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.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Peanut, in general, may cause inflammation in the body easily because of the mold, aflatoxin.

Heavy Metal Poisoning

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I really appreciate your Web site, This is so informative!

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  • Dahlia says:

    How does heavy metal poisoning affect a pregnant woman? Can it cause a miscarriage? Is there a standard test a doctor performs to check if a woman who is pregnant may have heavy metal poisoning?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Excessive heavy metal is not good for the body. The degree of damage depends on the insult level. You can get a blood test, but most OB docs don’t do it as routine.

      Dr. Lam

  • Michelle says:

    Great article thank you, I found this to be very helpful.

  • Molly says:

    Is there a way to tell you have enough Zinc without testing?

  • Georgia says:

    Can you get heavy metal poisoning from diet alone?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Medications are needed if the detox requirement is very intense. Diet can be supportive.


  • Ashley says:

    Great read, thanks Dr. Lam!

  • David Clark says:

    Okay, so then, if my supplement has 30 mg of zinc, would it not be useful to have at least 2 mg of copper accordling to what you have described in your article. I have never read such conflicting information as I have on copper toxicty and copper deficiency, nobody seems to agree on anything. Even testing isn’t agreed upon, much less if you should supplement or not. One group says have a 10:1 ratio of zinc to copper, especially if you are supplementing with zinc, another says you get enough copper in food. One says you can be deficient in copper, but still have copper toxicity, whew…..what a mess!

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Confusion is common because what works in theory does not work in real life and for the body in real time. Remember that everyone is different. Do see your doctor for a personalized program if you need balancing because it is much more complicated than most people think. Many can make themselves worse.

      Dr Lam

  • Jan says:

    I was browsing the website and ran into this articles. I had no idea about metals in our body and their uses. Very interesting read. Thanks

  • lynette mayo says:

    WHAT can l eat with toxic levels of Copper! most sites are about what to avoid, not beneficial foods !

  • Mary says:

    How is someone exposed to toxic metals?

  • Richard says:

    My home has a lot of copper plumbing in it. Do I need to get this replaced? If so can I do it in phases?

  • nilu says:


    I have since my 13 extreme form of PMDD. I also have PCOS. I am really lost. I have extreme fear,. I have problems with when things change and i cannot deal with stress…even little stress make me want to kill myself. I have used few month ago colloidal copper for my skin also. I don’t know what make my symptoms suddenly go worse. I have now for a week extreme fear and feel restless. I have used deer placenta and also used pearl powder. I i used 400 mg potassium gluconate. Vitamin B12, melatonine 5 mg, zinc and magnesium. My hair is falling on the top of my head. I have acne on my face suddenly. I don’t know what i should do. I stop the colloidal copper but i am still living in fear!

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Your history is complex and you should seek professional help for any emotional or mental burden you have as it can be very serious and is well beyond the general educational nature of this blog. Proper workup is needed by conventional medicine.

      Dr Lam

    • Judy says:

      Look up Nutritional Balancing for adrenal blow out. I hope this helps, so that you can find some peace.

  • Jamie says:

    Is it safe to do a metal detox while pregnant to reduce the chance of giving the baby high copper levels?

  • Anna Tveretinov says:

    Does copper IUD cause copper overload? Many women use this as an alternative to hormonal treatment; however, is it best not to insert a heavy metal into the reproductive system? In advance thank you for this informative article.

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Any metal that does not belong in the body should not be there unless there are no other choices. Copper is no exception.

      Dr Lam

  • Martha says:

    Is there anything that I can do while I am pregnant so that I do not pass on any copper to my baby.

    • Dr.Lam says:

      That is a good question. excessive copper can be chelated out during pregnancy but it may make you feel worse and the chelating agent may not be good for your baby. Most people just ride it thru until after baby is born.

      Dr Lam

  • Isriel G says:

    Very interesting subject. I looked up this article because my daughter stuck a penny in her mouth. Do you think that a child putting coins in their mouths can result in any serious symptoms? Maybe I’m just being a concerned father. Thanks.

  • Tommy says:

    Should a zinc supplement do the trick?

  • Dr Kanj says:

    Hats off to Dr lam. I have to say. This has to be one of the most informative article on adrenal fatigue. I am a naturopath with some experience in treating patients with adrenal fatigue, and if I may I would like to highlight the only three things missing in this article to complete it.
    1) sleeping before 11pm (falling asleep before 10:59 pm) is absolutely essential in restoring hormones, flushing out toxins and giving the adrenals the rest they need.
    2) extra oxygen for the body through oxygen breathing, ozone, oxygen baths etc. As oxygen really help the body cope and detox much faster
    3) Most importantly; I believe the most hidden and prime cause of adrenal fatigue is heavy metal poisoning. Removing these heavy metals is most important if one is to recover from adrenal fatigue. ( if the cause of Adrenal fatigue is from heavy metals) and i find that 90% of cases of advanced adrenal fatigue is because of heavy metal poisoning.

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Thanks for your contribution.

      Dr Lam

    • Pat says:

      Hello. What is your recommendation for removing mercury and aluminum?

      • Dr.Lam says:

        If you have for a long time, sometimes the process of removal can be problematic. the popular things appears to be agressively remove them. The clinical reality is that everyone reacts to such metal differently. There are many bad things in the world, but not everything has to be removed ,and if you have a weak or sensitive body, as is often the case with AFS, you can trigger adrenal crashes. Doing the right thing at the wrong time can make you worse. Removal can be by way of natural chelating agents, chemical agents, or IV agents. Many ways. Everyone is different.

        Dr Lam

  • Jack says:

    What do you recommend to lower copper levels? would just increasing my zinc balance the two out or would detoxifying my body better remove it from my system?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Zinc tend to oppose cooper, but if you have high cooper, you should find out why as the first step and focus on that. Detoxification can help sometimes but can also make matters worse in AFS setting. be careful

      Dr Lam

  • Kara says:

    Is it better to take zinc or vitamin C to help balance out high copper?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Zinc is the traditional balancer. In the setting of AFS howevere, you have to be aware that zinc can be stimulating and can make you worse.

      Dr Lam

  • Laus K. says:

    I’ve never really gotten into the properties of copper. This read was interesting. TY.

  • Phil says:

    I had no idea copper imbalance would be associated with hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue. This is very informative information! thank you dr lam!

  • Jen says:

    When taking copper and zinc is it best to take a digestive enzyme as well?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Copper and zinc should only be taken with care, and usually short term. Digestive enzyme is a seperate issue and most people should take regardless of whether copper or zinc is on board or not.

      DR Lam

  • Rebecca says:

    Wow so interesting than kyou!!!

  • Sierra says:

    Great article! One thing I’m confused about in the article is, it says that copper “binds” to zinc to be removed from the body, then further in the article it says it binds to Cp and metallothionein.

  • Tana says:

    I have been going in and out of the Doc with strange symptoms. I started having symptoms of low stomach acid. But no matter how much HCL I took it didn’t go away. I eventually started having strange icy hot sensations on my skin. I had to quit my job. I have no appetite. My pregnalone is off the charts. My DHEA is high normal. I had my zinc and copper levels tested via hair, spectracell, and 24 hour urine. Copper and zinc show to be high. It’s VERY confusing. I’ve lost 25lbs. I’m not eating much. I also take thyroid for hypo. I just developed iron anemia. I’m desperate and confused!!!!

    • Kimberly Walter says:

      Your situation seems very much like mine. I spent 30 yrs trying to uncover my headaches, which ended up being copper toxicity. Let me know and I’ll be happy to share what I know.

  • Melanie says:

    copper IUD’s would be very problematic then? I had one for 8 years and adrenal fatigue amongst other issues have taken their toll. I’m free of it now…wondering how to recover. Thank you for the info!!!

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Its ok for most people, but if you have weak constitution or already underlying weak adrenals, it can be quite problematic. Zinc tend to oppose cooper but in a setting of advance AFS, zinc can crash you so you need to be quite careful.

      Dr Lam.

      • Deanna says:

        I’m certain I have copper toxicity from my copper IUD. I now have adrenal fatigue & hypothyroidism & a horrible case of pregnancy mask from the copper. How do you balance the copper levels? For zinc & manganese is it bad to take it daily? I can’t find a doctor that will actually believe me & provide a proper dosage.

        • Gia says:

          I also believe I have Copper Toxicity and AFS, and can not get any of my doctors to take me serious. I don’t know what to do at this point. I had my IUD put in, in December and then started having digestive issues…by March I was in the operating room having my gallbladder removed. I have put on a significant amount of weight since having my gallbladder removed and I truly believe it is all because of the copper IUD and it attacking my system. Any insight what to do is greatly appreciated.

  • Barret says:

    Interesting article! I have seen the scalp massage devices that use copper prongs to stimulate the scalp. Does this work like copper in the body? Thanks Dr. Lam.

    • Dr.Lam says:

      If the cooper comes off and find its way into the body excessively, then you have an issue. Otherwise, it should not.

      Dr Lam

  • Suchita says:

    Hi, I have elevated copper levels and am scheduled to go through IVF February 17 for egg retrieval and mid March for implant of embryo. Is it still safe to do IVF? What can I do to increase chance of a successful pregnancy?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Sorry that is outside my area of expertise and you need to consult a functional OBGYN doctor for answer to that very specific issue.

      Dr Lam

  • Murphy says:

    I read somewhere that even using copper counters can affect the amount of copper in food, so I know it wouldn’t be an exact number, but is there anywhere I can find a chart that lists copper content for food? Thank you Dr. Lam, for everything you do!

  • fiamma says:

    thank you, i have lots of questions for my GP now. fiamma from Australia

  • Jarred says:

    Can excess copper and zinc lead to metal toxicity?