Copper is a mineral that occurs naturally in many foods, including vegetables, legumes, nuts, grains, and fruits, as well as shellfish, avocado, and beef (organs such as liver). Because copper is found in the earth's crust, most of the world's surface water and ground water used for drinking purposes contains small amounts of copper.
Copper is involved in numerous biochemical reactions in human cells. Copper is a component of multiple enzymes, is involved with the regulation of gene expression, mitochondrial function/cellular metabolism, connective tissue formation, as well as the absorption, storage, and metabolism of iron. Copper levels are tightly regulated in the body.
Copper toxicity is rare in the general population. Wilson's disease is a genetic disorder in which the body cannot rid itself of copper, resulting in deposition in organs and serious consequences such as liver failure and neurologic damage. Obstruction of bile flow, contamination of dialysis solution (in patients receiving hemodialysis for kidney failure), Indian childhood cirrhosis, and idiopathic copper toxicosis are other rare causes of potentially dangerous excess copper levels. Such individuals should be followed closely by a physician and nutritionist.
Copper deficiency can occur in infants fed only cow-milk formulas (which are relatively low in copper content), premature/low-birth weight infants, infants with prolonged diarrhea or malnutrition, individuals with malabsorption syndromes (including celiac disease, sprue, or short bowel syndrome), cystic fibrosis, in the elderly, or those receiving intravenous total parenteral nutrition (TPN) or other restrictive diets.
Medicinal use of copper compounds dates to Hippocrates in 400 B.C. Bacterial growth is inhibited on copper's surface, and hospitals historically installed copper-alloy doorknobs and push-panels as a measure to prevent transmission of infectious disease.

Related Terms

Copper 7, copper acetate, copper amino acid chelates, copper citrate, copper gluconate, copper glycinate, copper intrauterine device, copper sebecate, copper sulfate, copper T, Cu, Cu IUD, cuivre, cupric oxide, cupric sulfate, cuprum, CuSO4, elemental copper, inorganic copper, organic copper.

evidence table

These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Copper deficiency (Grade: A)
Copper deficiency may occur in infants fed only cow-milk formulas (which are relatively low in copper content), premature/low-birth weight infants, infants with prolonged diarrhea or malnutrition, individuals with malabsorption syndromes (including celiac disease, sprue, or short bowel syndrome), individuals with cystic fibrosis, in the elderly, or in those receiving intravenous total parenteral nutrition (TPN) or other restrictive diets. Such individuals may require supplementation with copper (and other trace elements).
Age-related macular degeneration (Grade: C)
There is not enough scientific evidence available to determine if copper plays a role in this disorder.
Alzheimer's disease prevention (Grade: C)
Conflicting study results report that copper intake may either increase or decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Additional research is needed before a recommendation can be made.
Arthritis (Grade: C)
The use of copper bracelets in the treatment of arthritis has a long history of traditional use, with many anecdotal reports of effectiveness. There are research reports suggesting that copper salicylate may reduce arthritis symptoms more effectively than either copper or aspirin alone. Further study is needed before a firm recommendation can be made.
Cancer (Grade: C)
Preliminary research reports that lowering copper levels theoretically may arrest the progression of cancer by inhibiting blood vessel growth (angiogenesis). Copper intake has not been identified as a risk factor for the development or progression of cancer.
Cardiovascular disease prevention / atherosclerosis (Grade: C)
The effects of copper intake or blood copper levels on cholesterol, atherosclerosis (cholesterol plaques in arteries), or coronary artery disease remain unclear. Studies in humans are mixed, and further research is needed in this area.
Childhood growth promotion (Grade: C)
Severe copper deficiency may retard growth. Adequate intake of micronutrients including copper and other vitamins may promote growth as measured by length gains.
Dental conditions (protecting enamel and plaque prevention) (Grade: C)
Laboratory studies have shown that copper may help protect tooth enamel (the outer layer of the teeth). However, early human research suggests that copper may not be effective.
Immune system function (Grade: C)
Copper is involved in the development of immune cells and immune function in the body. Severe copper deficiency appears to have adverse effects on immune function, although the exact mechanism is not clear.
Malnutrition (marasmus) (Grade: C)
Copper deficiency may occur with marasmus, and supplementation with copper may play a role in the nutritional treatment of infants with this condition. Infants with marasmus should be managed by a qualified healthcare professional.
Menkes' kinky-hair disease (Grade: C)
Menkes' kinky-hair disease is a rare disorder of copper transport/absorption. Copper supplementation may be helpful in this disease, although further research is necessary before a clear recommendation can be made.
Metabolic disorders (trimethylaminuria) (Grade: C)
Trimethylaminuria (TMAU) is a metabolic disorder characterized by the inability to oxidize and convert dietary-derived trimethylamine (TMA) to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). Preliminary evidence suggests that the use of copper chlorophyllin results in a reduced urinary-free TMA concentration and normalization of TMAO. Further research is required in this field before a strong recommendationscan be made.
Osteoporosis / osteopenia (Grade: C)
Osteopenia and other abnormalities of bone development related to copper deficiency may occur in copper-deficient low-birth weight infants and young children. Supplementation with copper may be helpful in the treatment and/or prevention of osteoporosis, although early human evidence is conflicting. The effects of copper deficiency or copper supplementation on bone metabolism and age-related osteoporosis require further research before clear conclusions can be drawn.
Schizophrenia (Grade: C)
Some studies of schizophrenic patients report high blood copper levels with low urinary copper (suggesting that copper is being retained), and low blood zinc levels. In some of these cases, zinc was observed to be helpful as an anti-anxiety agent. The role of copper supplementation is not clear.
Sideroblastic anemia (Grade: C)
Copper deficiency is one of the causes of sideroblastic anemia that should be considered when evaluating this condition, particularly when the anemia is unresponsive to iron therapy alone. This anemia appears to be caused by defective iron mobilization due to decreased ceruloplasmin activity.
Skin rejuvenation (Grade: C)
Copper has been used to reduce wrinkles and skin appearance following laser skin resurfacing. Currently, there is not enough scientific evidence to make recommendations for or against this use.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) (Grade: C)
A preliminary study suggests that copper offers no benefit to individuals with SLE. Further research is required before recommendations can be made.
Neural-tube defect prevention (Grade: D)
The risk of neural-tube defects is decreased in women who take folic acid and multivitamins during the periconception period. Supplementation with trace-elements alone, such as copper, does not appear to prevent these defects.