Everything You Need to Know About Copper: Functions, Sources, and Importance for the Body

1. Introduction

Copper is an important trace mineral that is needed by the body for many different functions. It helps with many important things, like making energy, getting rid of iron, making connective tissue, and protecting against free radicals. This piece tells you everything you need to know about copper’s benefits, including what it does, where you can get it, and how important it is to get the right amount of this important vitamin.

2. Copper: An Essential Trace Element

Copper (Cu) is a metal that has many uses and is very important. It is a key part of many important bodily processes in the human body. It is a reddish-brown metal that has been used by people for thousands of years, mostly because it can be shaped and is good at conducting electricity.

Copper is used to make red blood cells, which is one of the most important things it does for the body. Copper is an important part of the enzyme ceruloplasmin, which oxidizes iron in the blood so that it can link to hemoglobin and carry oxygen throughout the body.

Copper is also important for the right functioning of the nervous system because it is used to make hormones like dopamine and norepinephrine. Copper is also very important for keeping joint parts, like skin, bones, and blood vessels, healthy.

Even though copper is important, the human body only needs small amounts of it to be healthy. The amount of copper in the body is thought to be between 75 and 100 milligrams, and most of it is in the liver, brain, heart, kidneys, and skeletal muscle.

Copper is an important nutrient that is needed for many of the body’s natural processes to work well. But since the body can’t make copper on its own, it has to come from the food we eat. Organ meats, fish, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are all good sources of copper.

Copper is taken in the small intestine after being eaten. It is then sent to the liver, where it binds to a protein called ceruloplasmin. Ceruloplasmin is a copper-containing protein that helps move copper around the body and keep track of how much copper there is. It also protects cells from damage caused by free radicals because it is an antioxidant.

Once copper is attached to ceruloplasmin, it is released into the bloodstream and can move to different areas in the body. Copper is mostly found in the liver, brain, heart, kidneys, and skeletal muscles, where it helps in many ways.

Copper not only helps make red blood cells, keep the nervous system working, and keep connecting tissues in good shape, but it also helps make energy at the cellular level. Copper is an important part of an enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase. This enzyme is a key part of the electron transport chain, which is how cells make energy in the form of ATP.

3. Functions of Copper in the Human Body

Copper plays a crucial role in a wide range of physiological processes, including:

3.1 Energy Production

Copper is a cofactor for a number of enzymes that are needed to make energy. Copper is especially important for the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase, which is an important part of the breathing chain in the mitochondria.

The mitochondrial respiratory chain is a group of enzyme complexes that are in the inner membrane of mitochondria. Mitochondria are the parts of cells that make energy. Through a process called “oxidative phosphorylation,” which includes the movement of electrons from “donor” molecules to “acceptor” molecules, the “respiratory chain” makes energy in the form of ATP.

Cytochrome c oxidase is the last group of enzymes in the respiratory chain. It helps move electrons from cytochrome c to molecules of oxygen. This process makes water and creates an electrical imbalance that drives the creation of ATP. Copper works with cytochrome c oxidase as a cofactor, which is a key part of the enzyme’s ability to move electrons and make energy.

Copper helps make energy, but it also helps keep joint parts healthy, makes red blood cells, and makes sure the nervous system works right.Copper shortage can cause a number of health problems, such as anemia, cognitive problems, and a weaker immune system.

3.2 Iron Metabolism

Copper is a key part of how iron is used in the body. It is a cofactor for many enzymes and proteins that are involved in this process.

Copper is an essential for hephaestin, a protein that helps iron leave cells. This is one of the most important ways that copper helps iron digestion. Hephaestin is found on the surface of the cells that line the small intestine. There, it helps move iron from the small intestine opening into the bloodstream.

Copper is also a cofactor for ceruloplasmin, a protein that contains copper and is important for oxidizing ferrous (Fe2+) iron into ferric (Fe3+) iron. This process is needed for iron to link to transferrin, which is the main protein in the body that moves iron. Without the right amount of oxidation, iron can’t link to transferrin and be sent to different parts of the body.

3.3 Connective Tissue Formation

Copper is needed for collagen and elastin, which are two of the main structure proteins in joint tissues, to form and mature. Tissues like skin, blood vessels, and bone have these proteins in them to make them strong, flexible, and stretchy.

Copper is a cofactor for the enzyme lysyl oxidase, which is a key part of how collagen and elastic fibers cross-link. Lysyl oxidase speeds up the formation of covalent links between lysine and hydroxylysine amino acid residues in collagen and elastin fibers. This makes a solid and long-lasting network of protein fibers.

Connective tissues need the cross-linking of collagen and elastin fibers to keep their shape and flexibility. Without proper cross-linking, tissues can weaken and be more likely to get hurt or broken.

3.4 Antioxidant Defense Systems

Copper is a key part of the protective enzyme superoxide dismutase (Cu/Zn-SOD), which protects cells from damage caused by free radicals.

Superoxide dismutase speeds up the breakdown of highly reactive superoxide radicals, which can damage cell walls, proteins, and DNA. Cu/Zn-SOD stops reactive damage and keeps cellular redox balance by turning superoxide radicals into hydrogen peroxide and molecular oxygen.

Oxidative stress, which happens when there is an imbalance between the production of oxidants and the body’s protection against them, has been linked to a wide range of illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, and neurological disorders. Cu/Zn-SOD is very important for avoiding diseases caused by oxidative stress because it gets rid of superoxide ions and reduces oxidative damage to cells.

3.5 Neurotransmitter Synthesis

Copper is used to make dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, which are all hormones. It is a cofactor for dopamine -hydroxylase, an enzyme that changes dopamine into norepinephrine. Phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase then changes norepinephrine into epinephrine. These hormones are important for many bodily processes, like regulating mood, responding to stress, and thinking.

4. Dietary Sources of Copper

Copper is present in a wide variety of foods, including:

  • Organ meats (especially liver and kidney)
  • Shellfish (particularly oysters, clams, and crab)
  • Fish (such as salmon and sardines)
  • Nuts and seeds (including cashews, almonds, and sunflower seeds)
  • Whole grains (like whole wheat, barley, andquinoa)
  • Legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans)
  • Dark chocolate
  • Fruits (including avocado, blackberries, and raspberries)
  • Vegetables (such as mushrooms, spinach, and kale)

Copper’s bioavailability from different food sources can change, based on things like the presence of other foods that can slow down or speed up the intake of copper. For example, the phytic acid in plant-based foods can make it harder for the body to absorb copper, while ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and protein from animals can make it easier.

5. Recommended Dietary Allowance and Tolerable Upper Intake Level

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for copper is the average daily intake level that meets the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97–98%) healthy individuals in a specific life stage and gender group. The RDA for copper varies depending on age, sex, and life stage, as shown in the table below:

Life StageAgeRDA (μg/day)
Infants0–6 months200*
7–12 months220*
Children1–3 years340
4–8 years440
Males9–13 years700
14–18 years890
19–70+ years900
Females9–13 years700
14–18 years890
19–70+ years900
PregnancyAll ages1,000
LactationAll ages1,300

*denotes Adequate Intake (AI)

The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) is the highest daily intake of a nutrient that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects for almost all individuals in the general population. The UL for copper is 10,000 μg/day for adults, 8,000 μg/day for adolescents (14–18 years), and 5,000 μg/day for children (9–13 years).

6. Copper Deficiency

Copper deficiency is rare, but it can occur due to inadequate dietary intake, malabsorption disorders, or excessive zinc supplementation. Symptoms of copper deficiency include:

  • Anemia
  • Neutropenia (low white blood cell count)
  • Bone abnormalities
  • Impaired immune function
  • Neurological symptoms, such as numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • Skin and hair abnormalities, including depigmentation and brittle hair

Menkes disease is a rare genetic illness that causes copper movement and use to be slowed down. This is linked to severe copper shortage. Menkes disease is caused by changes in the ATP7A gene, which codes for an enzyme called copper-transporting ATPase. This enzyme moves copper to different body parts. Without enough copper, the body can’t make enzymes and proteins that need copper as a cofactor. This can cause a number of health problems.

Symptoms of Menkes disease usually start when a child is young and can include slow growth, nerve damage, and odd connective tissue.Babies with Menkes disease may have weak muscles, seizures, and slow growth. As the disease gets worse, people who have it may develop stiffness, brain inability, and loss of sight and hearing.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for Menkes disease, which gets worse over time and kills people in the end.There aren’t many ways to treat it, but copper shots and other supporting treatments may help manage symptoms and make life better.

7. Copper Toxicity

Copper toxicity is also rare, as the body has efficient mechanisms to regulate copper absorption and excretion. However, excessive copper intake can lead to toxicity, with symptoms such as:

  • Gastrointestinal distress (e.g., nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain)
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Neurological symptoms, including irritability, tremors, and seizures

Wilson’s disease, a rare genetic problem, is linked to chronic copper poisoning. This is because Wilson’s disease causes copper to build up in different organs, especially the liver and brain. Wilson’s disease is caused by changes in the ATP7B gene, which codes for an enzyme called copper-transporting ATPase. This enzyme gets rid of copper from the body when there is too much of it. Copper can build up in the liver and brain, especially, if the body doesn’t get rid of enough of it.

Wilson’s disease can have a wide range of symptoms, based on how much copper is in the body and which organs are damaged. Common signs are tiredness, stomach pain, jaundice, and nerve problems like twitches, stiff muscles, and trouble speaking or eating.

Wilson’s disease can cause permanent damage to the brain, nerve damage, and even death if it is not handled. Many people with Wilson’s disease can live normal, healthy lives if they are diagnosed and treated early. Chelation therapy is often used to get rid of extra copper in the body.

8. Maintaining a Balanced Copper Intake

Getting the right amount of copper is important for good health, and eating a variety of copper-rich foods can help you get the right amount. Organ meats, fish, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are some of the best food sources of copper.

But it’s important to remember that too much copper can be harmful, so people should be aware of how much copper they get from food and nutrients as a whole. Adults should take in 900 micrograms of copper every day. Taking in more than this amount can cause copper poisoning.

Copper intake and use in the body can also be affected by things like digestive diseases and medicines or vitamins that can get in the way of copper absorption, like zinc. People with these conditions should talk to a doctor or nurse about how to control their copper intake and make sure they are getting all the nutrients they need.

Overall, eating a healthy amount of copper is important for good health, and eating a variety of foods that are high in copper can help you reach this balance. It is also important to be aware of things that can affect how copper is absorbed and used, and if necessary, to talk to a medical provider about how to control copper intake.

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