Copper: An Essential Trace Element

Copper is one of the most important elements of our time. It is found in almost all electrical devices and cables. Copper is in such high demand that the industry is now talking about a crisis since more copper is being used than is being extracted. Even in our bodies, nothing works without copper. It is one of the most important building blocks of life and a deficiency can cause serious damage.

What does our body need copper for?

Copper is one of the most important components of many enzymes in our body. Our cells need copper for energy and it plays a crucial role in cellular respiration. In general, we need copper above all for the oxygen supply. Copper-protein compounds ensure that we can process oxygen and that it gets to where it is needed.

Depending on age, our body needs different amounts of copper. Toddlers and babies, for example, only need 0.6 to 0.8 milligrams of copper a day. This amount is easily absorbed through breast milk. For adults, the amount of copper consumed should be between 1 and 1.5 milligrams. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers need significantly more. Here the daily requirement can increase to up to three milligrams. The copper is absorbed through the intestines and stored in the body. A normal level of copper in the blood is between 75 and 130 micrograms.

Can you overdose on copper?

Normally, one cannot overdose on copper, since the trace element is released via the liver and kidneys with the bile for excretion. However, in rare cases, overdose can occur, such as consuming large amounts of acidic beverages or food stored in copper cans. Copper poisoning is then manifested by vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps. However, permanent damage is not to be expected from copper poisoning. If you continuously overdose on your body, you risk liver damage. An intake of up to five milligrams of copper per day is considered harmless.

In rare diseases, such as Wilson’s disease or Menkes syndrome, the body can have problems processing copper. Then too much copper accumulates in the liver, which can lead to irreparable damage.

What happens when there is a copper deficiency?

A copper deficiency is much more common in medicine. This is mainly due to reduced oral intake. A copper deficiency mainly leads to nervous and motor disorders. Known deficiency symptoms are tingling arms and legs, feelings of weakness, and unsteady gait. Damage to the optic nerve can also occur. Copper deficiency also promotes osteoporosis and can increase blood sugar and cholesterol levels. This increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Last but not least, it is suspected that a permanent copper deficiency can damage the brain and lead to Alzheimer’s. However, there is still no study evidence for this assumption.

Which foods contain copper?

You don’t need to take any supplements to meet your copper needs. An intake of food is sufficient. Of course, there are foods with particularly high copper levels. This includes, for example:

  • cocoa
  • liver and kidneys
  • Shellfish such as crabs and lobsters
  • nuts
  • whole grains
  • Legumes such as peas or lentils
  • Green vegetables

The daily copper requirement of 1,000-1,500 µg/day can easily be covered with these foods:

  • 30 grams of cocoa
  • 100 grams of pork liver
  • 200 grams of oatmeal
  • 100 grams of hazelnuts
  • 100 grams of lentils or peas
  • 100 grams of soybeans

As a rule, we absorb enough copper through food – a special diet is not necessary for this. The body stores enough copper to compensate for days with low copper intake. However, anyone who eats one-sided and unhealthy food over the long term risks a copper deficiency.

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