle alongside whatever you’re
feeling. From there, tests like a hair mineral test and SpectraCell Micronutrient test (functional tests that look at your tissues) can give you some better data than your serum levels for several reasons which I have discussed in other articles. For hidden toxicity, hair testing is probably the gold standard. A practitioner with extensive experience interpreting hair patterns over time can help you implement a complete nutrition program and see how your body responds over the course of several months.
Generally speaking, a hair test pattern for hidden copper toxicity will show up as a low or “deficient” copper level for several months at a time, until suddenly your copper level will become highly elevated. This signifies a “release” of copper from the tissues, since the body’s obtained enough resources to do the chelation, and it shows up as a blip on your results because your hair works much like the rings on a tree to record the metabolic history of your body.
According to an article by Dr. Lawrence Wilson,(8)(9) an authority in clinical nutrition, medical research, hair analysis and consultant for the US Public Health Service, hidden copper toxicity hair patterns are corroborated by the following on a hair test:
— “Slow oxidizer” status
— Calcium level greater than about 70mg%
— Magnesium level greater than about 10mg%
— Potassium level less than about 4mg%
— Zinc level less than about 13mg%
— Zinc greater than 20mg% may often, but not always, be a hidden copper indicator
— Copper level less than 1.5mg%
— Mercury level greater than .03mg%
— Calcium/Potassium ratio greater than 10:1
— Sodium/Potassium ratio less than about 2.5:1
— Phosphorus level less than about 13mg%
If you are a “fast oxidizer” based on your hair test (determined by calculating Calcium/Potassium ratio of less than 4:1 and Sodium/Magnesium ratio greater than 4.17:1), and you also have low copper levels, this may signal a true deficiency. A Sodium/Potassium ratio less than 2.5:1 and a Calcium/Magnesium ratio less than 3:1 can be a secondary indicator if the Sodium/Potassium ratio checks out first. All of these measurements together can be used by an experienced professional, alongside your symptoms, history and current lifestyle, to determine your copper status.
Histamine's Relationship to Copper
Another area to look is your histamine level. The main enzyme that breaks down histamine, diamine oxidase (DAO), needs several nutrients to function correctly. Copper
happens to be a central component of this enzyme, so what that means is that excess copper can have a secondary effect on histamine levels by over-activating DAO and leading to low histamine.(10)(11)
Because histamine acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, it is one of the things responsible for alertness. It’s stimulatory, and too much histamine in the body can lead to bouts of anxiousness and insomnia, among many other symptoms.(11) Interestingly, much of the research on histapenia, or low histamine, comes up with the same results because histamine levels are controlled, in part, by copper. If someone has low histamine levels it may often be a sign of a hidden copper toxicity or high copper levels.
This is because the enzyme that breaks down histamine is copper dependent, so the more copper you have in your system the more likely it is that you may break histamine down to unhealthy levels.(10)
In either case, histamine imbalances in either direction can have some similar effects on your quality of life. Blood histamine can be a good biomarker for copper status in conjunction with other tests, because if you have low histamine it can corroborate other indicators of hidden copper toxicity. If you have high histamine, it can serve as a marker that you may be copper deficient. Also, because a lot of nutrients affect the enzymes that break down histamine (DAO, HNMT and AOC1), knowing your levels can serve as an important marker for your overall health.
The main things that affect histamine status are your genes, eating aged or processed foods, a leaky gut, drinking alcohol and having deficiencies in key nutrients. All of these lead to histamine imbalance or histamine “intolerance.” This doesn’t mean an allergy, but rather an overproduction or mismanagement of histamine in the body. This imbalance, whether it is low or high, can have a wide-ranging effect on your sleep, digestion, energy levels and many other important areas of health. Yet it is often missed as a place to look for answers by many practitioners.
Diagnosing Wilson's Disease
Some people are born with a genetic defect in the ATP7B gene, which is used to diagnose a copper processing disease called Wilson’s Disease. In these cases, the body doesn’t bind the copper and it accumulates in the body and organs, and one of the hallmarks is low ceruloplasmin. This is a protein that your body uses to bind and transport copper, and those with Wilson's disease make low amounts of it and therefore have high levels of free copper in their blood, sort of like people with hemochromatosis have to deal with iron overload.
Unfortunately, it’s a tricky thing to diagnose Wilson's disease, as it’s not always obvious from tests and there aren’t really cut and dry clinical presentations. Some people can have Wilson’s Disease and be fine into their 50’s, while others have it show up as a teenager.
Nevertheless, the general formula for calculating free copper is to multiply your ceruloplasmin score by 3 and subtract it from your serum copper score. If the end number is greater than 25, this is an important threshold. It doesn’t mean you have Wilson’s Disease necessarily, because several things can lower your ability to bind copper like malnutrition, deficiencies, thyroid problems, genetics (like a low functioning CP gene) and so on.
All of this can further be complicated by the status of your SLC31A1 gene, which codes for a copper transporter in your cells. If you have lots of SNPs in this one, it may
mean you need more copper than the average bear and should monitor your levels. Also, be careful with taking too much zinc or high dose vitamin C or B3 (niacin) as all of these can lead to a copper deficiency if done for extended periods without testing and/or taking copper if you are prone to deficiency.
How do you test for Zinc levels?
Most people are deficient in zinc, and zinc is used by the body in greater amounts than copper. Zinc is also much harder to get from the diet and is one of the minerals I recommend supplementing because of this. The average person can significantly benefit from a quality, chelated zinc at 30mg per day without any problems long-term.
That is why I recommend this product by Optimal Health Systems.
I have taken 30mg of chelated zinc for well over a decade and I take zinc in the evening as it helps with winding the body down, melatonin production and so on. Testing for zinc should be done using a SpectraCell Micronutrient Test, which looks at the levels in your white blood cells. This is the best test by far for several reasons, with other tests being more and more inferior.
A cheap blood test that can give you correlational data is a serum ALP alkaline phosphatase (ALP) test. This is an enzyme that is correlated with zinc levels, with higher being a better sign of zinc stores. Blood zinc levels aren't the best at testing for your tissue levels, which is why the SpectraCell test mentioned previously is more valuable.
Lastly, many practitioners like to use hair tests but these are just not as good for the beneficial minerals as a SpectraCell test. Hair testing is reliable for toxic minerals or metals, like Cadmium or Aluminum, but using it as a way to determine the body's tissue reserves of beneficial minerals is extremely problematic in my experience of 20 years and over 10+ years of hair testing data on myself and working with a professional.
Copper and Zinc are vital for health but require a little more consideration than other things like magnesium or the B vitamins or vitamin C. This is because of several factors:
Zinc affects copper levels
The ratio of copper to zinc in the blood matters more than the levels
Copper and zinc are not eliminated as quickly as something like vitamin C
Copper has 2 oxidation states, one of which is poisonous
Most people's diet (and "healthy" vegan diet) sets them up for copper overload and zinc deficiency
Copper poisoning can occur from many environmental factors
Genetic factors can affect how much copper or zinc your body can tolerate
This is why it is important to understand copper toxicity and hidden copper toxicity, and to work with a professional (or use the information in this article) to recover through a comprehensive nutrition plan that involves all the minerals and vitamins, especially quality chelated zinc.