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Copper is a trace mineral that is essential for human health. It works with enzymes, which are proteins that aid in the biochemical reactions of every cell. Copper assists these enzymes in many crucial reactions in the body.

Copper’s functions include:

  • Assisting in energy production
  • Protecting cells from free radical damage
  • Helping lysyl oxidase, an enzyme that strengthens connective tissue
  • Assisting the brain neurotransmitters, norepinephrine, and dopamine
  • Helping your body make hemoglobin, which is needed to carry oxygen to red blood cells
  • Keeping the immune system, bones, blood vessels, and nerves healthy
Recommended Intake
Age Group Recommended Dietary Allowance/Adequate Intake (micrograms/day) Upper Limit (micrograms/day) 0-6 months200Not determinable7-12 months220Not determinable1-3 years3401,0004-8 years4403,0009-13 years7005,00014-18 years8908,00019 years and older90010,000 Pregnancy 18 years and younger 1,0008,000 Pregnancy over 18 years 1,00010,000 Lactation 18 years and younger 1,3008,000 Lactation over 18 years 1,30010,000
*Adequate intakes

Copper Deficiency
Many studies show that Americans consume less than adequate amounts of dietary copper. However, copper deficiency in adults is rare. A deficiency may occur, though, due to certain genetic problems, long-term shortages of dietary copper, or excessive intakes of zinc and iron. In addition, premature infants and infants suffering from malnutrition may have deficiencies of copper. People who have had gastric surgery or have conditions that affect how their bodies absorb nutrients are also at risk for copper deficiency.

Symptoms of copper deficiency include anemia, bone loss, a decrease in certain white blood cells, loss of hair color, and pale skin.

If you are unable to meet your copper needs through dietary sources, copper supplements may be necessary. Copper supplements are usually taken by mouth, but in some cases are given by injection. Your doctor should determine if you need such supplementation.

Copper Toxicity
Cases of toxicity from copper are rare.

Excess copper intake may lead to liver and kidney damage. Symptoms of copper toxicity may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Signs of liver damage like yellow eyes or skin
Major Food Sources
Foods high in copper include:

  • Beef liver
  • Shellfish
  • Cashews
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Almonds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Lentils
  • Chocolate
Health Implications
If you have a condition that impairs your body’s ability to absorb, use, and excrete copper, your doctor may recommend changing your dietary intake of copper. For example, Wilson’s disease is a genetic condition in which the body cannot excrete copper resulting in increased copper levels in the body. Another genetic disease, Menkes syndrome, prevents copper absorption in the intestine and produces symptoms of copper deficiency.

Taking certain medications or supplements may also affect your copper levels. Zinc supplements, for instance, can interfere with how your body absorbs copper. If you are concerned about how much copper you are getting in your diet, talk to your doctor.

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

US Department of Agriculture

Dietitians of Canada

Copper. Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University website. Available at: Updated December 2013. Accessed October 8, 2014.

Copper deficiency. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated June 20, 2014. Accessed October 8, 2014.

Dietary reference intakes: elements. Institute of Medicine website. Available at: Accessed October 8, 2014.

Obikoya G. The benefits of zinc. The Vitamins & Nutrition Center website. Available at: Accessed October 8, 2014.

Last Reviewed September 2014

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