Copper Toxicity

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Do you know anyone who suffers from headaches, fatigue, insomnia, depression, spaciness, learning disorders or premenstrual syndrome? These can be symptoms of a copper imbalance.

Copper, an essential trace mineral, is vitally important for both physical and mental health. It has been studied for years, including at government laboratories. However, its importance for health is still largely unappreciated. The following is but an introduction. The author is deeply indebted to Dr. Paul C. Eck, an avid copper researcher.

Copper's Role in the Body

Copper is critical for energy production in the cells. It is also involved in nerve conduction, connective tissue, the cardiovascular system and the immune system. Copper is closely related to estrogen metabolism, and is required for women's fertility and to maintain pregnancy. Copper stimulates production of the neurotransmitters epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. It is also required for monoamine oxidase, an enzyme related to serotonin production.

It is possible to become copper-toxic or copper-deficient, and there is a condition called biounavailable copper. In the latter, copper is present, but cannot be utilized. Toxicity and biounavailability are seen most often. This article uses the words copper imbalance when more than one situation is possible.

Physical conditions associated with copper imbalance include arthritis, fatigue, adrenal burnout, insomnia, scoliosis, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, migraine headaches, seizures, fungal and bacterial infections including yeast infection, gum disease, tooth decay, skin and hair problems and female organ conditions including uterine fibroids, endometriosis and others.

Mental and emotional disorders related to copper imbalance include spaciness, depression, mood swings, fears, anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, violence, autism, schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorder. Copper deficiency is associated with aneurysms, gout, anemia and osteoporosis. Interestingly, the symptoms of premenstrual tension are identical to the symptoms of copper imbalance.

Copper Sources

Today, many children are born with excessive tissue copper. It is passed from high-copper mothers to their children through the placenta.

Stress from any cause contributes to copper imbalance. Stress depletes the adrenal glands and lowers the zinc level in the body. Whenever zinc becomes deficient, copper tends to accumulate. Our soil is low in zinc. Refined sugar, white rice and white flour have been stripped of their zinc. The trend toward vegetarianism reduces zinc in the diet, since red meat is the best dietary source of zinc.

Copper is found in many foods, particularly vegetarian proteins such as nuts, beans, seeds and grains. Meats contain copper, but it is balanced by zinc which competes for its absorption. Chocolate is high in copper. A desire for copper may help explain chocolate cravings.

Another source of copper is drinking water that remained in copper water pipes, or copper added to your water supply. During a recent dry summer, several Oregon cities added copper sulfate to their reservoirs to reduce algae growth. Accident and disease rates increased.

Other sources of copper are copper cookware, dental materials, vitamin pills, fungicides and pesticides residues on food, copper intra-uterine devices and birth control pills. Mrs. Robinson and her 6-month-old, breast-fed baby both began to experience hair loss. The cause was a daily prenatal vitamin containing 4 milligrams of copper, far too much for this high-copper mother.

Deficiencies of manganese, iron, B-vitamins and vitamin C can cause copper to accumulate. Adrenal hormones cause the liver to produce ceruloplasmin, the main copper binding protein in the body. Therefore, sluggish liver or weak adrenal glands may cause copper to build up in the tissues.

The Copper Personality

There is a high copper personality. Positive traits include a warm, caring, sensitive, emotional nature, often with artistic orientation and a child-like quality. Often high-copper people are young-looking. Many traditional feminine traits are associated with copper, such as softness, gentleness and intuitiveness.

When the personality is not fully integrated or the copper becomes too high, negative traits show up. These include spaciness, racing thoughts, living in a dream world, childishness, excessive emotions, sentimentality, a tendency to depression, fearfulness, hidden anger and resentments, phobias, psychosis and violence. Artists, inventors and other high-copper types often "live on the edge", in part due to their high copper level.

The copper personality tends to accumulate copper easily. Copper functions as a psychological defense mechanism. It causes one to detach slightly from reality. This provides relief from stress for the sensitive individual. It works well as long as the copper does not become too high. Very high copper can cause a psychotic break from reality, a type of schizophrenia.

An 18-year old schizophrenic patient had a hair copper level of 40 mg% (normal is 2.5 mg %). She hallucinated and attempted suicide twice while in the Scottsdale Camelback Mental Hospital. When her copper decreased to normal through a diet and supplement program, her symptoms disappeared and she has remained well.

Copper and Society

Is it possible that our mineral balance affects our attitudes? Copper is called the 'psychic' mineral, the 'intuitive' mineral, and a 'feminine' mineral because it is so important for the female reproductive system. Its level generally parallels that of estrogen. While many factors influence our attitudes and values, the rise in tissue copper levels in both men and women in the past twenty years parallels renewed interest in feminism, in psychic and intuitive knowledge, and 'nurturing' movements such as environmentalism.

Copper and Sexuality

Women tend to have higher levels of copper than men. Women also have more symptoms related to copper imbalance. These include yeast infections, migraine headaches, adult acne, various menstrual symptoms and depression.

Copper-toxic women are often estrogen dominant. They may benefit from progesterone therapy to help balance their hormones. Women with biounavailable copper are often low in estrogen. Their bodies are often more linear in shape. Of course, copper is not the only factor affecting hormones. Some pesticides, for example, mimic the effects of estrogen and can affect the hormone balance.

Men, by contrast, should be zinc-dominant. Zinc, a 'masculine' element, balances copper in the body, and is essential for male reproductive activity. Today, however, many men have symptoms of copper toxicity including depression, anxiety and other symptoms.

Copper and Children

Children are often born with high copper levels. Young children are very sensitive and intuitive. They often lose some of their sensitivity and 'psychic abilities' as their copper levels diminish around age four.

Persistent elevated copper levels in children are common today. The problem often begins during gestation, when high-copper mothers pass on excessive copper (and often low zinc) to the fetus through the placenta. This is called congenital, rather than genetic high copper. It can be prevented by correcting one's copper metabolism before becoming pregnant. After birth, poor nutrition, stress in the home, and overuse of prescription drugs can aggravate a child's copper imbalance.

Copper imbalance in children is associated with delayed development, attention deficit disorder, anti-social and hyperactive behavior, autism, learning difficulties and infections such as ear infections.

Vegetarian Diets

Excess copper interferes with zinc, a mineral needed to make digestive enzymes. Too much copper also impairs thyroid activity and the functioning of the liver. If severe enough, a person will become an obligatory vegetarian. This means they are no longer able to digest meat very well. Conversely, if one becomes a vegetarian for other reasons, most likely one's copper level will increase. Vegetarian proteins are higher in copper, and lower in zinc.

At times, the vegetarian orientation is health-producing. In many people, however, restricted diets do not work well. Fatigue, spaciness and other symptoms begin to appear. Many people, including the author, felt they were becoming more spiritual on a vegetarian diet, when in fact it was just copper poisoning! The taste for meat often returns when copper is brought into better balance.

Some people with high copper dislike all protein. They crave high-carbohydrate diets. Protein feels heavy or causes other symptoms. Eating protein stimulates glandular activity. This releases stored copper which causes the symptoms. However, these individuals usually need to eat protein. The symptoms will eventually disappear.

Copper-toxic individuals may also be drawn to sweets or salty foods due to adrenal insufficiency. Some sea salt is often beneficial. Sweets, including fruit juices, provide a temporary lift but may worsen the condition.

Adrenal Burnout

Adrenal burnout, characterized by chronic fatigue and other symptoms, is often related to fear and copper imbalance. Although correcting emotional and other factors are necessary, improving the copper imbalance, supporting the adrenals and releasing fearful thoughts go hand in hand to restore optimum health.

Copper and Addiction

Compulsive behavior may be related to copper and the adrenals. Exercise, for example, stimulates the adrenals. This helps keep copper available and makes one feel better. If one stops exercising, unbound copper builds up and one may feel fatigue, mood swings and depression. In some people, this can create a compulsive need to exercise. Other ways to temporarily control copper toxicity include the use of caffeine or other stimulants.

Part of the appeal of cocaine, Ritalin and amphetamines may be their ability to help lower copper temporarily by stimulating the adrenals. Cadmium found in marijuana and cigarettes drives copper back into storage. These drugs may make one feel better by affecting the copper balance.

Copper and Yeast Infections

Our bodies use copper to help control the growth of yeast. This may be because copper favors aerobic metabolism. Copper is required for the electron transport system, where most of our cellular energy is produced. Yeast organisms use anaerobic metabolism.

Copper sulfate is often sprayed on crops to kill yeast and fungus. Copper is also used in some swimming pools and hot tubs to control yeast and bacterial growth.

When copper is out of balance, our bodies cannot control yeast overgrowth. This often led to chronic Candida albicans infections that are resistant to treatment.

Detecting Copper Imbalance

Blood, urine and even hair analysis may not reveal copper toxicity directly. Copper is stored mainly in the brain, liver and other organs, not in the blood or urine.

Challenge tests with a chelating agent such as EDTA may be used to detect excess copper. Several indirect indicators on a hair mineral test are also excellent to detect copper imbalance. These include a hair calcium level greater than about 100 mg%, a potassium level less than about 3 mg%, a sodium/potassium ratio less than 2.5:1, a zinc/copper ratio less than 6:1, an elevated mercury level or a copper level less than 1.0 mg%.

Balancing Copper

The author dealt with severe copper imbalance in himself and with many others for the past 18 years. Six methods are used to reduce copper in the tissues:

  1. Reduce exposure to sources of copper.
  2. Antagonists such as zinc, manganese and iron compete with copper for absorption and utilization. Vitamins B6 and folic acid may also be helpful. Selenium and cysteine may be helpful. Research indicates copper may be excreted by binding with glutathione and metallothionine which require these nutrients.
  3. Chelators of copper include vitamin C, molybdenum and sulfur-containing amino acids. These bind and remove copper. More powerful chelators may be used, but can have side effects.
  4. Enhance the eliminative organs, such as the liver, skin and colon.
  5. Balance body chemistry, enhance energy production and improve adrenal gland activity. To support the adrenal glands, avoid sweets, eat protein with each meal, and supplement your diet with vitamins A, C and E, manganese, zinc and B-complex vitamins. Animal protein is very helpful due to its higher content of zinc, B-vitamins and sulfur amino acids including cysteine and taurine. Adrenal glandular substance is also frequently helpful.
  6. Reduce fear and stress. Methods range from a change in location or work to meditation, therapy, more rest and other changes.

Copper Detoxification Symptoms

One of the difficulties in reducing excess copper are symptoms that arise during the process of elimination. As the body begins to mobilize excess copper from tissue storage sites, it enters the bloodstream on its way to the liver and kidneys for elimination. While in the bloodstream, the copper can cause headaches, skin rashes, racing thoughts, strange odors, digestive upset, mood swings and energy fluctuations. In men, testicular pain is not uncommon. Women s periods may be affected. If one knows what is occurring, it is possible to take measures to minimize these temporary elimination symptoms. Enemas, sweating, and drinking more water can help promote copper elimination. Reducing the nutrition program for a few days may also help slow the reactions and reduce symptoms if they are severe. Supplements particularly molybdenum, bile acids, laxative herbs and vitamin B6 may also mitigate elimination symptoms.

Attitude for Copper Balance

Adequate rest and sleep are important. Any technique to help handle stress is also helpful. A simple but powerful technique for handling all negative emotions is given in an excellent book, Emissary of Light, by James Twyman. He suggests feeling our negative emotions purely, dissociating them from thoughts. Feel them in the body. Then move the feeling to the heart area, visualize a small door just in front of you, open the door and release the emotion. Realize that all feelings are just energies. They can be transmuted, sent forth and used for good.

High copper people are often sensitive, must acknowledge this and 'live their own truth'. At the same time, a careful look at one's attitudes, especially hidden fears, angers and resentments, is very important. Overcoming copper imbalance often involves overcoming deep fears.

Life is not always easy for the copper-toxic person. There is a temptation to become resentful or depressed at times. With understanding, nutritional help and endless compassion for oneself, these obstacles can be overcome. Then the creative, intuitive and loving qualities of the high-copper individual can shine through to the world.

References

1. Eck, P. and Wilson, L., Toxic Metals in Human Health and Disease, Eck Institute of Applied Nutrition and Bioenergetics, Ltd., Phoenix, AZ, 1989.

2. Gittleman, A.L., Why Am I Always So Tired? Harper San Francisco, 1999.

3. Nolan, K., "Copper Toxicity Syndrome", J. Orthomolecular Psychiatry, 12:4, p.270-282.

4. Pfeiffer, Carl, MD, PhD, Mental and Elemental Nutrients, Keats Publishing, New Canaan, CT., 1975.

4. Twyman, James F., Emissary of Light, Warner Books, New York, 1996.

By Lawrence Wilson, MD

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