No- we aren’t talking about this Copper ‘Tone’! But we will discuss how copper colors the skin, hair, and eyes and how it ‘tones’ our skin below!


(contributed by Ashley Patterson and Julie Conant)

There are abundant amounts of information about the top vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin C, Vitamin B12, folic acid, and potassium that most of us health conscious people come across each day. But what about the trace minerals? For instance, copper, the third least profuse mineral in the body. Sure it is only in the body in small amounts, but plays a crucial role in many biochemical functions. With this post, the goal is to inform the readers of just how important this minute trace mineral, copper, really is!

Copper is an essential micronutrient and trace element found in the blood. According to Krause’s Food & Nutrition Therapy, “highest concentrations are found in the liver, brain, heart, and kidney while the muscle itself has little copper, skeletal muscle contains almost 40% of all copper in the body” (Mahan & Escott-Stump, 2008). It has many different and important functions which we will discuss below. We will also cover dietary recommendations, good sources of dietary copper, and the dangers of both copper toxicity and deficiency.

Atomic Structure of Copper

provided by Ashley Patterson

Atomic Structure of Copper (Cu) contributed by Ashley Patterson

Chemical Formula: Cu

Atomic Number: 29 (Protons: 29, Electrons 29, Neutrons: 35)

Molecular Mass: 63.55 grams

Biochemical/Metabolic Functions

(contributed by Julie Conant)

  1. Energy Production: cytochrome c oxidase (-ase = enzyme) is used to produce ATP (think of this as your body’s fuel source) in the mitochondria
  2. Connective Tissue Formation: lysyl oxidase (another enzyme, folks) is used to link collagen and elastin. Ladies, especially, should know how important collagen and elastin is to keep our skin looking firm and youthful. Copper helps to keep the skin tone, in a sense. This enzyme may also help in preventing osteoporosis but much further research needs to be done.
  3. Iron Metabolism: ferroxidase I and ferroxidase II (remember Fe for Iron like you see on the supplement bottles as ferrous something or other?) is oxidized to ferrous iron which is transported to form red blood cells.
  4. Central Nervous System:
  • Neurotransmitter synthesis and metabolism: used to convert dopamine to norepinephrine. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is used in metabolizing norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine. MAO also degrades serotonin.
  • Formation and maintenance of myelin sheath: Remember cytochrome c oxidase we mentioned a minute ago? It’s used in the synthesis of myelin sheath (that’s the important insulating material that wraps around the axon so that electrical messages can be sent efficiently).
  1. Melanin Formation: required for melanin, a pigment that colors the hair, skin, and eyes. As the name of this post suggests, copper has tones and colors parts of the body.
  2. Antioxidant functions:
  • Superoxide dismutase: Ah, another important enzyme. SOD converts free radicals eventually to water to be excreted from the body.
  • Ceruloplasmin: binds with free copper ions (nomads that are hanging around causing oxidative damage). It also oxidizes ferrous iron to keep free ferrous iron ions from roaming around the body also causing free radical havoc. It also appears to help transport iron to bone marrow to make red blood cells.
  1. Regulation of gene expression: copper levels in the body may affect how proteins on specific genes are expressed. An important aspect of this ability is that it may affect proteins that regulate the storage of copper in cells.
  2. Nutrient interactions:
  • Iron:needs copper for efficient metabolism and red blood cell formation.
  • Zinc: may cause copper deficiency by binding and trapping copper in intestinal cells so they cannot be absorbed.
  • Fructose: animal studies may suggest that fructose can deplete copper in the body but human studies don’t seem to indicate the same result. In other words, a high fructose diet doesn’t appear to cause copper deficiency in humans or pigs (in rats, on the other hand, it might).
  • Vitamin C: some studies have shown that Vitamin C may decrease ceruloplasmin oxidase but they didn’t show any deficiency in copper itself, interestingly enough.

Dietary Reference Intakes

(contributed by Julie Conant)

Recommended Daily Allowance (ug/d) Upper Limit (ug/d)
0 – 6 months 200 No Data
7 – 12 months 220 No Data
1 -3 years 340 1,000
4 – 8 years 440 3,000
9 – 13 years 700 5,000
14 – 18 years 890 8,000
19 – 30 years 900 10,000
31- 50 years 900 10,000
50 – 70 years 900 10,000
>70 years 900 10,000
9 – 13 years 700 5,000
14 – 18 years 890 8,000
19 – 30 years 900 10,000
31- 50 years 900 10,000
50 – 70 years 900 10,000
>70 years 900 10,000
14 – 18 years 1,000 8,000
19 – 30 years 1,000 10,000
31 – 50 years 1,000 10,000
14 – 18 years 1,300 8,000
19 – 30 years 1,300 10,000
31 – 50 years 1,300 10,000

Table adapted from information from:

Dietary Sources

(contributed by Julie Conant)

Food Serving Copper (mcg)
Liver, kidneys, heart (beef), cooked 1 ounce 4,049
Oysters, cooked 1 medium oyster 670
Clams, cooked 3 ounces 585
Crab meat, cooked 3 ounces 624
Cashews 1 ounce 629
Sunflower seeds 1 ounce 519
Hazelnuts 1 ounce 496
Almonds 1 ounce 332
Peanut butter (chunky) 2 tablespoons 185
Lentils, cooked 1 cup 497
Mushrooms, raw 1 cup (sliced) 344
Shredded wheat cereal 2 biscuits 167
Chocolate (semisweet) 1 ounce 198
Hot cocoa mix 1 ounce (1 packet) 93

Table provided from:

One Major Biochemical Reaction

(contributed by Ashley Patterson)

Antioxidant Functions of Copper

Cells are susceptible to a number of free radicals per day. Copper is a crucial antioxidant to prevent damage. Superoxide dismutase (SOD) is an enzyme that contains copper. There are three types of this enzyme including SOD1 (cytoplasm), SOD2 (mitochondria), and SOD3 (extracellular). This enzyme’s function is to extinguish superoxide, which is produced from daily metabolic activity, in all cells that are exposed to oxygen. Superoxide is converted to hydrogen peroxide which can then be reduced to water. The destruction of superoxide inhibits harm to blood vessels and the central nervous system. SOD may play a huge role in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease by reducing inflammation.  Copper also plays a role as an antioxidant to ward off damage to DNA and premature aging. SOD is added to some cosmetic products to decrease damage to the skin from free radicals. Research indicates that injections of SOD may be effective in treating osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and interstitial cystitis.

Diseases/Disorders caused by a Deficiency of Copper

  1. Toxicity-related Disorders (contributed by Ashley Patterson)

  • Wilson’s Disease is a genetic disorder in which the body cannot remove copper from the body causing it to build up mainly in the liver, brain, and kidneys. One sign of Wilson’s disease is a brown ring around the iris where copper pigments have deposited around the eye. The reason for over accumulation is the lack of the production by the liver of a key protein, ceruloplasmin, which transports copper through the body. Results of Wilson’s disease can be fatal if left untreated causing liver cirrhosis or neurological disorders. Treatment includes lifelong avoidance of foods high in copper as well as administering a copper chelating agent to remove it from the body through urinary excretion.
  • Miscellaneous information about higher levels of copper:

May cause cardiovascular abnormalities and/or damage and increase atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease but further research needs to be done.

Excessive intakes through leaching of pipes or copper cookware may lead to abdominal pains, cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and liver damage.

Copper toxicity when paired with a zinc deficiency may lead to head aches, joint pain, autism, schizophrenia, hypertension, fatigue, and hyperactivity but further research is required to prove these relationships.

  1. Deficiency-related Issues (contributed by Julie Conant)
  • Menkes disease: a genetic disorder which causes dangerously low levels of copper. Infants born with this disorder have low numbers of white blood cells (neutrophils) to fight off infections. When those with Menkes are given copper supplementation, their immune responses generally improve.
  • Miscellaneous information about copper deficiency:

Relatively rare

Might be caused by consuming too much zinc over a prolonged period of time

Impairs iron metabolism and may cause ‘copper-deficiency anemia’

Appears as anemia that doesn’t respond to iron therapy but does respond to copper therapy

May result from low levels of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell (this deficiency is known as neutropenia)

High-risk individuals for copper deficiencies include:

  • Low-birth weight infants and young children born with copper deficiency
  • Infants and children fed formula from only cow’s milk (which is low in copper)
  • Infants and adults with osteoporosis
  • Premature infants
  • Those who are malnourished for a variety of reasons:
  1. Long bouts of diarrhea
  2. Malabsorption syndromes: Celiac sprue, Crohn’s, Short Bowel Syndrome
  3. Those with heavily restricted diets or are receiving IV nutrition such as Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN)
  4. Those with cystic fibrosis

(Contributed by Ashley Patterson and Julie Conant) Answers will be provided later in a new post after you have been given time to figure it out on your own!

  1. Copper is the _____ least abundant mineral in the body.
  2. Can zinc cause copper deficiency?
  3. How many forms of the enzyme Superoxide dismutase (SOD) are present in the body?
  4. Should infants who consume formula from only cow’s milk be concerned about copper toxicity or deficiency?
  5. What type of symptoms can the use of copper cookware produce?
  6. True or False: Hot cocoa, Shredded Wheat Cereal, and Peanut butter are sources of copper?
  7. What condition lead to excess build up of copper in the brain, kidneys, and the liver?
  8. Does copper help my skin get a lovely ‘copper’ tone?
  9. What is superoxide converted to before it is reduced to water?
  10. Does copper help to alleviate Depression?

Works Cited

Cowan, R, Gaw, A, Murphy, M, Shepherd, F, & Stewart, M. (2008). Clinical biochemistry. Philadelphia: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. (2001). Dietary Reference Intakes: Elements. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from Institute of Medicine of the National Academies:

Libonati, C. (2010, July 28). Understanding copper deficiency in celiac disease. Retrieved from

Mahan, L. K., & Escott-Stump, S. (2008). Krause’s Food & Nutrition Therapy. St. Louis, MO: SAUNDERS Elsevier.

Sutton, M. L., Vusirikala, M. M., & Chen, M. P. (191 – 199 2009). Hematogone Hyperplasica in Copper Deficiency. American Journal of Clinical Pathology, 191 – 199.

The Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. (2007, July). Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Research for Optimum Health: Copper. Retrieved October 15, 2010, from Oregon State University:

Answers to the Quiz

  1. 3rd
  2. Zinc over long periods of time by cause copper deficiency by binding with the copper and not allowing it to be absorbed.
  3. 3: SOD1, SOD2, and SOD3
  4. Yes. Infants and children who consume formulas made only from cow’s milk are at a higher risk for copper deficiency because cow’s milk is low in copper.
  5. Abdominal pains, cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and liver damage
  6. True! Please refer to the table above for sources of copper.
  7. Hydrogen Peroxide
  8. Well yes and no. Copper, maybe, but it really depends on your personal skin tone. Copper does help form melanin, a pigment that colors your skin, hair, and eyes.
  9. Answer
  10. Copper may because it is used to convert dopamine to norepinephrine. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is used in metabolizing norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine. MAO also degrades serotonin (remember hearing about MAO inhibitors when seeing commercials for antidepressants?).

Just for fun!Video Clip from HOUSE on Wilson’s Disease: