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Copper Deficiency – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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Victor Anunobi
Victor Anunobi is an environmentalist, writer and movie enthusiast living in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. He enjoys long walks, food and alternative music.

Copper is an element that exists naturally in is required by the body in trace amounts for survival. It is found in all body tissues and is vital for the production of erythrocytes and maintaining the immune system and nerve cells.

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Copper in the body is mostly found in the brain, heart, kidneys, skeletal muscles, and the liver. Copper enables the body to form collagen – a protein that provides strength, form, and structure to the body. It also aids iron absorption and plays an essential role in the production of energy.

The mineral works in tandem with iron to produce red blood cells. It helps in the maintenance of blood vessels, nerves, healthy bones, and the immune system. It has also been hypothesized that copper may have antioxidant properties, working together with other antioxidants to prevent the skin from aging.

The antioxidant properties may help also help in reducing the production of free radicals that can damage cells and DNA, which may lead to cancer and other medical conditions.

What is Copper Deficiency?

Copper deficiency, also known as hypocupremia, is a rare condition that occurs when there is an insufficient amount of copper in the body. There are at least 12 enzymes in the body that require copper to function.

These enzymes are known as cuproenzymes. A given example is cytochrome c oxidase, which plays a vital role in the production of cellular energy by creating ATP, an energy-storing molecule.

Another example of a cuproenzyme is tyrosinase, which the body uses to produce melanin, a pigment present in the skin.

Causes of Copper Deficiency

Genetic Disorder

Menkes disease is a known cause of copper deficiency. It is a congenital disorder caused by a defective gene that is involved with copper metabolism in the body.

It has a wide range of symptoms, which include seizures, weak muscle tone, unusually low body temperatures, and a peculiar grey colored hair that feels very coarse. The disease is usually lethal, with most children dying within the first ten years of life.

Surgery

Another common cause of copper deficiency is bariatric surgeries.

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A given example of this type of surgery is gastric bypass surgery, which is commonly used as a means of control weight for those who are obese. The surgery disrupts the absorption capacity of the stomach and intestines for not only copper but also for iron and vitamin B12.

A given symptom of copper deficiency, myelopathy – a host of disorders relating to the spinal cord – may take a while to develop.

Zinc Tqoxicity

Elevated zinc levels in the body are another cause of copper deficiency. Zinc is commonly used to prevent ulcers, common cold, celiac disease, sinusitis – the inflammation of the sinuses from an infection – and sickle cell disease.

It is also found in many vitamin supplements and helps in treating memory impairment. Increased consumption of zinc may give rise to copper deficiency caused by zinc toxicity.

Symptoms of Copper Deficiency

Osteoporosis

This is a condition characterized by weak and fragile bones that progresses with age.

Studies have shown that people with osteoporosis have less copper in their bodies than that of healthy adults. Copper is an essential material in the processes involved with the creation of cross-links in the bones.

These links ensure that the bones remain strong and healthy. Copper also encourages the body to produce more osteoblasts; these are cells that maintain the structural integrity of the bones.

Mental Retardation

Insufficient amounts of copper may make learning and remembering rather difficult. Copper plays a vital role in brain function and development.

Enzymes use copper to supply energy to the brain, helps the brain’s defense mechanism, and transmits signals to the body. A deficiency in copper has been linked to diseases that stunts the brain’s development and its ability to remember.

An example of this is Alzheimer’s disease, which research has shown that people who suffer from this disease had 70% less copper in their brain than those without the disease.

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Sensitive to Low Temperatures

Copper deficiency may cause one to be more sensitive to cold. Copper, as well as other minerals like zinc, helps maintain optimal thyroid gland function.

The T3 and T4 levels of thyroid hormones have been closely linked with the amount of copper levels. When serum copper levels are low, these thyroid levels decrease, resulting in the ineffective operation of the thyroid gland.

Since the thyroid gland is responsible for regulating body metabolism and heat production, low thyroid hormone levels could make one feel cold easily.

Fatigue and Weakness

Due to copper being responsible for the absorption of iron, low copper levels may cause the body to absorb less iron.

This is known as iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which the body cannot carry enough oxygen around the body. Reduced oxygen levels in the body may cause you to feel weak and quickly exhausted.

Furthermore, copper is responsible for generating adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary source of the body’s energy level. Reduced copper levels equal a reduction in the energy levels of the body.

Difficulty Walking

Copper deficiency may cause you to be unable to walk properly. Certain enzymes use copper to maintain the optimal health of the spinal cord.

They aid in insulating the spinal cord so signals can be transmitted between the brain and the body. A deficiency in copper may cause these enzymes not to work effectively, hence compromising the efficiency of the spinal cord to relay signals.

Movement is regulated by the signals between the brain and the limbs. When these signals are affected, it may cause loss of coordination.

Pale Skin and Greying Hair

Melanin is a pigment found in the skin cells that determines the color of the skin. People who are light-skinned have less and lighter melanin than those that are dark-skinned. Copper is used by the body to produce melanin.

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Therefore copper deficiency could lead to less melanin being produced, causing pale skin. Hair color is also significantly determined by melanin. Copper deficiency may cause premature grey hair.

Diagnosis of Copper Deficiency

A doctor would have to take a look at your health history and have adequate information on the sort of medication and supplements you must be on.

They would also check for symptoms of the condition to evaluate you for a deficiency in copper. Blood tests would also be ordered to determine the levels of copper in the blood.

Treatment

The treatment of copper deficiency would depend on the reason your copper levels are low. Copper supplements are often recommended as an adequate treatment for copper deficiency.

Copper supplements include copper sulfate, copper gluconate, and copper chloride. In severe cases of copper deficiency, intravenous copper may be prescribed.

Copper deficiency can also be treated by eating foods that are rich in copper. Given examples of this type of food includes;

  • Dark chocolate
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Oats
  • Liver
  • Roasted sesame seeds
  • Cashew nuts
  • Mushrooms
  • Almonds
  • Oyster
  • Lobster

The recommended daily intake of copper is about 900 micrograms (mcg) per day for adolescents and adults.

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