Copper toxicity- what is it and why is too much a bad thing?

If you’re like me and you’ve jumped on the copper home wares band wagon (I’m blaming you Kmart) then you will be pretty familiar with the word copper and all the different ways you can buy it… lamps, candles, plates etc… But what happens when your body jumps on the copper band wagon too and decides that it is as essential as your inner interior designer thinks so.

Copper is a an essential trace element needed in our body in small amounts and is required for connective tissue formation, iron metabolism, normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, and the regulation of gene expression. In normal amounts (10- 22μmol/L) copper is able to do all these things and is relatively harmless to the body. Its when the body creates too much copper that it becomes a problem, as too much copper in the body can be very toxic.

Copper excess can occur from a variety of different factors including copper water pipes, copper IUD’s, high stress, low zinc status and the oral contraceptive pill (because of their oestrogen content- that’s a story for another day). Another way copper can also present in excessive amounts is through a lack of copper-binding proteins knows as ceruloplasmin or metallothionein. The simplest way I can explain this is using a school bus analogy… if you think of copper as all the school kids needing to be picked up to go to school and ceruloplasmin as the school buses, if there is 100 school kids that need picking up and only 4 buses with 20 seats each show up, there is 20 extra kids without a ride left to roam the street or in terms of copper- travel around the body. Explaining why if there isn’t enough ceruloplasmin to bind to copper (or pick up the school kids) then excess copper (or children) is left to travel around the body causing symptoms of copper toxicity to present.

So how can excess copper affect your health?

Nervous system- copper is known as the “emotional mineral” due to the influence it has enhancing all emotions experienced by a human being. Copper imbalance is associated with anxiety, depression, bipolar-disorder and schizophrenia, as well as feelings of brain fog, irritability and spaciness. People with increased copper also report feeling “numb” which can be due to excessive tissue calcium making the nervous system less sensitive.

Thyroid- as copper increases in the body so does calcium but potassium decreases causing the thyroid gland to slow down. Sluggish thyroid can cause weight gain, hair loss, low libido, cold hands and feet, and irregular menstrual cycles (to name a few).

Immunity- copper toxicity is associated with a decreased immunity due to the imbalance it creates with zinc. This imbalance can contribute to an increased susceptibility to infections such as sinus infections and Candida Albicans infections (thrush).

Reproductive system- high copper generally correlates with high oestrogen which can cause a whole host of problems such as increased risk of miscarriage and fertility, lower libido (in both men and women), amenorrhoea (abnormal absence of menstruation), ovarian cysts, dysmenorrhoea (painful menstruation) and heightened PMS symptoms.

What’s next? 

If any of these symptoms sound like you and you want to further investigate your copper and/or zinc levels there is a few simple tests you can do. Your health practitioner, nutritionist or GP can order a serum copper, zinc and ceruloplasmin test or you can have a hair mineral analysis to determine your nutrient status. From there, lifestyle changes can be made and nutrients can be supplemented to support the detoxification of copper from the body to return to a balance copper: zinc ratio**.

PS. I wrote this article months ago when I was in the crux of copper toxicity. And guess what! My copper levels are now normal!! It took 6 months of commitment to maintaining my healthy lifestyle and compliance with the supplements but I can 110% tell you that I actually feel amazing. 6 months ago I could barely concentrate for more than 30 minutes because my brain fog was so bad, I was irritable, I had non-existent periods since coming off the OCP and my immune system was struggling. Now, I wake everyday (well most) with energy for the day ahead, I can sit through a 10 hour day of lectures at uni and still feel alert, I have started to see signs of a period returning (again a story for another day) and overall I just FEEL good. I feel how a 21-year-old should feel, and for someone who has struggled with constant fatigue since she was 15-years-old I can tell you now it feels pretty god-damn amazing!

Alex

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** Copper detoxification can be a dangerous process if done alone and not alongside a professional’s guidelines. Copper “dumping” can mimic PMS symptoms and can create an even more toxic environment for your body to be in if it is not supported appropriately. Be sure to consult with your practitioner before beginning to detox. 

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