Why too much copper could be making you anxious
You’ve been eating healthily, taking your supplements, yet you’re feeling anxious, depressed, having difficulty sleeping and trouble losing weight. Why? It could be that you’re suffering from copper overload.
It’s a rarely diagnosed condition, and research into this area is limited, but some experts argue that it’s a real issue – a “looming public health problem” was how one researcher described it in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.
Copper is an essential mineral for your body, like iron and zinc, but what does it do, exactly? Dr Lawrence Wilson is a US-based nutritionist who’s been treating and writing about copper imbalances for more than 30 years. He says, “Copper is known as the ‘emotional mineral. It affects your energy levels, mood, reproductive system – particularly in women – libido, immunity, and thyroid and adrenal glands. Copper is needed for 30 to 40 per cent of your energy production, so it’s a vital part of your body.”
Copper also helps form collagen, aids in wound healing, supports your nervous system and neurodevelopment. “Copper, along with zinc, helps the body with a lot of chemical processes,” Clare Collins, a professor in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle, says. “The body only needs a tiny amount of these minerals, so it does not store a lot and needs a small, regular supply from food.”
WHY COPPER OVERLOAD HAPPENS
There are many factors (including genetic conditions) that can bring about copper overload. Wilson says the main lifestyle cause he’s observed is consuming a lot of copper through food and supplements, while not getting enough zinc. On the other hand, Collins disagrees, saying, “It’s more likely to be due to taking supplements”, which may contain too much copper or may not contain the correct zinc-to-copper ratio.
While the experts have differing views on the cause, they do agree that zinc intake matters as it competes with copper in our bodies for absorption. “Whenever zinc becomes deficient in our bodies, copper tends to accumulate,” Wilson says. He suggests that our zinc intake is lower than in past generations due to changing soil composition, diets high in processed food, and the trend towards vegetarianism, as red meat is the best common dietary source of zinc (after oysters).
Deficiencies in minerals like magnesium can also elevate copper levels, as can drinking water from copper pipes. Some research suggests taking the contraceptive pill or using the copper intrauterine device ( IUD) may also play a role.
We can also be poor processors of copper, regardless of how much we consume, says Queensland-based integrative GP Dr Karen Coates, who has diagnosed several patients with copper overload in the past six months. “Our bodies normally excrete excess minerals, such as copper, through the liver and gall bladder, but if the body isn’t working at an optimal level, this may not happen, and the body will store the copper, resulting in an overload.” Issues like an unhealthy liver, sluggish metabolism and poor adrenal function can all impair copper processing, Coates says.
According to Wilson, copper overload symptoms can include depression, anxiety or mood swings, as well as
fatigue, sleep problems, headaches and difficulty concentrating. High copper may also affect oestrogen metabolism, contributing to menstrual symptoms like heavy periods. One US study found that those with the highest levels of copper, who also consumed a diet high in saturated and trans fat (a proven risk factor for dementia), lost cognition three times faster than adults with normal copper levels.
Research has also found that an imbalance of copper may prevent your body from burning fat. And early studies have found that copper appears to be one of the main environmental factors that trigger the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
If you’re concerned about your copper levels, talk to your GP or health care provider. They’ll examine your symptoms and diet and may order a blood or urine test, or a hair mineral analysis to measure copper levels. “Choosing a doctor with an interest in nutritional medicine will speed up diagnosis and treatment, and they will be open to testing you for it,” Coates says.
Your practitioner may then recommend certain foods or a supplement – and things might get worse before getting better.
“When excess copper is being removed from tissues and cleared from the body, some people may experience ‘copper dumping’,” Coates says. “Initially, this may lead to an exacerbation of symptoms, but with the right supplement dosage, dietary and lifestyle strategies, this effect can be minimised, and nutritional balance can return within several months.”
Other great ways to support copper removal, according to Coates, include drinking filtered water and eating foods which can give you a good balance of copper and zinc, such as lamb, pork, poultry, soy milk, nuts, seeds, dried beans, and wheat germ.
While treatments vary according to the cause, a balanced diet is important for everyone. Collins says, “Put a new vegetable into your shopping trolley every week, to try something new. Over time, you and your family will be eating a good range to help boost your nutritional levels.”
“Copper is known as the ‘emotional mineral’. It affects energy, mood, libido, immunity and adrenal glands”