Copper toxicity has a profound impact on mental and physical health and is becoming more common in our society because of the widespread use of copper and the lack of adequate zinc, molybdenum, and other minerals in the diet that help keep it in balance. Let’s take a closer look at this issue by answering the following question from a blog visitor.
My 4 yr old grandson has recently been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. He does eat healthy, is active in karate. My daughter has opted out of medication at this time. She is being told that his copper levels are extremely elevated and they have no answer to this. Our problem is that the tics are getting worse and we are at “wit’s end” wanting to help him. Thank you in advance. ~Teresa
Yes, high copper is a common underlying factor in Tourette’s, as well as a lot of other mental health and medical conditions. There are many steps that can be taken to reduce elevated copper, so I am at a loss as to why the treating physician would not have this knowledge. I say it is time to find another doctor. Before we get into the specifics, let me present just a little background on copper toxicity for those reading this page that may not be familiar with this issue.
I see the term, copper toxicity, as somewhat of a misnomer because copper is absolutely essential to the body; it only becomes toxic, if it accumulates in excess. However, that is the term that is often used when there is an elevated level of copper in the body. Hypercupremia is actually the correct medical term.
There are actually three types of copper imbalances that may occur — copper insufficiency, copper excess or copper biounavailable. The first two are self-explanatory, but copper biounavailable means there is excess copper, but it isn’t easily accessible. Copper bio-unavailability occurs when copper binding proteins called ceruloplasmin and metallothionein are deficient. These proteins bind to and transport the copper to where it is needed. In this situation, an individual may experience both copper insufficiency and toxicity simultaneously, as there are high levels of copper circulating through the body, but the body is not able to utilize it.
Toxicity occurs more often than insufficiency. In any case, they can all lead to impaired mental and physical health.
Copper has a very narrow range for optimal function. For example, too much copper is associated with an increase in oxidative stress, but so are low levels.
A rare genetic disease called Wilson’s Disease is another copper disorder that can occur. When that is the case, the individual is not able to properly excrete copper, which results in accumulation, and this can lead to brain and liver damage. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of this condition typically present between the ages of 12 and 23. However, other sources state that it may present as early as the age of 6, but is most frequently diagnosed during the teen years. If one is dealing with Wilson’s Disease, then treatment is required that is outside the scope of this article. Seek immediate help with an expert in this area, as it can be life-threatening.
Copper is an essential mineral that is needed for production of ATP in the Krebs cycle (our cellular energy), in the production and repair of connective tissue, immune function, collagen formation, the reproductive system, iron metabolism, a healthy nervous system, cardiovascular function, NMDA receptors, neurotransmitter production and function and much more. When there is an insufficient level of copper in the body, this can result in numerous health problems like high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, depression, heart disease, miscarriages, loss of sex drive, chronic fungal infections, food cravings like chocolate, compulsive overeating, addiction, and even cancer.
However, if there is excess copper in the body, then a wide array of psychological and physiological symptoms and conditions can also develop like Tourette’s, schizophrenia, bipolar, mania, autism, Asperger’s, anemia, hair loss, insomnia and much more. We discuss the symptoms of toxicity in greater detail further ahead. Extremely high copper levels can result in a psychotic break.
The key is to keep copper levels in balance; not too high and not too low. Too far in either direction leads to trouble. This is true of all minerals in the body.
What Causes Elevated Copper?
1. Copper Plumbing — Drinking water from copper pipes is one of the leading causes of copper toxicity. Copper sulfate may also be added to the water supply to control algae.
2. Zinc deficiency — Zinc and copper have an intimate relationship; each one balancing the other one out. Zinc is also needed to form ceruloplasmin and metallothionein, which as we mentioned earlier are needed to bind to copper to carry it into the mitochondria.
Zinc is found in highest concentrations in red meat, so a diet that is low in meat will not be consuming enough zinc. Additionally, diets that are high in refined foods are low in zinc.
In general, our soil is low in zinc because of overfarming and environmental toxins.
If you supplement with zinc for any reason, then it must be balanced with copper supplementation to prevent an imbalance and vice versa.
3. Other Vitamin or Mineral Deficiencies — Deficiencies in vitamin C, or the B complex (especially niacin) and minerals like iron, selenium, chromium and especially manganese and molybdenum can also result in elevated copper in the body.
4. Adrenal fatigue — In order for copper to be carried into the mitochondria where it will help form ATP, it must bind to one of two substances called ceruloplasmin or metallothionein, which are produced only when the adrenal glands send a signal to the liver to do so. If the adrenal glands are not functioning up to par, then they may not carry out this duty. Therefore, copper will accumulate in the blood, instead of being utilized by the body.
However, since high copper is stimulating to the nervous system, this will deplete the adrenal glands even further and perpetuate the problem. It becomes a catch 22. Since the liver is also needed to produce these substances, the health of the liver can also impact copper levels. For the same reasons, a sluggish liver may also cause an increase in copper.
5. Other Heavy Metal Toxicity — Metallothionein, one of your primary copper-binding proteins, also attaches to other toxic metals like mercury and cadmium. So if one has a high level of these toxic metals, then all the metallothionein could be used up dealing with them, and not available to transport copper.
6. Imbalance in copper binding substances — An imbalance in metallothionein, ceruloplasmin for other reasons will allow accumulation as well.
7. Birth control pill
8. Estrogen increases the retention of copper in the kidneys.
9. Xenoestrogens — Other estrogenic compounds in the environment, called endocrine disruptors, that are commonly found in pesticides, plastics, petrochemicals, growth hormones, cosmetics, personal care products and much more, also increase the retention of copper in the kidneys.
10. Inherited — If the mother had high levels of copper, this can carry through the placenta to the child.
11. Pyroluria — Pyroluria is a genetic disorder that results in a zinc and B6 deficiency. With the low levels of zinc, then copper builds up in excess.
12. Diet — A diet that is high in copper and low in zinc, manganese and other minerals needed for homeostasis will allow accumulation. Vegetarians are highly susceptible to copper toxicity because a vegetarian diet is high in copper and low in zinc by nature.
Additionally, Dr. Lawrence Wilson, tells us that one may become attracted to a vegetarian diet and feel better on it initially because they have already had high copper and low zinc levels for other reasons. Glandular activity is stimulated by eating meat, which stimulates the release of excess copper and copper also inhibits one’s ability to digest protein, both of which cause a variety of undesirable symptoms like nausea, sluggishness, bloating and even a repulsion of all protein. When this happens the individual mistakenly believes that the meat is the problem, but it is really the imbalance in copper and zinc. If meat is reintroduced into the diet and other steps are taken, then zinc and copper levels would become balanced and these symptoms would dissipate.
13. Copper toxicity can also occur from copper cookware, swimming pools, dental materials, hot tubs, jewelry, some prescription medications, cigarette smoke, and IUDs.
14. Impaired methylation. Methylation is one of your detox pathways that is needed to eliminate toxins like heavy metals from the body. If one is not methylating properly, then metals of all kinds, including copper, may build up in the body. Methylation may be impaired due to deficiencies in a variety of nutrients like B6, B12, folic acid, or magnesium or it could be due to a genetic polymorphism.
Copper Toxicity Symptoms
Excess copper in the body has a stimulating effect on the nervous system, similar to amphetamines or caffeine. Copper toxicity symptoms may affect any organ or system but it tends to accumulate in the liver, the brain, and the reproductive organs.
Copper in excess has a profound impact on neurotransmitters in the brain and the autonomic nervous system. It inhibits the brain’s ability to break down dopamine, increases norepinephrine and decreases histamine, which can result in a wide range of psychological symptoms like mind racing or racing thoughts, uncontrollable speech, anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, restlessness, irritability, agitation, hyperactivity, insomnia, trembling, shaking, nervousness, inability to relax, paranoia, mania, dyslexia or other learning disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar, Tourette’s, autism, ADHD, violence, panic attacks, excessive sex drive, hallucinations, feeling like one is going to lose their mind and more.
It is believed by some that one of the primary causes of all the violence we see in the world may be related to excess copper, as diets in many parts of the world are high in grains and legumes, but void of meat, which would provide the necessary zinc to keep copper in balance.
Copper can also accumulate in the thyroid and lead to Hashimoto’s or hypothyroidism.
Vitamin C deficiency — Copper is an antagonist of Vitamin C; it oxidizes it and breaks it down.
Addiction – the disruption of dopamine and norepinephrine that occurs with an excess of copper, can drive one to self-medicate because psychotropic substances mimic our natural neurotransmitters. However, it’s important to note that copper is also needed in the synthesis of many neurotransmitters that regulate our moods, thoughts, and behavior, thus again illustrating that fine line of balance that is needed. Additionally, the overexcitability to the nervous system caused by copper may drive one to use addictive substances to self-medicate the discomfort. In the case of addiction, too much or too little copper can be a significant cause of cravings for the substance of choice.
Zinc deficiency – when copper is in excess, then all the metallothionein will be used up trying to shuttle it off to get it out of the way, and none will be available to bind with zinc and carry it where it needs to be.
Cancer – when there is excess copper, there is inadequate zinc. Zinc is crucial in the prevention of cancer due to its impact on immune function. According to Dr. Charles Gant, cancer can’t happen without a deficiency in zinc.
Fatigue – If ATP is not produced there will not be energy, which results in chronic fatigue.
Spaciness – impaired brain chemistry leads to feelings of spaciness and disorientation.
Cravings for sweet or salty foods. However, this is often because of adrenal fatigue that is occurring simultaneously.
Carbohydrate cravings and a dislike for protein.
On the flip side, cravings for chocolate or binge eating may indicate a deficiency in copper, as copper is needed for neurotransmitters that regulate hunger and chocolate is high in copper. However, there are many other reasons one may experience cravings for chocolate or binge eating.
Copper is used for breaking down the neurotransmitter histamine, therefore, if copper is in excess, it can result in excessive degradation of histamine, which leads to levels of histamine that are too low. Histamine is an important neurotransmitter involved in regulating sleep, pain sensitivity, sex drive, digestion, mood, tear production, and immune response. Low histamine, also known as histapenia, can result in a wide array of symptoms and problems as well like irritability, grandiose plans, visual or auditory hallucinations, and paranoia.
There are many other possible copper toxicity symptoms in the body that may include hair loss, anemia, arthritis, hypertension, neuralgia, headaches, PMS, anorexia, fibromyalgia, allergies, kidney damage, brain and liver damage, high levels of oxidative stress and more. However, it’s important to note, that there are many other contributing factors to each of these conditions. If one is treated for anemia, but it doesn’t improve, then you need to look at copper.
How to Measure Copper Toxicity in the Body
Assessing the presence of elevated copper can be a complex matter and should be done with the assistance of a skilled practitioner. There are a variety of methods that may be used depending on your practitioner’s preferences, which include the blood, hair, urine, and feces.
Common methods to measure copper toxicity in the body include an RBC mineral test, blood ceruloplasmin, a hair analysis, and a urine chelation challenge. However, one must understand how to interpret these results accurately, as it is not always a black and white situation.
For example, copper may not deposit in hair, but other indicators in a hair analysis may indicate a copper imbalance. High levels of copper in the hair may indicate that the individual is a good excretor, rather than toxicity and low levels of copper could indicate a poor excretor. In rare cases, such as Wilson’s disease, a liver biopsy may be used. The ceruloplasmin and copper ratio are very important.
Sometimes elevated copper can be seen in rings in the eyes, called Kayser-Fleischer rings.
It is crucial that one knows how to detox copper from the body appropriately before taking action because the wrong steps can actually exacerbate the condition.
Additionally, it is also vital to be aware that one may feel worse before they feel better when detoxing from copper toxicity. As the copper is mobilized and exits through the detoxification channels it can produce a wide variety of symptoms like headaches, racing thoughts, skin conditions, mood swings, impaired digestion, and increased fatigue. If symptoms are severe, then one may need to slow down the process.
Again, one should be under the care of a knowledgeable physician before and during detoxing for copper.
1. The first and most important step for reducing elevated copper levels is to eliminate the source. Identify where the excess copper is coming from and get rid of it.
2. Think Zinc. As we mentioned earlier, zinc and copper have an intimate symbiotic relationship. The supplementation of zinc alone can often bring copper levels into balance. After the elimination of the source, this is the first and most important step in the copper detox process. You might want to note, that when possible, zinc monomethionine is a more potent form of zinc. Zinc is what removes excess copper in the body most naturally and efficiently.
3. Increase other copper antagonists, which include molybdenum, sulfur, manganese, selenium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and E.
4. Drink lots of water to keep the copper moving.
5. Saunas, steam baths or anything that increases sweating will be helpful.
6. Coffee enemas or plain water enemas can also be helpful in elimination.
7. Enhance the egress points of elimination in the body, which include, the skin, liver, kidneys, and colon.
8. Reduce or avoid foods high in copper. Most foods contain some level copper, however, the following list contains the highest levels:
- leafy greens
- sunflower seeds
- sesame seeds
- organ meats like liver
9. Eat more foods that are high in zinc, which include:
- Pumpkin seeds
(Meat must be grass-fed and free-range to avoid growth hormones and antibiotics and for proper omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio.)
10. Epsom salt baths. Epsom salt pulls out heavy metals.
12. Address adrenal health.
13. Practice deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, Qigong or other similar techniques to turn off the overstimulated sympathetic nervous system and enhance copper detox. These practices will also help decrease stress which is also important for improving the health of the adrenal glands.
14. Get physical exercise. Mild and gentle, not excessive.
15. Chlorella supplementation can be helpful. Cilantro may also be used, but it must not be used until later in the copper detox process after all other steps have been taken, as it can drive the metal even deeper if used too soon.
16. Identify whether methylation is an issue for you and address accordingly. One of the best sources to learn about methylation is in a book called, Autism: Pathways for Recovery by Dr. Amy Yasko.
Synthetic chelators, like Penicillamine, may be called for in some extreme cases, but copper can usually be reduced more effectively, gently and safely without the use of synthetic chelators. Penicillamine is associated with a variety of side effects like liver and kidney damage, blurred vision and ringing in the ears.
Additionally, Teresa, I suggest you read the following page to learn about the many other factors that can contribute to Tourette’s.
It is vital to be aware that although copper toxicity and its accompanying symptoms can be highly debilitating, it is equally important to be careful not to bring the levels down too low or to cause zinc to go too high, as this can be just as detrimental to one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Remember that balance is the key.
Nutrition and Mental Illness: An Orthomolecular Approach to Balancing Body Chemistry. Dr. Carl C. Pfeiffer.
Depression Free Naturally. Joan Mathews-Larson, Ph.D. Ballantine Publishing Group, 2001.
Dr. Charles Gant, Webinars at the Academy of Functional Medicine and Genomics
Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine (Lord & Bralley) 2008.
Dr. Lawrence Wilson, Copper Toxicity Syndrome
Autism: Pathways for Recovery, Dr. Amy Yasko.