The Roles of Copper in the Body: Facilitating Enzyme Functions

By January 19, 2014Nutrient Profiles

Copper FoodsCopper is an essential trace element that is widely distributed in nature. Though the tissues of our bodies contain it in trace amounts, with our brains and livers containing the most, we all need to obtain our copper from food-based sources to function properly. Fortunately, our bodies don’t need much copper to function properly – which is just as well, since even the most mineral-rich foods contain only small amounts of it.

What Copper Does for Us

Antioxidant properties – Like selenium, zinc, and a number of other trace minerals, copper is an antioxidant – a molecule that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules. Our bodies need antioxidants to neutralize free radicals, which are rogue atoms or atomic groups that have lost at least one electron and attempt to stabilize themselves by stealing the the electrons of neighboring molecules. Free radicals contribute towards degenerative diseases like cancer and also accelerate the aging process. Therefore, consuming foods rich in antioxidants like copper helps us fight these diseases, and also provide anti-aging benefits. Please note, however, that an excess of copper in the diet can also promote free radical damage.

Facilitates enzyme functions – Copper is a critical component of numerous essential enzymes named cuproenzymes. One of these cuproenzymes, cytochrome c oxidase, plays an important role in cellular energy production by creating the vital energy-storing molecule, ATP. Another cuproenzyme, lysyl oxidase, helps to cross-link elastin and collagen, two proteins needed for the formation of strong and flexible connective tissue. Other cuproenzymes help facilitate the absorption and utilization of iron, help form red blood cells, aid the metabolism of glucose and cholesterol, and aid the synthesis of mood-regulating neurotransmitters. Without copper atoms, these cuproenzymes couldn’t perform these important biological functions.

Aids melanin formation – One cuproenzyme that is dependent on copper, tyrosinase, is required for the formation of the pigment, melanin. Melanin, which is formed in cells called melanocytes, is a primary determinant of skin color but is also found in the hair, eyes, and the inner ear. This is one of the reasons why eating copper-rich foods (especially blackstrap molasses) can improve your skin, eyes, and even restore your hair to its original color – their copper content accelerates the formation of melanin.

Maintains immune system – Despite its innocuous reputation, large doses of copper is highly toxic to all living cells. This toxicity, however, is what makes copper so good for our immune systems in small doses. In fact, our white blood cells bring down invading bacteria by increasing their levels of copper ions. Consequently, insufficient copper in the body can lead to a compromised immune system, making us more susceptible to disease.

Recommended Daily Intake

The recommended daily intake of copper in adult men and women is 2 milligrams per day, with as little as 10 milligrams producing a toxic effect. Copper deficiencies are rare, and tend to be considered hematological and neurological disorders. That said, symptoms of a copper deficiency include anemia, low white blood cell count, paleness, muscle weakness, and premature whitening of hair.

Good sources of copper include seafood (especially oysters and squid), kale, mushrooms like shiitake and maitake, blackstrap molasses, sesame seeds, cashew nuts, avocados, and fermented soy products like miso and tempeh.