Copper is an essential trace mineral that is critical at low levels for healthy blood cell formation, immune function, and nerve and bone health. The down side is that it appears to be toxic at high levels, especially when present as inorganic copper. The recommended daily allowance for copper is 0.9 mg (900 mcg) daily.
There are basically two forms of copper we can ingest: organic and inorganic. Organic forms come from food sources and from supplements that are bound to amino acids (protein bound). Rich food sources of organic copper include nuts, seeds, beans, mushrooms, and green leafy vegetables and healthy blood levels can easily be achieved by eating these foods regularly.
Inorganic sources of copper come from plumbing (think copper pipes in your home) and inorganic copper salts that are commonly included in many vitamin supplements.
In animal studies, giving mice inorganic copper supplements (also called copper2 or divalent copper) compared to those given a placebo, showed increased beta amyloid production in the brain, plus an elevated rate of Alzheimer’s disease. Beta amyloid is the sticky protein that over accumulates in the brain’s of people and mice with Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Morris published a study showing that people with the highest intake of inorganic copper in supplements had six times the rate of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who have low intake from supplements. (Morris 2006. Arch Neurol 63:1085-88.)
At this year’s 57th Annual Meeting of the American College of Nutrition meeting, I spoke with George Brewer, MD, MACN, who was speaking on the relationship between inorganic copper intake and the dramatic recent increase in Alzheimer’s rates. He draws a very strong relationship between copper pipes for home plumbing and the rapid rise in Alzheimer’s rates in the US, as there is a very powerful association between levels of copper in public water supplies and Alzheimer’s disease. Copper levels should be less than 0.01 parts per million, but Dr. Brewer’s data suggests that two thirds of all homes have copper levels in water that exceed this level.
The use of copper piping in home construction in the US started in the early 1960s, at about the same time, we saw a big jump in cases of Alzheimer’s disease. By 1970, it was the typical material of choice for water piping, and it's now estimated that more than 90 percent of all homes built after 1970 have copper pipes. Water with pH below 6.5 can corrode copper pipes, similar to what happened in Flint, Michigan with lead being pulled from pipes into the acidic water supply. This breakdown of the pipes increases the level of copper in water dramatically.
For 100,000 years, humans have learned to metabolize organic forms of copper and it is an essential nutrient. However, inorganic copper is something brand new and it appears that we humans do not have proper mechanisms to metabolize this form of copper. Although inorganic copper has not conclusively been shown to cause Alzheimer’s disease, the evidence is growing, and there is now ample reason for you to take some simple steps to avoid inorganic copper exposure. This is especially concerning since Alzheimer’s rates began to climb in the last 50 years as we have been exposed to inorganic copper.
- Choose supplements with either NO copper, or those produced with organic copper.
An example of organic copper supplement ingredients would be:
– Copper glycinate
– Copper bisglycinate chelate
– Copper amino acid chelates
An example of inorganic copper supplement ingredients that you should avoid would be:
– Copper oxide
– Copper Sulfate (copper sulfate is commonly used as a pesticide, but sadly is very common in poor quality supplements)
– Copper carbonate
2. Especially if you have copper plumbing in your home, get a reverse osmosis filter to remove copper from the water you use for drinking and cooking. A reverse osmosis filter has dozens of benefits and provides an easy solution to achieving safe, dependable drinking water for you and your loved ones.
3. Don’t cook with copper pots and pans, especially don’t heat acidic foods (such as tomato sauce) in pans with copper.
4. Get your copper from food. Eat more nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, mushrooms, and green leafy vegetables daily. Your body knows how to handle these forms of organic copper.
I hope I have given you some simple steps to help protect your own brain health and the health of those you love.
I wish you the best of health!
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS