Last updated: 08/07/2009
Copper is an essential mineral with a number of important functions. While copper deficiency is relatively rare, copper excess (hypercupremia) is surprisingly common. Excess copper is predominantly a condition present in women. For example in women diagnosed with major depression 45% have excess copper levels while only 3% of men with major depression have excess copper. (Pfeiffer Treatment Center data) This gender difference is due to estrogen causing an elevation of copper levels. Excess levels of copper increases norepinephrine levels, causing anxiety, and causes oxidative stress.
Copper excess signs/symptoms.
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Poor concentration
- Depressed (especially premenstrually or after pregnancy/childbirth)
- Tinnitus (ringing in ears)
- Frontal headaches
Copper excess risk factors.
- Presently taking estrogen containing medication (e.g. OCP, HRT)
- Currently take multivitamin containing copper
- Regularly use copper tea kettles or pans
- Blue-green stains in bathtub, toilet or sink (suggestive of elevated copper content of water)
- Family history of:
- Post-partum depression
- Women with depression
- Wilsonís Disease
Diagnosis Ė Hair or blood levels?
There are a number of different laboratory tests available to assess copper levels.
Blood levels. Dr. William Walsh of the Pfeiffer Treatment Center and copper expert believes that the best way to diagnose excess copper levels are from measuring both copper and ceruloplasmin (copper binding protein) in serum. From these two levels the percentage free copper in serum can be calculated. According to Walsh:
- Percentage free copper above 20% is classified as elevated.
- 5 to 20% = normal
- 20 to 30% = high normal
- 30 to 40% = elevated (high oxidative stress)
- > 50% = severe elevation (severe oxidative stress)
- Serum copper levels are classified as follows:
- 12.5 to 17.5 umol/L or 80 to 110 ug/dL = normal
- 17.5 to 20.0 umol/L or 110 to 125 ug/dL = high normal
- > 20.0 umol/L or > 125 ug/dL = high
Hair levels. Unfortunately a great many people are being diagnosed with excess copper when this is actually not the case. For example most people who have had a hair analysis done prior to seeing me have been told they have excess copper levels. Copper levels in hair are claimed to correlate with copper levels in the liver and other tissues. However one detailed study found hair copper levels did not correlate with copper levels in the liver, heart, muscle, kidney, aorta and rib. (Aalbers & Houtman. 1985) The other problem with relying solely on hair levels is that hair is subjected to external contamination and laboratories vary significantly in terms of accuracy and reference ranges. I only trust Doctors Data Inc. for hair analysis. It is recommended that a person wash their hair with Johnsonís baby shampoo for 2 weeks prior to hair collection to minimize hair contamination.
"Hair analysis ALONE is a very poor way to assess copper status. I say this after (a) evaluating more than 100,000 hair analyses, (b) developing the first high-quality hair standards (loaned to NIH and other researchers), and (c) performing numerous double-blind, controlled experiments involving hair chemistries. Findings of high Cu levels in hair are compromised by the many external sources of Cu which cannot be completely removed by washing. Low levels of Cu in hair and/or blood often are coincident with dangerous overloads of Cu in liver. Hair Cu values can provide information of clinical significance, but by itself is not clinically decisive.", Bill Walsh, PhD, Pfeiffer Treatment Center
- According to Walsh copper contamination comes from water, "... hair gels/dyes/etc, and exposure to pools/jacuzzis treated with copper sulfate to kill algae."
Also hair reflects excretion (not tissue burden), so those with high copper in hair may simply be the efficient excretors, not those with elevated levels. For example according to Walsh:
- "... low hair levels of Cu can occur in situations involving Cu overload. A good example is Wilson's Disease in which hair, blood, and urine Cu levels can be extremely low in a person who may be dying of Cu overload in liver."
The basis of copper lowering treatment is using nutrients which reduce copper levels. These are zinc, manganese, molybdenum, vitamin C and vitamin B6. Water filtration is recommended to minimize copper intake from water. Avoiding copper containing supplements is also suggested.
Testing offer for people in Western Australia.
I use local laboratories for copper testing (serum copper and ceruloplasmin). It costs around $55-60 AUS. If anyone in WA would like to have these tests done you can set up a consultation to discuss testing options.