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Copper Toxicity Syndrome



by Lawrence Wilson, MD

Do you know anyone who suffers from headaches, fatigue, insomnia, depression, skin rashes, spaciness or detachment, learning disorders or premenstrual syndrome?  These can be symptoms of a copper imbalance. It is an extremely common nutritional imbalance, although it is often overlooked, in part because it is not always simple to detect.        Copper is an essential trace mineral that is vitally important for both physical and mental health.  It has been studied for years, including at government laboratories.  However, its importance for health is still largely unappreciated.  The following article is an introduction to the large subject of copper imbalance.  The author is deeply indebted to Dr. Paul C. Eck, an avid copper researcher.


Copper is critical for energy production in the cells.  It is also involved in nerve conduction, connective tissue, the cardiovascular system and the immune system.  Copper is closely related to estrogen metabolism, and is required for women’s fertility and to maintain pregnancy. 

Copper stimulates production of the neurotransmitters epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine.  It is also required for monoamine oxidase, an enzyme related to serotonin production.


        It is possible for a person to become copper-toxic, copper-deficient or to have a condition called biounavailable copper.  In the latter, copper is present, but cannot be utilized.  When copper is biounavailable, one may have symptoms of both copper toxicity and copper excess.  This occurs because copper is present in excess in certain organs and tissues of the body, but is not usable in other key areas.  Biounavailability often occurs due to a deficiency of the copper-binding proteins, ceruloplasmin or metallothionein.  Without sufficient binding proteins, unbound copper may circulate freely in the body, where it may accumulate primarily in the liver, brain and female organs.

        Copper toxicity and biounavailability are seen most often.  These occur almost always in people who are in a state called slow oxidation.  Copper deficiency occurs most often in people who are in the state called fast oxidation.  This article uses the words copper imbalance when more than one of the three types of copper problems are possible.


        Blood, urine, feces and hair testing are used to detect copper imbalance.  Liver biopsy is also used on rare occasions.  Let us examine each method from my experience.        Serum copper levels are not considered a reliable way to detect copper imbalance because copper may not accumulate in the blood.  Serum ceruloplasmin may be more accurate.

         Simple urine testing is also inaccurate because copper is stored deep in organs such as the brain and liver.  Urine challenge testing with penicillamine, a strong copper chelator, is much better.  With this procedure, one first gives a dose of penicillamine and then collects the urine for 24 hours.  However, this still will miss much copper that is stored deep within body organs and tissues.  Chelating agents primarily remove minerals from the blood and arterial walls.

        Liver biopsy for copper is accurate, but costly, invasive and in my experience unnecessary except perhaps in rare cases of Wilson’s disease.

        Hair is not a primary site of copper deposition.  However, if one knows how to interpret the hair analysis, one can often rapidly and non-invasively assess copper status.


        The following is accurate in my experience, based mainly on symptom correlation.  Hair must not be washed at the laboratory  for accurate results.  See the article entitled Hair Analysis Controversy in regards to washing of the hair at the laboratory.

Assessing Low Copper.  Following are hair indicators for a need for copper supplementation:

1) A fast oxidation rate.  This is identified for you on tests from Analytical Research Laboratories.  The criteria are a calcium/potassium ratio less than 4:1 and a sodium/magnesium ratio greater than 4.17;1.

2) When the sodium/potassium ratio is less than about 2.2-2.5:1, one often needs copper in some amount.  Copper may be low or biounavailable.

Assessing Biounavailable Copper.  When copper is present in excess, often it is biounavailable as well.  This may give rise to a combination of symptoms of toxicity and deficiency.  Primary indicators of biounavailability include:

1) A copper level less than 1.0 in a slow oxidizer.
2) A sodium/potassium ratio less than about 2.5:1.

Assessing Copper Toxicity. Indicators include:

        Slow oxidation.  Most slow oxidizers have copper toxicity and often biounavailable copper.  Slow oxidation is indicated on hair analyses from Analytical Research Labs and Trace Elements, Inc.  The basic criteria for it are a calcium/potassium ratio greater than 4:1 and a sodium/magnesium ratio less than 4.17:1.  Calcium/phosphorus ratio above 2.5 is also used at times to assess a slow oxidation rate.

        More definite indicators in conjunction with slow oxidation are:    

a: calcium /potassium ratio greater than 10:1.

b: zinc less than about 12

c: zinc/copper ratio less than about 6.

d: sodium/potassium ratio less than about 2:1.  This is specifically an indicator for biounavailable copper.

e: copper level less than 1.0 mg%.  This is specifically an indicator for biounavailable copper.

        Indicators for copper toxicity that may be seen in both fast and slow oxidizers include:

1) A calcium level greater than about 120 mg%.

2) A potassium level less than about 4 mg%.

3) A mercury level of greater than 0.06 mg%.  In the book I co-authored with Dr. Paul Eck, entitled Toxic Metals in Human Health and Disease (1989), we wrote that the mercury level needs to be 0.4 mg% for hidden copper to be present.  I now believe the level is closer to 0.05-0.06. 


        Physical conditions associated with copper imbalance include arthritis, fatigue, adrenal burnout, insomnia, scoliosis, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, migraine headaches, seizures, fungal and bacterial infections including yeast infection, gum disease, tooth decay, skin and hair problems and female organ conditions including uterine fibroids, endometriosis and others.

        Mental and emotional disorders related to copper imbalance include spaciness, depression, mood swings, fears, anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, violence, autism, schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorder.  Copper deficiency is associated with aneurysms, gout, anemia and osteoporosis.           Interestingly, the symptoms of premenstrual tension are identical to the symptoms of copper imbalance. 


        Today, many children are born with excessive tissue copper.  It is passed from high-copper mothers to their children through the placenta.

        Stress from any cause contributes to copper imbalance.  Stress depletes the adrenal glands and lowers the zinc level in the body.  Whenever zinc becomes deficient, copper tends to accumulate.  Our soil is low in zinc.  Refined sugar, white rice and white flour have been stripped of their zinc.  The trend toward vegetarianism reduces zinc in the diet, since red meat is the best dietary source of zinc.

 Copper is found in many foods, particularly vegetarian proteins such as nuts, beans, seeds and grains.  Meats contain copper, but it is balanced by zinc which competes for its absorption.  Chocolate is high in copper.  A desire for copper may help explain chocolate cravings.

        Another source of copper is drinking water that remained in copper water pipes, or copper added to your water supply.  During a recent dry summer, several Oregon cities added copper sulfate to their reservoirs to reduce algae growth.  Accident and disease rates increased.

        Other sources of copper are copper cookware, dental materials, vitamin pills, fungicides and pesticides residues on food, copper intra-uterine devices and birth control pills.  Mrs. Robinson and her 6-month-old, breast-fed baby both began to experience hair loss.  The cause was a daily prenatal vitamin containing 4 milligrams of copper, far too much for this high-copper mother.        Deficiencies of manganese, iron, B-vitamins and vitamin C can cause copper to accumulate.  Adrenal hormones cause the liver to produce ceruloplasmin, the main copper binding protein in the body.  Therefore, a sluggish liver or weak adrenal glands may cause copper to build up in the tissues. 


        There exists a high copper personality.  Positive traits include a warm, caring, sensitive, emotional nature, often with artistic orientation and a child-like quality.  Often high-copper people are young-looking.  Many traditionally feminine traits are associated with copper such as softness, gentleness and intuitiveness.  This may relate to the qualities of metallic copper, which include softness, malleability and an excellent conductor of electricity.

        When the personality is not fully integrated or the copper becomes too high, negative traits show up.  These include spaciness, racing thoughts, living in a dream world, naiveté, childishness, excessive emotions, sentimentality, a tendency to depression, fearfulness, hidden anger and resentments, phobias, psychosis and violence.  Artists, inventors and other high-copper types often “live on the edge”, in part due to their high copper level.

        The copper personality tends to accumulate copper easily.  Copper can function as a psychological defense mechanism.  It causes one to detach slightly from reality.  This provides relief from stress for the sensitive individual.  It works well as long as the copper does not become too high.  Very high copper can cause a psychotic break from reality, a type of schizophrenia.

        An 18-year old schizophrenic patient had a hair copper level of 41 mg% (normal is 2.5 mg%).  She hallucinated and attempted suicide twice while in the Scottsdale Camelback Mental Hospital.  When her copper was brought back into the normal range with a nutritional balancing program, her symptoms disappeared and she has remained well ever since.  This case is described on page 224 of Nutritional Balancing and Hair Mineral Analysis.  No chemical chelators were used.


        Is it possible that our mineral balance affects our attitudes?  Copper is called the ‘psychic’ mineral, the ‘intuitive’ mineral, and a ‘feminine’ mineral because it is so important for the female reproductive system.  Its level generally parallels that of estrogen.  While many factors influence our attitudes and values, the rise in tissue copper levels in both men and women in the past twenty years parallels renewed interest in feminism, in psychic and intuitive knowledge, and ‘nurturing’ movements such as environmentalism. 


        Women tend to have higher levels of copper than men.  Women also have more symptoms related to copper imbalance.  These include yeast infections, migraine headaches, adult acne, various menstrual symptoms and depression.

        Copper-toxic women are often estrogen dominant.  They may benefit from progesterone therapy to help balance their hormones.  Women with biounavailable copper are often low in estrogen.  Their bodies are often more linear in shape.  Of course, copper is not the only factor affecting hormones.  Some pesticides, for example, mimic the effects of estrogen and can affect the hormone balance. 

        Men, by contrast, should be zinc-dominant.  Zinc, a ‘masculine’ element, balances copper in the body, and is essential for male reproductive activity.  Today, however, many men have symptoms of copper toxicity including depression, anxiety and other symptoms.  Homosexuality may be related to copper levels.  This is because secondary sex characteristics are greatly influenced by hormones which are in turn influenced by copper and zinc levels.


        Children are born with high copper levels.  Young children are very sensitive and intuitive.  They often lose some of their sensitivity and ‘psychic abilities’ as their copper levels diminish around age four.

        However, today persistently elevated copper levels in children are commonly seen.  At times, the copper is hidden.  This is disuc  The problem often begins during gestation, when high-copper mothers pass on excessive copper (and often low zinc) to the fetus through the placenta.  This is called congenital, rather than genetic high copper.  It can be prevented by correcting one’s copper metabolism before becoming pregnant.  After birth, poor nutrition, stress in the home, and overuse of prescription drugs can aggravate a child’s copper imbalance.

        Copper imbalance in children is associated with delayed development, attention deficit disorder, anti-social and hyperactive behavior, autism, learning difficulties and infections such as ear infections. 


        Excess copper interferes with zinc, a mineral needed to make digestive enzymes.  Too much copper also impairs thyroid activity and the functioning of the liver.  If severe enough, a person will become an obligatory vegetarian.  This means they are no longer able to digest meat very well.  Conversely, if one becomes a vegetarian for other reasons, most likely one’s copper level will increase.  Vegetarian proteins are higher in copper, and lower in zinc.

        At times, the vegetarian orientation is health-producing.  In many people, however, restricted diets do not work well.  Fatigue, spaciness and other symptoms begin to appear.  Many people, including the author, felt they were becoming more spiritual on a vegetarian diet, when in fact it was just copper poisoning!  The taste for meat often returns when copper is brought into better balance.

        Some people with high copper dislike all protein.  They crave high-carbohydrate diets.  Protein feels heavy or causes other symptoms.  Eating protein stimulates glandular activity.  This releases stored copper which causes the symptoms.  However, these individuals usually need to eat protein.  The symptoms will eventually disappear.

Copper-toxic individuals may also be drawn to sweets or salty foods due to adrenal insufficiency.  Some sea salt is often beneficial.  Sweets, including fruit juices, provide a temporary lift but may worsen the condition.


        Adrenal burnout, characterized by chronic fatigue and other symptoms, is often related to copper imbalance.  Although correcting emotional and other factors are necessary, improving the copper imbalance, supporting the adrenals and releasing fearful thoughts go hand in hand to restore optimum health.   Click here for more information about adrenal burnout syndrome.


        Compulsive behavior may be related to copper and the adrenals.  Exercise, for example, stimulates the adrenals.  This helps keep copper available and makes one feel better.  If one stops exercising, unbound copper builds up and one may feel fatigue, mood swings and depression.  In some people, this can create a compulsive need to exercise.  Other ways to temporarily control copper toxicity include the use of caffeine or other stimulants.

        Part of the appeal of cocaine, Ritalin and amphetamines may be their ability to help lower copper temporarily by stimulating the adrenals.  Cadmium found in marijuana and cigarettes drives copper back into storage.  These drugs may make one feel better by affecting the copper balance. 


        Our bodies use copper to help control the growth of yeast.  This may be because copper favors aerobic metabolism.  Copper is required for the electron transport system, where most of our cellular energy is produced.  Yeast organisms use anaerobic metabolism.

        Copper sulfate is often sprayed on crops to kill yeast and fungus.  Copper is also used in some swimming pools and hot tubs to control yeast and bacterial growth.

        When copper is out of balance, our bodies cannot control yeast overgrowth.  This often lead to chronic candida albicans infections that are resistant to treatment.


        Copper imbalance impairs the immune system.  Research is underway investigating the role of excess copper in tumor angiogenesis.  Elevated copper on a hair mineral analysis, when the level is above about 12 mg% and persists at this level, is often related to a tendency for infections and even cancer.


        Copper is required for collagen formation.  Copper deficiency is association with atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular conditions.  Excess copper or biounavailable copper often cause connective tissue problems, interfering with the disulfide bonds in connective tissue.  Symptoms may include stretch marks, tendon and ligament weakness, mitral valve prolapse, skin and hair problems and other conditions affecting connective tissue. 


        The author dealt with severe copper imbalance in himself and with many others for the past 18 years.  Seven methods are used to reduce copper in the tissues:

        1) Inhibit the sympathetic nervous system.  This is easier said than done.  Copper toxic individuals often complain of their mind racing.  Turning off the sympathetic or fight-or-flight nervous system can be a challenge.  Methods that are helpful include electric light sauna therapy, meditation, relaxation techniques, deep breathing, supplemental calcium, magnesium, ox bile, pancreatin, kidney glandular and coffee enemas.
        2) Reduce exposure to sources of copper like copper intra-uterine devices, swimming in pools and high-copper vegetarian diets.

        3) Antagonists such as zinc, manganese and iron compete with copper for absorption and utilization.  Other antagonists include vitamins B6, folic acid and selenium.  Research indicates copper may be excreted by binding with glutathione and metallothionine which require these nutrients.

        4) Chelators of copper include vitamin C, molybdenum and sulfur-containing amino acids.  These bind and remove copper.  More powerful chelators may be used, but can have harmful side effects.

        5) Enhance the eliminative organs, such as the liver, skin and colon.  Digestive enzymes, especially pancreatin, are very important.  Also excellent is sauna therapy, especially with an infrared electric light sauna.  Other methods of enhancing the eliminative organs are coffee enemas, colonic irrigation and skin brushing.

        6) Balance body chemistry, enhance energy production and improve adrenal gland activity.  To support the adrenal glands, avoid sweets, eat protein with each meal.  Supplements that assist the adrenals include vitamins A,C and E, manganese, zinc, adrenal glandular and B-complex vitamins.  Animal protein is very helpful due to its higher content of zinc, B-vitamins and sulfur amino acids including cysteine and taurine.  Adrenal glandular substance is also frequently helpful.

        7) Reduce fear and stress.  Methods range from a change in location or work to meditation, therapy, more rest and other changes.

        Note that just taking copper antagonists and chelators may not work very well.  This is because these, of themselves, do not assist to rebalance body chemistry.  In fact, they can make the overall balance of the electrolytes worse.  This is why a complete program of balancing body chemistry with nutritional balancing science is far preferable.  I will assist any practitioner who wishes to learn about this method of copper removal.

        For example, zinc and vitamin C, often used to correct a high copper, lower the hair sodium level.  Molybdenum, another excellent copper antagonist and chelator, raises sodium.  Each vitamin and mineral affects overall body chemistry.   For best results, I strongly recommend an integrated nutrition, lifestyle and detoxification program based on a properly performed and interpreted hair mineral analysis.  It is worth the extra time and energy in better results and avoiding unnecessary and costly supplements and other procedures. 


        One of the difficulties in reducing excess copper are symptoms that arise during the process of elimination.  As the body begins to mobilize excess copper from tissue storage sites, it enters the bloodstream on its way to the liver and kidneys for elimination.  While in the bloodstream, the copper can  cause headaches, skin rashes, racing thoughts, strange odors, digestive upset, mood swings and energy fluctuations.  In men, testicular pain is not uncommon.  Women’s periods may be affected.    

Certain methods of lowering copper cause these symptoms more than others. Zinc, vitamin C and manganese tend to cause more symptoms, perhaps because zinc and manganese replace copper in the liver.

 Molybdenum and sulfur compounds such as Russian black radish tend not to produce copper elimination effects.

        If one knows what is occurring, it is possible to take measures to minimize these temporary elimination symptoms.  Enemas, sweating, and drinking more water can help promote copper elimination.  Reducing the nutrition program for a few days may also help slow the reactions and reduce symptoms if they are severe.  Supplements of molybdenum, bile acids, laxative herbs and vitamin B6 may also mitigate elimination symptoms.  A more complete article on copper elimination is available by clicking here. An excellent copper toxicity case history is available by clicking here.


        Adequate rest and sleep are important.  Any technique to help handle stress is also helpful.  A simple but powerful technique for handling all negative emotions is given in an excellent book, Emissary of Light, by James Twyman.  He suggests to feel our negative emotions purely, dissociating them from thoughts.  Feel them in the body.  Then move the feeling to the heart area, visualize a small door just in front of you, open the door and release the emotion.  Realize that all feelings are just energies.  They can be transmuted, sent forth and used for good.

        High copper people are often sensitive, must acknowledge this and ‘live their own truth’.  At the same time, a careful look at one’s attitudes, especially hidden fears, angers and resentments, is very important.  Overcoming copper imbalance often involves overcoming deep fears.

        Life is not always easy for the copper-toxic person.  One can become resentful or depressed at times.  With understanding, a complete nutritional balancing program based on hair mineral analysis and lots of compassion for oneself, these obstacles can be overcome.  Then the creative, intuitive and loving qualities of the high-copper individual can shine through to the world.


1. Eck, P. and Wilson, L., Toxic Metals in Human Health and Disease, Eck Institute of Applied Nutrition and Bioenergetics, Ltd., Phoenix, AZ, 1989.

2. Gittleman, A.L., Why Am I Always So Tired?, Harper San Francisco, 1999.

3. Nolan, K., “Copper Toxicity Syndrome”, J. Orthomolecular Psychiatry, 12:4, p.270-282.

4. Pfeiffer, C., Mental and Elemental Nutrients, Keats Publishing, New Canaan, CT., 1975.

4. Twyman, J., Emissary of Light, Warner Books, New York, 1996.

5. Wilson, L., Nutritional Balancing and Hair Mineral Analysis, L.D. Wilson Consultants, 1998.

6. Wilson, L., Sauna Therapy, L.D.Wilson Consultants, Inc., 2006.