Copper deficiency – Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

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Copper is a trace element required by the human body in small amounts but its importance is often overlooked.

Copper deficiency – Symptoms, diagnosis and treatmentThe fact is that copper is very important for our health and wellness. Copper is absorbed in the upper part of the small intestine. Copper and zinc compete to be absorbed by the body so if we take too much zinc we may land up with a copper deficiency. Also, copper helps in iron absorption so a copper and iron deficiency may be seen in the same individual.

Sources of copper in foods

Oysters, lobsters, crab and fish are the best sources followed by organ meat like liver and kidney. Vegetarian sources of this important mineral are nuts, legumes, lentils and soy. Fresh produce like bananas, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and avocados also contain copper.

One can increase copper levels in the body by cooking food in copper utensils or drinking water out of a copper jug.

Symptoms of copper deficiency

  1. Copper plays an important role in iron absorption as it helps in the formation of the protein ceruloplasmin which is required to transport iron in the body. Therefore, lack of copper leads to iron deficiency anaemia.
  2. Copper is important for certain white blood cells and hence plays a role in maintaining immunity.
  3. Copper may help to prevent cardiovascular disease.
  4. A lack of copper causes problems in the nerves, and if not diagnosed in time, the problem may be irreversible.
  5. Copper is essential to prevent osteoporosis. Sometimes, if people have normal calcium and vitamin D levels but are osteoporotic, their copper levels need to be checked. Copper is essential for the formation of bone collagen which maintains the bone mineral density
  6. Many drugs like proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers (used in reflux disorder or acidity) prevent copper uptake. Also, people who have had gastric surgery or have part of their stomachs removed may face a lack of copper
  7. Copper is important to speed up healing of wounds. Sometimes people take excess vitamin C to accelerate healing but as vitamin C affects copper utilisation it actually delays healing and has the reverse effect.
  8. Copper deficiency may be seen in malabsorption like in Crohn’s  disease and other inflammatory disorders of the small bowel.

Diagnosis of copper deficiency

Copper deficiency is usually missed and overlooked by physicians, but should be suspected if the person has been taking zinc or vitamin C supplements or has iron deficiency anaemia. It is more common in the elderly and children of developing countries than in adults.

Blood levels of copper are unreliable, so serum ceruloplasmin levels and white cell count should be done. A type of white cell called neutrophils will be low if there is a copper deficiency.

Treatment of copper deficiency

Copper can be given as a supplement if a deficiency is documented. Levels of zinc, copper and manganese must be closely monitored as while one gets corrected the other might go haywire. Often it takes several corrections of the dosages to get the balance right but after that the patient experiences better health.


We need about 1.5-3 mg/day of copper but in people taking a highly refined and unbalanced diet there may be a lack.

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Written by Dr Nisreen Nakhoda, General Physician

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