Copper Toxicity

Copper is a heavy metal that is toxic in the unbound form. Almost all of the copper in the body is bound to proteins, thereby reducing the concentration of unbound copper ions to almost zero. Most diets contain enough copper (2-5mg) to prevent a deficiency and not enough to cause toxicity. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that 10-12mg per day may be the upper safe limit for consumption. If as little as 2gms of a copper salt are ingested, usually with suicidal intent, the resulting copper-induced hemolytic anemia and kidney damage are generally fatal.

Copper toxicity is usually due to:

  • excessive supplementation
  • the increasingly common problem of low levels of zinc in the diet
  • contaminated food and drinking water due to contact with metallic copper
  • external exposures such as a copper IUD or accidental agricultural overspray
  • elevated levels of estrogens.

Since copper and zinc compete with each other for absorption in the gut, copper toxicity has been the subject of greater concern in recent years. This is primarily due to reduced zinc in the diet and the switch from galvanized to copper water pipes. Acidic water such as rain water, left standing in copper plumbing pipes, can be a source of toxicity when consumed. In prolonged contact with copper cooking utensils, an acidic food or beverage can dissolve milligram quantities of copper, sufficient to cause acute toxicity symptoms such as self-limited nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. High copper levels, especially when associated with low zinc levels, have been linked to a variety of symptoms and conditions.

The best means of testing for copper toxicity are 24-hour urine copper or serum ceruloplasmin level tests.


Signs, symptoms & indicators of Copper Toxicity

Lab Values - Common  

High systolic blood pressure


High diastolic blood pressure

Symptoms - Gas-Int - General  

Unexplained nausea

Symptoms - General  

Constant fatigue

Symptoms - Metabolic  


Symptoms - Mind - Emotional  


Symptoms - Mind - General  

Short-term memory failure


Trouble concentrating

Symptoms - Muscular  

Tender calf muscles

Symptoms - Skeletal  

Joint pain/swelling/stiffness

Symptoms - Sleep  

(Frequent) difficulty falling asleep


Unsound sleep

Conditions that suggest Copper Toxicity


Ulcerative Colitis

Patients with ulcerative colitis may absorb excess copper in their intestinal tissues which can lead to intestinal disorders, impaired healing and reduced resistance to infections.





Premenstrual Syndrome / PMDD

Estrogen results in increased copper absorption.


Eclampsia / Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia and Eclampsia may be associated with copper toxicity.

Risk factors for Copper Toxicity


Low Progesterone or Estrogen Dominance

Elevated estrogen levels often increase serum copper levels to more than double normal values, while at the same time red blood cell levels, where copper is important, may actually be lower. This may contribute to some of the psychological or other symptoms seen during pregnancy or with birth control pill use.


Molybdenum Need

The exact mechanism by which molybdenum prevents copper toxicity is poorly understood. However, it is known that an insoluble complex of copper and molybdenum can be formed in the gastrointestinal tract thus reducing copper absorption. This theory is substantiated by the fact that increasing dietary copper is an effective treatment of molybdenum toxicity.

Supplements and Medications  

Copper supplementation


Current birth control pill use

Estrogen-containing birth control pills can raise serum copper levels.


History of birth control pill use

Counter Indicators
Supplements and Medications  

Absence of copper supplementation


(Major) zinc supplementation

Symptoms - Gas-Int - General  

History of unexplained nausea

Symptoms - Glandular  

History of hypoglycemia

Symptoms - Mind - General  

Absence of short-term memory loss

Copper Toxicity suggests the following may be present


Molybdenum Need

The exact mechanism by which molybdenum prevents copper toxicity is poorly understood. However, it is known that an insoluble complex of copper and molybdenum can be formed in the gastrointestinal tract thus reducing copper absorption. This theory is substantiated by the fact that increasing dietary copper is an effective treatment of molybdenum toxicity.

Copper Toxicity can lead to


Recommendations for Copper Toxicity

Amino Acid / Protein  


Methionine is a useful treatment for copper poisoning and for lowering serum copper.


Heavy Metal Detoxification / Avoidance

If copper levels are very high, treatment with DMSA, penicillamine or EDTA may be needed.



Vitamin C, zinc and manganese all interfere with copper absorption.



Since high levels of copper in the body or diet may result in molybdenum insufficiency and cause low uric acid levels, reducing copper toxicity can result in normalizing uric acid and molybdenum levels. Intake of molybdenum at doses as low as 0.54mg per day has been associated with an increased loss of copper in the urine.



Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)

See link between copper toxicity and manganese.


Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)

Carl Pfeiffer, M.D. also suggests using vitamin B6 at 50mg daily without supplemental copper to increase copper excretion.


Weak or unproven link
Strong or generally accepted link
Proven definite or direct link
Weakly counter-indicative
Strongly counter-indicative
May do some good
Likely to help
Highly recommended
Avoid absolutely



An essential mineral that is a component of several important enzymes in the body and is essential to good health. Copper is found in all body tissues. Copper deficiency leads to a variety of abnormalities, including anemia, skeletal defects, degeneration of the nervous system, reproductive failure, pronounced cardiovascular lesions, elevated blood cholesterol, impaired immunity and defects in the pigmentation and structure of hair. Copper is involved in iron incorporation into hemoglobin. It is also involved with vitamin C in the formation of collagen and the proper functioning in central nervous system. More than a dozen enzymes have been found to contain copper. The best studied are superoxide dismutase (SOD), cytochrome C oxidase, catalase, dopamine hydroxylase, uricase, tryptophan dioxygenase, lecithinase and other monoamine and diamine oxidases.


Compounds composed of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen present in the body and in foods that form complex combinations of amino acids. Protein is essential for life and is used for growth and repair. Foods that supply the body with protein include animal products, grains, legumes, and vegetables. Proteins from animal sources contain the essential amino acids. Proteins are changed to amino acids in the body.


(mg): 1/1,000 of a gram by weight.


(gm): A metric unit of weight, there being approximately 28 grams in one ounce.

Hemolytic Anemia

Anemia caused by excessive destruction of red blood cells.


An essential trace mineral. The functions of zinc are enzymatic. There are over 70 metalloenzymes known to require zinc for their functions. The main biochemicals in which zinc has been found to be necessary include: enzymes and enzymatic function, protein synthesis and carbohydrate metabolism. Zinc is a constituent of insulin and male reproductive fluid. Zinc is necessary for the proper metabolism of alcohol, to get rid of the lactic acid that builds up in working muscles and to transfer it to the lungs. Zinc is involved in the health of the immune system, assists vitamin A utilization and is involved in the formation of bone and teeth.


An illness or symptom of sudden onset, which generally has a short duration.


Symptoms resulting from an inclination to vomit.


Excessive discharge of contents of bowel.


The cell-free fluid of the bloodstream. It appears in a test tube after the blood clots and is often used in expressions relating to the levels of certain compounds in the blood stream.

Ulcerative Colitis

(Colitis ulcerosa): Ulceration of the colon and rectum, usually long-term and characterized by rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, frequent urgent diarrhea/bowel movements each day, abdominal pain.


A sensation of noise (ringing or roaring) that is caused by a bodily condition and can usually only be heard by the person affected.

Postpartum Depression

The "baby blues" are a very frequent and completely normal consequence of childbirth, usually wearing off soon afterwards as hormonal and psychological systems get back to normal. Postpartum depression is a less common but severe depression that begins in the weeks following delivery. It impairs the ability of the mother to care for the child and fall in love with it. This makes her feel even more depressed and inadequate thinking that she can not be a good mother. At the extreme, postpartum depression may lead to dangerous delusions (for example, thinking the baby is in some way deformed or cursed) or hallucinations (that may command violent acts). This can occasionally result in a tragic episode of suicide and/or infanticide.


One of the female sex hormones produced by the ovaries.


A toxic condition developing in the last 4 or 5 months of pregnancy that is characterized by a sudden rise in blood pressure, excessive weight gain, generalized edema (especially hands, ankles, feet and face), albuminuria, severe headache, and visual disturbances. It used to be called toxemia of pregnancy. Some rise in blood pressure is normal during pregnancy, but in preeclampsia the rise is dramatic and is accompanied by other changes. The most notable of these are high concentrations of protein in the urine and a tendency to swell up, especially in the face and hands. This can cause women with preeclampsia to put on several pounds in a few days.


Convulsions, unrelated to other cerebral conditions, in pregnant or puerperal women (women who have just given birth).

Red Blood Cell

Any of the hemoglobin-containing cells that carry oxygen to the tissues and are responsible for the red color of blood.


An essential trace element. It helps regulate iron stores in the body and is a key component of at least three enzymes: xanthine oxidase, aldehyde oxidase and sulfite oxidase. These enzymes are involved with carbohydrate metabolism, fat oxidation and urine metabolism. The average adult has about 9mg of molybdenum concentrated mostly in the liver, kidney, adrenal glands, bones and skin. Molybdenum deficiencies are associated with esophageal cancer, sexual impotency and tooth decay.


Pertaining to the stomach, small and large intestines, colon, rectum, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder.

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