Copper And Zinc Imbalance
Copper and zinc are essential nutrients necessary to sustain the health and function of the human body. These two metal compounds naturally exist in the environment around us including our food and water but can pose major health complications if they are concentrated in our bodies inadequately.
Up until 1963, clinicians did not even question the possibility that zinc deficiency may cause serious health symptoms nevertheless pose a fatal threat (5). Since then, an increasing rate of chronic illness and disease has caused researchers to further investigate how both metal toxicity and deficiency affect our health and wellbeing.
Symptoms of a copper and zinc imbalance are plentiful and can lead to total body dysfunction if left untreated. Learn if your symptoms are signs that a low copper and high zinc nutrition plan can improve your quality of life. You can test your copper to zinc ratio through a simple hair mineral analysis.
Function of Zinc
Only within the past 50 years have scientist begun to unravel and learn that zinc serves the role of numerous biological interactions needed to sustain life. Once thought to have only affected the function of 3 enzymes required for metabolism, researchers have learned that zinc is one of the most important trace elements associated with the proper function of more than 300 enzymes and over 1,000 different types of proteins necessary for reading DNA. (5)
Some of the biochemical responsibilities associated with zinc includes: (1)
- Enzyme function
- Nucleic acid metabolism required for the necessary coding of DNA and a series of physiological processes
- Cell signaling most importantly designed to defend the body from both real and perceived threats
- Apoptosis, referred to as programmed cellular death
Yet what do these responsibilities look like from a physiological perspective? Zinc is required for the following tasks: (1)
- Growth and development
- Lipid metabolism which in most simplistic terms can be thought of as necessary fat storage for energy and support in cells
- Brain function
- Immune system regulation
Function of Copper
Copper is a trace mineral also necessary for the healthy functioning of the human body. Copper is responsible for enzyme function, the metabolism of carbohydrates and is primarily found in the liver, brain tissue, kidneys and hair (2, 5, 7). Although researchers continue to learn about the effects of variable levels of copper in the body, the increase in metabolic complications and cognitive illnesses has scientists focusing attention to the effects of the metal on the brain.
You may know it best as the stress hormone, but norepinephrine is a vital hormone and neurotransmitter which enables our bodies to react and respond in threatening circumstances. Norepinephrine has also been implicated as a necessary anti-inflammatory agent in stimulating brain cells found to be lacking in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (9). In order to create norepinephrine, copper is required (2).
Relationship Between Zinc and Copper
Zinc and copper compete against one another as antagonist in order to properly regulate the physiological pathways in your body. The proper balance between the two trace minerals is critical to maintaining health.
Unlike zinc, copper can readily accumulate in the body into toxic concentrations. In order to maintain adequate zinc levels, a higher dose of zinc compared to copper is required daily. Zinc is only stored for short durations in the blood and bone and is quickly excreted through our urine and fecal matter. (7)
Ideally, nutritional biochemist Dr. Paul Eck recommends that the proper intake of copper to zinc should be a 1:8 ratio (8). When properly concentrated in the right balance, zinc behaves like the bigger brother blocking copper in food and in the body from being absorbed (5).
Signs of a Copper and Zinc Imbalance
A variety of health concerns may be signs that you have a copper and zinc imbalance. Currently based on the average American’s diet, it is most likely that people are experiencing symptoms resulting from elevated copper levels and a deficiency in zinc. Do you have any of the following symptoms? (5, 8)
- Night blindness
- Age related macular degeneration
- Emotional disturbances
- Frequent panic attacks and headaches
- A slow recovery rate from healing ulcers, wounds and even stretch marks
- A high rate of chronic infections and sickness
- Mental lethargy or chronic fatigue
- Gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea
- Reduced appetite and weight loss
- Skin problems such as blisters and roughness
These symptoms may be an indication that your homeostatic balance is not properly functioning. Without attention, an imbalance of copper and zinc can lead to mental, physical, physiological, and emotional illness and disease.
Anxiety and Pyroluria
One of the most common psychiatric disorders in the United States is anxiety affecting an estimated 30% of Americans. Chronic anxiety is known to cause greater health concerns such as increased blood pressure, depression and lowered immunity. Zinc therapy has been shown to treat symptoms of anxiety. (1)
Pyroluria is a unique metabolic condition characterized by extremely low zinc status. It is considered by many in the functional medicine world the most common unknown disorder. Pyrolurics need a specific diet, lifestyle and supplementation program to get well.
The symptoms of pyroluria include chronic anxiety, poor stress tolerance, digestive issues, poor immunity, joint pain, acne or eczema, mood swings and poor short term memory. These individuals often have difficulty digesting and absorbing protein and they are easily wrecked by increasing stress.
Copper and Zinc Imbalance And Depression
Just like a domino effect, there is a theme in the maintenance of health and the destruction of it. Associated with anxiety, 35 million Americans alone are believed to suffer depression within their lifetime (3). Researchers who analyzed levels of zinc and copper in depressed and anxious individuals found an interesting correlation between the two minerals.
Individuals diagnosed with depression alone but with no symptoms of anxiety had decreased levels of zinc. Those patients experiencing both depression and anxiety were not only deficient in zinc but they also have high concentrations of copper in their bodies.
Remember, copper stimulates the synthesis of the excitatory hormone, norepinephrine. If the flood of copper overwhelms zinc concentrations, anxiety may develop when checks and balances go unattended. (3)
Zinc Deficiency Lowers Immunity
Both depressed and anxious people are at a great risk of developing chronic immune infections and illnesses associated with inflammation such as cardiovascular disease (3). These health struggles are activated by oxidative stress.
Zinc shows antioxidant properties by preventing liver damage in alcoholics and regulating GABA and glutamate. Both GABA and glutamate are essential to the central nervous system. Coupled together they provide appropriate nerve impulses, and control the ability of cells to reproduce. Low levels of zinc reduce GABA and glutamate thereby triggering health consequences reliant on healthy liver function and cellular immunity. (1)
Copper and Zinc Imbalance in Autism
Researchers continue to dig deeper into the neurodevelopmental complications affecting individuals with autism. Zinc therapy can improve zinc concentrations and aid in the detoxification of copper from tissue. Already found to have success in treating symptoms of anxiety and immune dysfunction, is it also possible that autistic individuals can benefit from a healthy balance of copper and zinc?
Clinical studies have found that an increase in copper and decrease in zinc is directly correlated to the severity of symptoms associated with autism. A reduction in GABA and glutamate as noted in individuals with abnormal immune responses is believed to aggravate symptoms of autism and cause changes across the central nervous system.
The concentrations of the amino acid, GABA, and neurotransmitter, glutamate are disrupted by a deficiency in zinc and high levels of copper. Furthermore, an increase in copper known to cause excitability may be to blame for the hyperactivity symptoms of individuals with autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). (2)
Zinc Deficiency Can Cause Birth Defects
Low zinc concentrations in a developing fetus has been found to increase the risk of low birth weight (7). Pregnant women have a high daily zinc recommendation because of their feeding requirements to a developing fetus.
As mentioned, zinc is a critical nutrient required for growth and development which in animal studies was found to cause fatality in newborns when zinc remained absent from diet (5).
Zinc Deficiency Causes Metabolic Problems
Acrodermatitis enteropathica (AE): AE is a metabolic disorder that is characterized by zinc deficiency. This disorder is typically diagnosed shortly after birth in which these individuals are more likely to experience congenital malformations, emotional disturbances, problems gaining weight, lactose intolerance and further malabsorption problems. Left untreated without zinc supplementation, AE can lead to fatality. (5)
Zinc Therapy For Major Health Problems
Studies have shown that the treatment of zinc therapy to individuals faced with a variety of health struggles is effective. Zinc treatment has successfully improved the health of people with the following problems: (5, 6)
- Sexual Ability
- Wilson’s Disease
- Macular degeneration
- Common cold symptoms
- Sickle-cell disease
Balancing your Copper and Zinc Levels
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has developed dietary recommendations for both copper and zinc intake. They recommend anywhere from 2 mg to 13 mg of zinc per day depending on the individual (6). Most in the functional nutrition and functional medicine world believe this should be much higher, in the 30-40 mg range per day for most individuals.
However it is likely that this recommendation should be higher given the decreased abilities of our gastrointestinal tract to absorb zinc adequately. In fact, most in the functional nutrition and functional medicine world believe this should be in the 30-40mg per day range for most individuals. I personally recommend 10mg per 50 lbs of body weight as a great starter dosage.
The recommended dietary allowance for copper is not to exceed 4 mg daily (8). I recommend 1mg per 50 lbs of body weight. This comes out to a 10:1 zinc ratio which is higher than Dr Eck’s recommendation, but I have found that copper is ubiquitous due to copper water pipes.
Additionally, the modern American diet, copper is very high and zinc is low. Those with compromised digestive function will also have more trouble absorbing the zinc and so more is needed. If you are over consuming zinc, the most common first symptom is nausea. When a client complains of that while supplementing with high doses of zinc, I begin reducing the dosage.
Limit Phytates in Your Diet
Phytates are compounds naturally found in plants such as whole grains and legumes which bind to zinc and reduce its availability for absorption. Phytates, however, do not affect the absorption abilities of copper and are referred to as “anti-nutrients” (5, 8).
Vegetarian based diets in particular often result in copper and zinc imbalances due to high amounts of phytates in their plant food sources and limited amounts of animal based protein. The NIH recommends soaking beans and grains in water until they sprout to increase the availability of zinc for absorption (6).
Also a major source of phytates in the American diet today, processed cereal should be avoided if not limited for consumption in growing kids. Affecting 2 billion people today, cereal is partly to blame. (5, 6)
Consume High Quality Protein Sources
High quality pastured meats such as beef and poultry sources including eggs are excellent sources of zinc. Eggs provide an almost perfect ratio of zinc to copper containing 0.7 mg of zinc to only 0.1 mg of copper (8).
If you have been seeking an excuse to give them a try, oysters are actually the highest concentrated source of zinc you can consume in your diet (6). One oyster can provide you with your daily recommended zinc requirements.
Supporting your diet with whole fruit and vegetable sources can remove excess copper from the body and prevent damage caused by oxidative stress. Aside from zinc, manganese, iron, B vitamins, sulfur and vitamin C all bind to copper and support the gradual detoxification of copper from tissue.
Proper Zinc Supplementation
Further supplementing your diet with a high quality form of zinc balance required for health. (8) The recommended daily allowance for zinc is between eight to eleven milligrams for most adults. However, for functional health most progressive nutritionists and doctors recommend between 30-40 mg/daily.
Zinc can be a problem when one supplements with more than 100 mg/daily, especially when it is done without additional copper. Zinc Glycinate—an Albion® TRAACS amino acid chelate—is a high-potency source of zinc formulated for enhanced absorption. In this form, zinc is coupled with two glycine molecules to facilitate its absorption across the intestinal wall and reduce interference from phytates and competing minerals (10).
Zinc Charge supports the immune system and proper enzymatic function by providing high potency zinc in 20mg doses.
How To Test
There are several ways to test your zinc levels. One that I am a fan of due to its simplicity and cost-effectiveness is the zinc sulfate taste test. All you do purchase a bottle of zinc sulfate liquid (this a good one), place a capful in your mouth, and observe the sensations in your mouth.
Below are the possible outcomes and indications:
You Notice No Metallic Taste: Zinc Deficiency
You Notice A Delayed Metallic Taste: Slight Zinc Deficiency
You Notice Slight Metallic Taste: Zinc Levels Are Adequate, But Could Be Higher