Heavy Metal Poisoning, Copper Overload, and Adrenal Fatigue – Part 1

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM


Introduction to Heavy Metal Poisoning and Adrenal Fatigue

Heavy Metal Poisoning and Dietary CopperHigh copper levels in the body are 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, and extreme amounts can result in heavy metal poisoning. 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 multifaceted. Some key functions are:

  1. 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. High copper levels will lead to an over-energized body.
  2. 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.
  3. Musculoskeletal system. Copper is required to built and repair connective tissues including tendons, ligaments, skin, hair, nails, and the vascular system.
  4. 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.

High copper levels 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

Nuts and Heavy Metal PoisoningCopper 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 Heavy Metal Poisoning?

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, a form of heavy metal poisoning, 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

Heavy Metal Poisoning and the LiverHeavy metal poisoning as a result of high levels of copper in the body is 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 high copper levels of the free and unbound form.

Signs and Symptoms of Heavy Metal Poisoning

  • Physical fatigue
  • Mind racing
  • Emotional roller-coaster of highs and lows
  • Anxiety
  • Reproductive problems
  • Hair loss
  • Acne
  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • PMS
  • Heart palpitation

Heavy Metal Poisoning and Women

Pregnancy and Heavy Metal PoisoningFor 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 high copper levels. 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 high copper levels 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 copper levels 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.

Read Part 2

© Copyright 2015 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


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Heavy Metal Poisoning

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