Copper and zinc are two of the most important minerals needed by our bodies. Both of these minerals can be naturally supplemented by the food we eat and the water we drink. These minerals work hand in hand in many bodily functions like immune and nervous system response and proper digestion.
However, many people tend to forget the need to achieve balance when it comes to copper and zinc. In this article, we discuss one of the most commonly observed mineral imbalances in clinical practice, copper and zinc's individual functions in the body, the factors that affect copper and zinc balance, and how to balance copper and zinc intake.
Functions of Zinc in the Body
Zinc is considered one of the most important trace elements in the body. Within the past five decades of scientific research, it has been determined that there are more than 3,000 zinc proteins present in the body. Later discoveries have linked zinc's importance to the proper functioning of more than 300 enzymes and 1,000 different kinds of proteins essential for coding human DNA.
The most prominent processes for which zinc is an essential ingredient include DNA coding, cell division, anti-oxidation, brain growth and development, immune system function, protein synthesis and wound healing. Zinc-deficient newborns can have birth defects and metabolic disorders, and in older people zinc deficiency can be linked to learning disabilities, mental sluggishness, delayed wound healing, diarrhea, growth retardation, hair loss, eye and skin lesions, poor immune function, weight loss, impotence, as well as depression and anxiety.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board, the average recommended dietary allowance of zinc is 11 mg/day for adult males (14 to 70 years old and above) and 8 mg/day for adult females (14 to 70 years old and above). Other life stage groups such as infants, pregnant and lactating women, and children have varying zinc requirements. The body stores zinc for only a short period of time before it gets excreted through urine and fecal matter, so it is important to have a continuous zinc intake.
Functions of Copper in the Body
According to research, copper plays a pivotal role in the different chemical processes of the body. Processes such as oxidation reduction (or the transfer of electrons between living cells), iron absorption, defense against oxidative stress (which happens when the amount of free radicals overwhelms repair processes of the body) and immune function all require copper. Additionally, copper contributes to carbohydrate metabolism and is found in the tissues of body parts such as the liver, brain, kidneys and hair.
Although rare, copper deficiency can occur and cause a decline in mental performance, as well as create mood and behavioral disorders. In fact, a recent study correlates sufficient copper intake with the normal formation of brain neurotransmitters in the nervous system. Clinical signs of copper deficiency may include anemia (the type that is unresponsive to iron supplementation), an abnormally low number of white blood cells (neutropenia), osteoporosis and other bone development abnormalities.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board, the average recommended dietary allowance of copper for both adult men and women (19 to 70 years old and above) is 900 ug/day. Other life stage groups such as infants and children have lower copper requirements, while pregnant and lactating women have higher copper requirements.
Risk Factors and Symptoms of Copper and Zinc Imbalance
Zinc deficiency is more common than copper deficiency. Some people are also more likely to have copper overload compared to others, especially people who have or are suffering from chronic stress, slow metabolism, adrenal insufficiency or high estrogen levels.
According to research, the ideal zinc to copper ratio is 8:1, with an acceptable range from 4:1 to 12:1. Maintaining this ratio is essential to maintaining good health. Although there is no quick way to determine your zinc to copper ratio aside from conducting laboratory tests, assessing symptoms can be a good way to determine whether you may possibility have a copper to zinc imbalance. The following, which were enumerated in recent research studies, are the most likely symptoms of copper and zinc imbalance:
- Age related macular degeneration;
- Frequent panic attacks and headaches;
- Mental lethargy or chronic fatigue;
- Emotional disturbances;
- Slow recovery rate from wounds;
- Skin problems such as blisters and roughness;
- High rate of chronic infections and sickness;
- Gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea;
- Reduced appetite and weight loss; and
- Night blindness.
The same research also found that when an 8:1 zinc to copper ratio is properly achieved, zinc may help block excess copper intake and absorption.
Copper to Zinc Ratio in Relation to Areas of Health
A balanced copper to zinc ratio plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system, and a lack of balance can potentially act as an early indicator of certain health disorders. First, the ratio can be used as a measurement of a person's oxidative stress levels. In fact, a recent study revealed that the body becomes unable to produce superoxide dismutase, an enzyme primarily responsible for fighting oxidative stress, when there is an imbalance between copper and zinc. The same study also found that zinc levels drop significantly during a chronic illness.
Proper copper to zinc ratio is also vital to brain health. A recent study correlated Alzheimer's disease to high levels of copper and relatively low levels of zinc. The findings were made by screening approximately 407 different scientific investigations from 1978, 44 of which met all of the inclusion criteria. Statistically, it has been found that there is a stronger relationship between copper and zinc levels and Alzheimer's disease, as compared to iron and zinc levels and Alzheimer's disease.
ADHD and ASD in children are also correlated to a higher copper to zinc ratio. A recent study investigated the relationship between the levels of certain trace elements like copper, zinc, selenium, lead, as well as the copper to zinc ratio using 108 children, 58 of which were diagnosed with ADHD. The study found that there were lower levels of zinc and a higher copper to zinc ratio in children with ADHD compared to the healthy group, indicating a relationship between copper and zinc levels and ADHD.
A different study was conducted using 120 children, 60 of which were children with ASD, to determine the relationship between a copper to zinc ratio and ASD. It was concluded that there is a strong relationship between the severity of autism and increased copper to zinc ratio, as researchers found that children with ASD had a significantly higher average serum level of copper and a lower average serum level of zinc compared to the healthy group.
More studies have been conducted suggesting that having a high copper to zinc ratio can influence other areas of health, particularly that of elderly people.
How to Balance Zinc and Copper Intake
It is essential to consult with a health provider if you suspect that you have a copper and zinc imbalance. By doing so, you will have a clearer picture of your current mineral balance status. There are also various tests available, such as serum, urine and hair mineral analysis.
In addition to consulting with a health provider, you may also start making positive lifestyle changes to maintain your health and resolve any issues. Keep in mind that it is important to make such changes cautiously and with the advice of your health provider, as everyone has a unique physiology.
Here are the things you can do to balance your copper and zinc intake:
1. Increase or decrease your intake of the following copper-rich foods, as needed: liver, seeds (sesame and sunflower), oysters, cocoa powder, beans (soybeans, adzuki, kidney, white and mung beans), nuts (cashew, brazil, pine and hazelnuts), lentils and buckwheat.
2. Increase zinc intake by asking a certified health provider about zinc supplements. Avoid consuming substances that deplete zinc such as alcohol, sugar and grains.
3. Increase or decrease your intake of the following zinc-rich foods, as needed: oysters, organic grass-fed beef, seeds (sesame, pumpkin and sunflower), beans (adzuki, navy, black and white), wild rice, nuts (peanuts, pine and cashew), teff, split peas and lentils.
4. Manage your stress levels to maintain optimum health of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands work hand in hand with the liver in producing ceruloplasmin, which is an enzyme that binds with copper and transports it within the body through blood plasma.
5. Make sure you are consuming other essential nutrients that can be taken to help deal with excess copper intake, such as manganese, vitamin A, C and B6. Antioxidants such as alpha-lipoic acid and glutathione may also help in removing excess copper from the body. The body's glutathione levels play an important part in immune health and detoxification. When there is a high copper to zinc ratio, the body’s natural ability to produce this antioxidant is decreased.
As you may have noticed, many of the foods listed above contain both copper and zinc and have a good ratio of both minerals. For instance, a 100-gram serving of Brazil nuts contains approximately 4.7 mg of zinc and 2 mg of copper. Eating these foods in moderation can help maintain a healthy copper and zinc balance.
Zinc and copper are essential minerals that work hand in hand for many different beneficial processes of the body. Consuming them and making them a part of your regular diet is important; but bear in mind that it is also important to maintain a proper ratio to avoid any potential health issues. To do so, always make sure to get adequate amounts of each mineral, primarily from natural sources. Lastly, if you feel that you have a zinc and copper imbalance, it is best to consult with a health professional as soon as possible, as there are many tests available that can accurately assess both your zinc and copper serum levels.