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Copper and its health benefits

Copper and its health benefits

Published: 27 January, 2022 - Updated: 27 October, 2022 | 4'

What is copper? 

Copper (Cu) is an essential trace element for both humans and animals. However, needed only in trace amounts, the human body contains approximately 100 mg of copper (Cu).

Copper is involved in the function of a number of enzymes, such as cytochrome C oxidase, amino acid oxidase, superoxide dismutase and monoamine oxidase. Copper is considered necessary for childhood growth, defence mechanisms, bone integrity, red and white blood cell maturation, iron transport, cholesterol and glucose metabolism, myocardial contractility and brain development.

Properties of copper

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) certifies the following health properties for copper:

  • Contributes to the maintenance of connective tissue under normal conditions.
  • Contributes to normal energy metabolism.
  • Contributes to the normal functioning of the nervous system.
  • Contributes to normal hair pigmentation.
  • Contributes to the normal transport of iron in the body.
  • Contributes to normal skin pigmentation.
  • Contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system.
  • Contributes to the protection of cells against oxidative damage.

What are the effects of copper on our bodies?

Importancia del cobre en el embarazo

As we have seen, copper plays important roles in our bodies. Some studies show that it is beneficial for bones, skin, hair and during pregnancy. Here are some of them:

Copper and bone health

Studies in adults have indicated that copper may affect bone health (bone is a kind of connective tissue). Thus, a study of older patients with low blood copper levels showed a significant increase in the incidence of femoral neck fractures compared to controls of the same age. Also, another study of older patients who had been in bed for 12 months or more and showed evidence of copper deficiency found that copper supplements improved copper levels and bone markers of bone resorption and bone formation.5

Copper and hair health

In a long-term study of healthy young men on a controlled diet, the copper content of scalp hair increased from 9.2 ± 3.1 to 21.1 ± 5.9 μg/g when intake increased from 1.6 to 7.8 mg/day.1

Copper and pregnancy

In pregnant women, copper mainly protects the cells of the body from the toxicity of superoxide ions, therefore promoting growth and development. Progesterone encourages the liver to increase the synthesis of ceruloplasmin, which can contribute to the growth and development of the fetus, provide nutrition and boost immune function.7

Reference amount of copper in the population

The daily intake of copper recommended by EFSA depends on age, sex and other factors.

For men over 18 years of age, the recommended daily intake of copper is 1.6 mg/day and for women 1.3 mg/day. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, the amount would be slightly higher, at 1.5 mg/day.

For children under the age of 18, the amounts also change slightly according to age and sex. For children between 4 and 9 years of age, for both genders, the recommended daily amount of copper is 1 mg/day. For boys and adolescent boys aged 10-17 years, the amount is 1.3 mg/day, while for girls and adolescent girls aged 10-17 years it is 1.1 mg/day.

Safety profile of copper

When asked whether high levels of copper can be toxic or harmful, acute copper toxicity is uncommon, but can result from contamination of food or beverages. However, the emetic properties and unpleasant taste of copper salts prevent their common accidental or deliberate ingestion. The amount that can cause this toxicity is usually above 15-25 mg/day.

Where do we get the copper we need?

Food is the main source of copper intake. There are also supplements containing copper that can help supplement the diet.

It is also present in food as a copper compound and is released in the stomach due to the acidic pH of gastric juice.

What affects the bioavailability of copper? 

Firstly, there are components of the diet that can interact with copper and affect its bioavailability and absorption in the body.

On the one hand, amino acids, proteins and fructose increase copper absorption, while ascorbic acid and phytate decrease it.

Copper-containing foods

Especially high concentrations are found in organ meats (e.g. liver 157 mg/kg), seafood (40 mg/kg), and nuts (8 mg/kg). It is also found in dried pulses, whole grains and cereals.

Copper-containing food supplements 

There are also copper-containing supplements that can help complement your diet. They usually come in capsule or powder form, combined with vitamins, minerals and plant extracts, with recommendations for use in pregnant women, as well as for maintaining connective tissues (such as bones and joints).