COPPER: We can't live without it


Copper is one of the relatively small group of metallic elements which are essential for human health. These elements, along with amino and fatty acids as well as vitamins are required for normal metabolic process. However, as the body cannot synthesize copper; the human diet must supply regular amounts for absorption.


The adult body contains between 1.4 mg and 2.1 mg of copper per kilogram of body weight. Hence a healthy human weighing 60 kilogram contains approximately a tenth of one gram of copper. However, this small amount is essential to the overall human well-being.


  • Copper combines with certain proteins to produce enzymes that act as catalysts to help a number of body functions.

  •  Some help provide energy required by biochemical reactions. 

  • Others are involved in the transformation of melanin for pigmentation of the skin and 

  • Still others help to form cross-links in collagen and elastin and thereby maintain and repair connective tissues. This is especially important for the heart and arteries. Research suggests that copper deficiency is one factor leading to an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural Administration (FAA) are likely to suggest that the population mean intake of copper should not exceed 10mg/day for adult females.


Copper is essential for life, which means that the human body must have copper to stay healthy. In fact, for a variety of biochemical processes in the body to operate normally, copper must be a part of our diet. Copper is needed for certain critical enzymes to function in the body. Too little copper in the body can actually lead to disease. These enzymes are involved with energy metabolism - the way that the body gives you the energy to function. In addition, copper is involved in the functioning of the nervous system, in maintaining the balance of other useful metals in the body such as zinc and molybdenum and possibly other functions. Scientists around the globe are continually learning more about the body's need for copper and its benefits in the normal diet.


What are the main sources of intake of copper in daily living? The main source of copper in infants, children and adults, regardless of age, is the diet. Copper is a natural ingredient in many foods. Copper is typically present in mineral rich foods like vegetables (potato), legumes (beans and peas), nuts (peanuts and pecans), grains (wheat and rye), fruits (peach and raisin) and, yes even chocolate. 

Copper is natural element found in the earth's crust. As a result, most of the world's surface water and ground water that is used for drinking purposes contains copper. The actual amount varies from region to region, 

depending on how much is present in the earth, but in almost all cases the amount of copper in water is extremely low. Naturally occurring copper in drinking water is safe for human consumption, even in rare instances where it is at levels high enough to impart a metallic taste to the water. Copper tubing that carries residential tap water properly regulated for its chemical composition can also be a source of copper in drinking water under very specific conditions. 

Dust and particles Copper is used in many consumer products. In a small number of these products, copper is released during the course of their normal use. An example is copper in roadway dust, shed from automobile brakes during their normal use. Copper cookware. Certain foods prepared and left to sit for an extended period of time in unprotected copper cookware may contain copper transferred from the cookware surface. Modern day copper cookware, which usually has an inner cooking surface of another material like tin or stainless steel, does not release copper and is safe for use in food preparation.


Like all substances, excessive copper can make people ill when ingested. Copper toxicity in humans takes the form of stomach upset, nausea and diarrhea and stops when the high copper source is removed. These effects are noted at copper levels far in excess of the World Health Organization limits for copper in drinking water. In extremely rare cases, particularly among those people with rare genetic conditions, copper can be more toxic, adversely affecting various bodily functions and organs. Though research, we continue to learn what happens to copper in the body. The strong scientific opinion is that small amounts of copper in drinking water are not a human health hazard. An expert panel of the World Health Organization has concluded that copper deficiency is much more of a global problem than copper toxicity. 


People with poor diets, often including the elderly not able to care for themselves and people in place where it is hard to get good nutrition, may not take in enough copper to meet the body's needs. In addition, a small number of people in rare case have genetic sensitivities that make in difficult for them to either absorb copper when the body needs it (Menke's Disease) or get rid of it when the body does not need it (Wilson's Disease). We now can define the genetic bases of these diseases. And, contrary to common myth, the fetus, infants and children are not particularly susceptible to copper toxicity. In fact, the fetus, late in development, actually stores copper in preparation for nutritional needs after birth. Recent research has revealed that the very young have special biochemical mechanisms for adequately managing copper in the body while their permanent life-long mechanisms develop and mature. 

Copper is an essential nutrient required by the body in daily dietary amounts of 1 to 2 milligrams for adults (1/2 to 1 milligram for children). This can be obtained by eating normal amounts of the copper-rich foods. For the general population, copper is not toxic during the normal course of daily life. Certain individuals (those with Wilson's Disease or Menke's Disease) need to be vigilant about monitoring the levels of copper in their bodies and managing it in consultation with their physicians. 


There can be little doubt that copper plays a major part in the rate of fetal growth and early post-natal development. It is likely that full-term infants are able to withstand the stresses of a mildly copper deficient diet for several months after birth, whereas, in contrast, premature infants with reduced storage of liver copper are much more likely to develop copper deficiency. 

Chronic diarrhoea can be predisposing cause of

copper deficiency as was the case in the study of malnourished young children in Peru in which copper supplements modulated, but did not correct, the severity of the deficiency. 

The WHO recommend that infants receive 80 mg copper kg per day and older children 40 mg; these levels are to be contrasted with the accumulation of copper by the human fetus between 28 and 36 weeks gestation of about 50 mg per kg per day and the supply of 80ug Cu per kg per day by 200 ml per day human breast milk, in contrast 200 ml of cow's milk would supply only about 25 mg Cu. 

The provision of such amounts of copper to the fetus and in milk means that daily intakes of copper during pregnancy and breast feeding should be 3-4 mg per day.

Women on oral contraceptives have considerably increased serum copper concentrations (double normal) and accumulate more copper, which curiously is likely to be beneficial in the event of pregnancy. Release of copper from intrauterine contraceptive devices containing copper has been shown to be significant amounting to about 10 mg copper per year.

The rapid accumulation of copper in the least three months of pregnancy means that consideration should be given to treating all premature infants with small doses of copper for several months to prevent copper deficiency.

Infants who become copper deficient due to the exclusive consumption of cows milk or of a copper-free diet are reported to develop hypo-chromic anemia microcytic anemia, hypoferraemia and hypoproteinaemia. Growing children have a high requirement for copper which can not usually be met by cows milk. It is thought that the disturbances to blood formation are mainly due to defects in iron transport in the gastrointestinal tract induced by copper deficiency, dramatic reversal of the symptoms is reported following oral administration of copper.

Designed and Developed by WF Team and updated on 15th August, 2001.