Copper Overload and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome
Excessive copper in the body is associated with adrenal fatigue. Copper, a heavy metal in its unbound form, is ubiquitous in our environment and food. While some copper is necessary for survival, it can cause major problems within if imbalanced. Most diets contain enough copper (2-5 mg daily) to prevent a deficiency and not enough to cause toxicity. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that 10-12 mg per day may be the upper safe limit for consumption.
Copper’s Role in the Body
The role of copper in the body is many faceted. Some key functions are:
- Energy Production. Copper is required in the production of ATP, the energy currency in the body. Any deficiency in copper will lead to fatigue and depression. Excessive copper will lead to an over-energized body.
- Endocrine System. The thyroid and adrenal glands are very sensitive to copper. Copper imbalance is associated with hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue. Copper is also highly reactive with strong electrical conductivity. With the large amounts of electrical and magnetic field activity in our environment as a result of electrical grids, telephone poles and wireless technology just to name a few sources, this can result in the creation of excessive free radical activity within us. We know that excessive free radicals cause oxidative damage within the body on a cellular level and may even be the cause of cancer and other diseases. This constant stress in the form of free radical damage on the body can eventually lead to adrenal fatigue as the body becomes exhausted on a cellular level and is rendered powerless, unable to respond properly to stress.
- Musculoskeletal system. Copper is required to built and repair connective tissues including tendons, ligaments, skin, hair, nails, and the vascular system.
- Nervous system. Copper is involved in the production of dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These are stimulatory compounds responsible for the fight-or-flight alarm response when the body is under stress.
Excessive copper in the body can lead to a nervous system that is overly stimulated. This can result in mood swings, restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia.
Copper and Diet
Copper is found in relatively higher levels in a variety of foods such as kale, mushrooms, organ meats, dried fruit, seafood, nuts, seeds and grain products. For those on vegetarian diets and reliant on nuts and seeds for their source of protein, they are more susceptible to copper overload as copper is more commonly found in these types of foods. These foods are also lower in zinc, which is required to bind the copper in order to carry it out of the body. Essentially, almost every food has some copper in it to varying degrees, even coffee and chocolate—very popular foods! Other common sources of copper include multivitamins and the copper pipes that transport water. Therefore, it is rare to find copper deficiency in people who have no other illness that can impede the absorption of copper for optimum health.
What is copper overload?
For those fortunate people who have healthy livers, gall bladders and adrenal glands, consumption of copper found in common everyday foods should not pose a problem. It is when these organs are impaired that copper can accumulate and build up in the body and eventually if not taken care of can lead to detrimental levels. If copper is left within the body, it cannot be flushed out of the body’s system on its own accord. With time, the level of copper rises, leading to a state of overload. This is not the same as copper toxicity, when the level of copper is so high that the body becomes injured in a medical condition known as hypercupremia.
Copper, Liver, and the Adrenals
High levels of copper in the body are only now beginning to be seen as problematic, as conventional medicine, and even holistic practitioners did not give copper toxicity serious consideration until more recently, although it was forewarned back in the 1970s by a few pioneering practitioners. However, it is becoming more common since copper is more widely used and everyday exposure is more prominent than it once was. Also, insufficient levels of zinc, molybdenum and other minerals in our diet are contributing to this health problem as these minerals assist in keeping copper in equilibrium within the body.
In order for existing copper to be transported through the blood, it needs to be bound to specific proteins—ceruloplasmin and metallothionein, which are produced when our adrenal glands work synergistically with the liver. However, when an individual has compromised adrenals the production of ceruloplasmin by the liver is insufficient, resulting in excessive free and unbound copper.
Copper Overload Signs and Symptoms
- Physical fatigue
- Mind racing
- Emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows
- Reproductive problems
- Hair loss
- Heart palpitation
Copper Overload and Women
For women, in particular pregnant women who have especially high levels of estrogen, their copper retention rates are comparatively worse so they are more susceptible to issues involved with excessive copper. During menstruation a woman’s ceruloplasmin and estrogen levels generally drop, and during pregnancy it rises. Some newborns are born with high copper levels in their system as the mother has passed it through the placenta—the mother who also suffered from toxic levels of copper retention due to high estrogen levels during pregnancy.
As previously mentioned copper needs to bind with ceruloplasmin in order to be transported through the blood and out of the body’s system. Furthermore, clinical studies have shown that women who take an oral contraceptive pill also have shown increased levels of copper.
Estrogen also activates the aldosterone receptors in the kidneys, which leads to sodium, copper and fluid retention. Fluid retention can lead to high blood pressure, thus excessive copper in the body may lead to other issues in women such as premenstrual syndrome, miscarriage, post natal depression, ovarian cysts and other hormone related health concerns.
Copper not only accumulates in the blood, it can also build up in the thyroid gland whereby it has the potential to wreak havoc on thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) levels. Estrogen too can also disrupt the thyroid as it has a similar structure to T3. The relationship between copper and estrogen is many faceted and when one is imbalanced it has the potential to create many problems on the cellular level.
Copper and Zinc Balance
Zinc is a mineral with a calming effect on the mind. It is an important nutrient and when the body is under stress (externally and/or on a cellular level) zinc levels are rapidly depleted. Obvious tell tale signs of zinc deficiencies include poor skin and nail conditions, such as stretch marks and brittle nails.
Zinc and manganese deficiencies can cause copper retention. Zinc is found in many foods, especially red meat products, beans and seeds (such as sesame and pumpkin), and shrimp. Manganese is found in foods such as seafood, nuts, seeds, beans etc. In the ideal healthy body, the ratio of copper to zinc should be around 1:8. It is not just the actual amount contained in the body that is important, but also the actual ratio of zinc present. The reason being is that both zinc and copper compete with one another to be absorbed. When this zinc balance is disturbed due to the competing effects of copper, it can affect the functioning of the adrenals and also weaken the immune system.
When there are high levels of copper in the body, it is crucial for zinc to be sufficient as it aids in the process of forming progesterone, testosterone, cortisol, aldosterone, neurotransmitters, antibodies, hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes. Therefore, the ideal way of removing copper from within the body is to have sufficient levels of zinc, so that it excretes the copper through the bile.
Diagnosis of Copper Poison / Toxicity / Overload
Symptoms of acute copper poisoning include vomiting, hematemesis, hypotension, coma, jaundice, and hemolytic anemia. This is when the copper level is extremely high. Below that level of copper, a state of copper toxicity exists. Laboratory results for higher than normal copper are detected, and the person is symptomatic. The damages of copper toxicity affect primarily the liver and kidneys, with liver and kidney function tests showing the compromised evidence. At a lower level, a person can be symptomatic, but laboratory testing for copper or hair analysis may be only marginally high or normal. Some practitioners use the term toxicity and overload interchangeably, depending on the severity of the presenting clinical condition.
Almost all of the copper in the body is bound to carrier proteins. The level of unbound copper is almost zero. The best means of testing for copper toxicity are 24-hour urine copper or serum ceruloplasmin level tests. Red blood cell copper levels may be a good test to measure increased copper levels as well. Copper test results must be evaluated in context and are usually compared to ceruloplasmin levels. Abnormal copper results are not diagnostic of a specific condition but indicate the need for further investigation. Ceruloplasmin may also be elevated whenever inflammation or severe infections are present. Interpretation is often made more complicated as a result. Both ceruloplasmin and copper are increased during pregnancy and with estrogen and oral contraceptive use.
Hair mineral testing can also be helpful, but this test is not without its pitfalls. Improper sample collection and contamination can lead to inaccurate results. To complicate matters even further, these tests do not reveal excess copper in the tissues, as the copper has not yet been released. Also the result does not reflect what is happening in the body in real time. Depending on laboratory tests alone without a detailed history and clinical correlation can lead to incomplete assessment, possible misdiagnosis, and wrong interpretation of data.
Copper and the Adrenal Glands
When our bodies are under a constant stream of stress, either emotionally, psychologically or physically it takes a heavy toll on the body. When stressed the body responds by going into the fight-or-flight response and the adrenal glands start producing adrenaline, cortisol and aldosterone. The aldosterone causes the body to retain more copper and sodium, while the kidneys are excreting zinc and magnesium. When this process occurs only sporadically in situations of real or perceived emergencies or stressful situations, the body is able to recover. However, the issue is when this occurs over a long period of time, such as in the case of adrenal fatigue, as the body continues to retain the copper thereby causing copper overload within while continuing to negatively affect the nervous system.
The liver is the main organ responsible for detoxing the body of any excess amounts of copper; however, when the liver and the adrenal glands are impaired, toxic levels of metals (including copper) build up and are stored in the body eventually becoming very problematic. High amounts of copper further stimulate the nervous system, which takes a further toll on the already burdened adrenal glands. This vicious cycle of events continues as the liver and adrenal glands are compromised.
Copper Overload and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic stress or acutely stressful events can overwhelm the normal anti-stress function of the adrenal glands. When this occurs, symptoms can include the lack of exercise tolerance and energy, salt craving, insomnia, irritability, dependency on sugar fixes and coffee to get through the day as well as insomnia in the earlier stages (Stages 1 and 2). As Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) progresses to advanced stages (Stages 3 and 4), more severe symptoms such as hypoglycemia, depression, cardiac arrhythmia, orthostatic hypotension, severe insomnia, metabolic imbalances, waking up in the middle of the night, and anxiety sets in.
Copper overload can mimic some symptoms of adrenal fatigue as well as worsen symptoms making it difficult to differentiate between the two unless accompanied by a detailed history. Having a proper history completed by an experienced clinician is the key.
Sufferers who have been struggling with AFS and fail to recover can consider copper toxicity as a contributing factor. As mentioned before, copper toxicity is usually a problem that the body can overcome with its own internal self-regulating mechanism. It is therefore rare for copper imbalance to be the sole and only cause of all the symptoms of advanced Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome. More often than not, copper overload is one of many contributing factors. Remember we are referring to advanced stages of AFS and not the early stages when symptoms of AFS are usually quite mild and that of copper toxicity is clinically subtle. Blindly embarking on a witch-hunt exercise targeting copper as the culprit and root cause of fatigue can be very expansive, confusing, and potentially worsen AFS in the end.
It is important to remember that even if there is a close association between two events such as excessive copper and adrenal fatigue, one should be careful not to jump too quickly to conclude that the cause of adrenal fatigue is excessive copper. This is because many other imbalances can also present in similar ways, including zinc, sodium, potassium, mercury, and cadmium. Imbalance of any of these also has massive ramifications throughout the body, giving rise to symptoms mimicking AFS.
Just because there is an association does not mean that there is a clear cause and effect involved. The recovery path for each specific imbalance is quite different and often conflicts with each other. Blind trial and error approaches can ultimately worsen adrenal fatigue if not managed with care. For example, both high copper and low potassium can present with anxiety. Yet the treatment is very different. With low potassium, the treatment calls for restriction of salt in addition to potassium replacement because salt directly opposes potassium. However, in the setting of adrenal fatigue, more salt is indicated. Likewise, anxiety caused by excessive copper calls for an increase in zinc as a counter balance to copper. Yet, zinc can be quite stimulatory for those in advanced stages of AFS and can trigger adrenal crashes. It is clear that such a balancing act is complicated. It comes as no surprise that most self-navigation efforts fail and in fact worsen the overall adrenal fatigue.
Copper Overload and Advanced Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome
By the time most people consider copper overload as the culprit of their fatigue, the body is by and large very weak and decompensated. The body has usually already gone through years of failed recovery efforts, along with extensive use of anabolic hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, glandular, vitamins, and herbs including licorice, rhodiola, ashwagandha, ginseng, maca and green tea during this period. Most are therefore in a state of advanced adrenal fatigue (Stage 3 or higher). Paradoxical reactions and body sensitivities are quite prominent while the body is flooded in a sea of adrenaline as the body’s fight-or-flight response is in full throttle. Nutritional reserves are low as well as a lower threshold for triggering adrenal crashes as compared to people in earlier stages of AFS.
The conventional correctional approaches for copper toxicity usually involves a combination of reduced intake of copper by lifestyle and dietary pathways, consuming nutritionally balancing compounds such as high doses of zinc, some form of detoxification modality such as liver cleanses and flushes or colonics, and chelation options using green foods and medications. These standard therapies may help those with early and mild stages of AFS when the body is still strong and can sustain the onslaught of such aggressive balancing efforts to reduce copper levels, the same cannot be said for those in advanced stages of AFS. In fact, unless very carefully titrated and unless one proceeds very slowly, severe and unpleasant adrenal crashes are a definite risky side effect that few can avoid. One may be rendered bedridden for days or weeks in these cases of major crashes.
While copper overload may be associated with Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome, it is seldom the sole cause but usually part of a broader picture of many other factors that may contribute to or worsen AFS. Most sufferers of AFS are in the advanced stages before their exhaustive but failed recovery efforts drive them to consider copper overload as a culprit. Laboratory testing can be helpful but clinical correlation and history is key. Reliance on tests alone can be misleading. Therapeutic approaches vary on the degree of AFS present. Those with mild AFS can consider copper balancing nutrients such as zinc, vitamin C, manganese and others. Those with advanced AFS should refrain from such approaches until the adrenals are well healed to avoid setbacks and adrenal crashes. Aggressive enemas, chelation, cleanses, and detoxification should also be avoided.
If you think that you have symptoms of excessive copper in your body and suffer from Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome, recovery needs to be personalized. An improper approach to recovery can complicate, deter, or even exacerbate your current state.
© Copyright 2014 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.