Copper is a key mineral in many different body systems. It is central to building strong tissue, maintaining blood volume, and producing energy in your cells. Yet, for all its critical importance, you don’t have much copper in your body.
In the foods we commonly eat, there are only very small amounts of copper. As much as any dietary mineral, the amount of copper you eat is directly related to the amounts of minimally processed plant foods you get every day.
Copper is one of the co-factors for one form of an enzyme called superoxide dismutase (SOD). SOD is one of the major antioxidant enzymes in the body. As a measure of how important SOD is, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—is thought to be the result of an underfunctioning (SOD) enzyme.
From recent studies where young volunteers were fed a copper-depleted diet, reduced SOD function was an early result. In fact, these changes were apparent within the first month of the experimental diet.
In more advanced cases of copper deficiency, including people who have undergone gastric bypass surgery, this loss of antioxidant protection over a period of years can lead to irreversible damage to the nervous system. However, this does not appear to occur without the types of unusual deficiency risks detailed below.
Copper is required to manufacture collagen, a major structural protein in the body. When copper deficiency becomes severe, tissue integrity—particularly bones and blood vessels—can begin to break down.
Luckily, it appears at the present time that a very severe and prolonged dietary deficiency of copper is necessary to lead to overt problems. For example, premature babies with immature gastrointestinal tracts can develop bone problems related to copper deficiency.
Copper plays two key roles in energy production. First, it helps with incorporation of iron into red blood cells, preventing anemia. Second, it is involved with generation of energy from carbohydrates inside of cells.
Each of these uses of copper also requires iron, and for this reason, the symptoms of copper deficiency can mimic those of low iron intake. Lentils, and sesame seeds are examples of foods rich in both iron and copper.
Animal studies have demonstrated that copper-deficient diets lead to increases in blood cholesterol levels. In humans, this appears to be true in some situations, but not all. This should not be a surprise, as human diets are much more varied than those of laboratory animals. Interestingly, the effect of copper deficiency appears to be through increased activity of an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase—the same enzyme targeted by the most commonly prescribed cholesterol medications.