Copper is Essential for Health and Nutrition

Copper is essential for all living things. As a naturally-occurring element, copper is present everywhere in the world around us. Life has evolved in this natural presence, and humans have developed built-in mechanisms to manage intake levels.

Copper is not formed in the body and must be obtained from food and drinking water each day as part of a balanced diet and, occasionally, through the use of dietary supplements. Dietary copper is important to doctors and nutritionists. Our digestive systems assimilate the amount necessary for good health through a system of uptake called homeostasis. Excess copper is excreted.

Copper’s Role in Growth and Development

Virtually every cell in the body utilises copper and, together with iron and zinc, copper makes up the trio of minerals essential to our well-being. Copper is vital to the health of the body from foetal development right through to old age. Quite simply, without copper our brains, nervous systems and cardiovascular systems could not function normally.

Copper is Essential for:

  • Brain development during foetal and post-natal growth, and maintenance of brain health throughout life, including effective anti-oxidative defence
  • Efficient communication between nerve cells
  • Maintenance of healthy skin and connective tissue
  • Wound healing
  • Structural integrity and function of heart and blood vessels
  • Growth of new blood vessels
  • Proper structure and function of circulating blood cells
  • Formation of the cells of our immune system (white blood cells)
  • Maintenance of a healthy and effective immune response
  • Generation and storage of energy in the ‘power plants’ of our cells, the mitochondria.

How Much Copper do we Need?

Copper is an essential trace mineral that cannot be formed by the human body so must be ingested from dietary sources every day.

According to the World Health Organisation, 1–3 milligrams per day of copper are required to prevent any symptoms of deficit.

Various health and nutrition organisations around the world have set dietary reference values, highlighting the importance of copper as part of a balanced diet.

Adequate Intakes

Adequate Intakes for Copper
Age Females Males
 7 – 11 months 0.4 0.4
 1 – <3 years 0.7  0.7
3 – <10 years 1.0 1.0
 10 – <18 years  1.1 1.3
 ≥ 18 years  1.3
 Pregnancy  1.5
Lactation  1.5

Source: European Food Safety Authority.

What are Copper Rich Foods?

Some foods are especially rich in copper. These include most nuts (especially brazils and cashews), seeds (especially poppy and sunflower), chickpeas, liver and oysters. Natural foods such as cereals, meat and fish generally contain sufficient copper to provide up to 50% of the required copper intake in a balanced diet.

In addition, a further part of the daily intake in the United Kingdom may be obtained from drinking water transmitted through copper pipes. However in most areas, the copper content of water is not sufficient to provide the balance of the required normal daily intake of this element. In addition, it should be appreciated that some water filters are claimed to remove metals including the essential element copper from drinking water.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that global populations are at greater health risks from the lack of copper in their diets than from an excess of copper.

Copper Deficiency

According to the World Health Organisation, there is a greater risk from copper deficiency than from copper toxicity, even in developed areas such as the US and Western Europe. Copper deficiency can lead to health problems such as anaemia, heart and circulation problems, bone abnormalities and complications in the functioning of the nervous and immune systems, the lungs, thyroid, pancreas and kidneys. The elderly, who do not get enough copper, and lactating and pregnant women who need more copper in their diet, are especially impacted. This view is echoed by the EU Voluntary Risk Assessment, which concludes that some EU citizens are at a risk of copper deficiency, for example, post-menopausal women.

Copper Excess

Copper homeostasis balances uptake and excretion of copper to meet the body’s needs on a continuous basis. Acute copper poisoning is a rare event, largely restricted to the accidental drinking of solutions of copper nitrate or copper sulphate which should be kept out of easy access in the home. These and organic copper salts are powerful emetics and inadvertent large doses are normally rejected by vomiting. The capacity for healthy human livers to excrete copper is considerable and chronic copper poisoning is very rare with the few reports referring to patients with liver disease.

Copper in Medicine

Copper has been used as a medicine for thousands of years including the treatment of chest wounds and the purifying of drinking water. More recently, research has indicated that copper helps prevent inflammation in arthritis and similar diseases. Research is going on into anti-ulcer and anti-inflammatory medicines containing copper, and its use in radiology and for treating convulsions and epilepsy. Although there is no epidemiological evidence that copper can prevent arthritis, there have been claims that the wearing of copper bangles does alleviate the symptoms.

Is Copper Needed by Plants and Animals?

Absolutely. Plants and animals require copper for normal growth and metabolism. Without proper copper supply in soils, plants will have reduced yields, impaired quality of crop products, increased susceptibility to disease, and, in severe cases, to crop failure.

1 mg of Copper is Needed Each Day to Maintain Good Health

According to the World Health Organisation’s nutritional guidelines, adults need 1.2 mg of copper in our daily diet. Fortunately, we can obtain it from many different foods. Dark chocolate, leafy greens, legumes, lentils, nuts, organ meats (liver, kidney) and shellfish all contain copper and provide essential health benefits.

Chocolate - a good source of copper
Dark chocolate is a good source of copper


Do some adults need more copper than others?

Yes, more copper is needed during pregnancy (1 mg/day) and when breast feeding (1.3 mg/day).

I am digging a well with water pH=5.8. Is this safe to drink?

Yes, the Drinking Water Regulations give a range of pH 5.5 to 9.5 for drinking water. However the ideal pH for water supplies is close to 8 if corrosion of the copper pipes is to be avoided. I suggest that you contact a water treatment company.

Is copper an essential element?

Yes, copper is as vital as calcium, iron and zinc. An adult needs 0.9 mg of copper every day to maintain good health. Nuts, seafood, wholegrain cereals and offal are good sources of copper and a balanced diet should provide adequate copper.

What are the detrimental effects of insufficient copper?

A lack of copper may cause anaemia and cardiovascular illnesses and has been linked with osteoporosis.