Copper vs. Zinc. Striking a Healthy Balance



By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

Many people equate copper with pennies, plumbing or bracelets to help cure arthritis (spoiler alert – they don’t!) than with good health. But copper is a trace mineral - along with iron, chromium, zinc, iodine, manganese and selenium.

And don’t let copper’s ubiquity or the fact that our bodies need very little of it fool you. The truth is that copper is essential for human life and is found in virtually every one of your body’s tissues. If your body gets too much or not enough copper, you increase your risk of disease or other medical problems.

This reddish-brown mineral plays a role in a wide variety of biological processes, including:

  • Energy – Your body has little energy factories inside your cells, known as mitochondria, which create little energy packets known as ATP, from the food you eat. You need ATP for everything from getting up in the morning, to digesting your food, to thinking and even pursuing a romantic partner! Without enough copper, your energy levels will start to drop. In extreme cases, your cells can even begin to die.
  • Antioxidation Copper functions as an antioxidant. Free copper (the copper circulating and available in your body) is a positively charged entity that frequently “soaks up” electrons in the body. These loose electrons are also known as free radicals—and free radicals are famously damaging, accelerating aging and causing poor healing and immunity. Too little copper, and free radicals can do their damage.  But too much, and you risk copper toxicity. As in most things in life, balance is key.
  • Iron Metabolism - Copper is also crucial for using iron in the body. For example, the copper enzyme called ferroxidase carries iron to where it is used to make new red blood cells. In copper deficiency, iron literally gets stuck in the liver, which causes anemia. In the worst cases, the liver can be so overloaded with copper that you can develop cirrhosis (scarring)! Again, the right amount is key.
  • Healthy Connective Tissue – Another important role of copper is helping with the linking of the proteins collagen and elastin. These proteins are the building blocks of healthy connective tissue, which does everything from making the skin appear plump to facilitating greater athletic ability (in the form of ligaments and tendons).
  • Brain development and function – Copper is important and necessary for a variety of brain functions, including neurotransmission. A deficiency in copper has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Wilson’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, all of which negatively affect the brain, as well as depression.

Research also indicates that copper may help protect against lung cancer as well as reduce pain and anxiety.

You don’t need a whole lot of copper and most people can get what they need from a well-balanced, healthy diet. Current recommendations are that both men and women need about 900 mcg to meet their bodies’ need for copper.  

Deficiencies can occur from malnutrition and malabsorption (sometimes as a result of gastric bypass surgery to lose weight), but more often than not they are a result of genetic defects.  On this latter cause, there has been some recent good news. Research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates some defects in copper metabolism may soon have more targeted treatment options that can restore the production of copper-dependent enzymes needed for your cells’ mitochondria to make energy. Given that cells can’t survive without energy, this is indeed a major discovery with the potential to help many people.

Copper’s Partner – Zinc

Many minerals and other nutrients have what are known as “antagonistic relationships,” which basically means that when one is too high it causes the other to be too low. If you visualize a seesaw with each end being one of the antagonistic nutrients, you have a good idea of how they work.  

For copper, its antagonist is zinc. And, just as with a seesaw, you want to reach equilibrium to avoid increasing your risk for having too much or too little of either, which could increase your risk for a variety of health conditions or diseases. If you have too much zinc in your system, you could end up with a copper deficiency. And, if you should have too much copper, increasing your zinc intake can help put your copper level back in balance.

As is copper, zinc is an essential mineral that helps keep your body functioning properly. It has many important functions in the body and can be used to address many health issues, from the common cold to malaria. It also plays a crucial role in helping wounds heal quickly and properly. Zinc also helps the immune system fight off bacteria and may reduce the incidence of colds. It is required for proper taste and smell. You should target getting 8 mg of zinc a day if you’re a woman and around 11 mg if you’re a man.

In addition to being antagonists, copper and zinc also work together to help control your metabolism and keeping them in balance has a variety of health benefits. Together, they help activate an important enzyme that serves as an antioxidant. And credible research has shown that having a copper-zinc imbalance may also increase oxidative stress, which can lead to a variety of health problems including poor sleep patterns and metabolic health.

How to Be Proactive

The first thing you can do to make sure you are getting the right amount of copper, is to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet with foods rich in copper. Which foods are best? As you can see below, there is a wide variety!

  • Liver and other organ meats
  • Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
  • Oysters, shellfish
  • Cocoa powder
  • Soybeans, lentils, Adzuki beans, kidney beans, white beans
  • Cashew nuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts
  • Buckwheat

You should also consider getting nutritional testing to see if your body is getting the right balance of copper and zinc to help you get and stay your healthiest. If you do have an imbalance – either too much or too little of either nutrient – you can then take steps to address it either through diet or supplementation.

And if you have a family history of problems with copper metabolism, or if testing shows you’re not readily absorbing the copper you are getting from you diet, genetic testing may help you and your healthcare provider identify appropriate treatment options.

For more information about copper and other trace minerals necessary to keep you healthy, check out “Minerals – The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy.”

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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