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Copper deficiency and its effect on health

The other day I was eating lunch with a friend and colleague and he mentioned that copper can increase the risk of cancer. This was not the first time I had heard something scary about copper. Last year, another friend (a medical doctor) also mentioned copper's association with cancer, especially hormonal types. How could something so integral to our body be so bad, I wondered.

I researched it. Just like I suspected, copper is essential to good health. We don't need a lot of copper, but certain healthy amounts are vital and essential to our health and well-being. It's all about balance!

Copper is required for the formation of about 50 enzymes and it's needed for our transporters, which shuttle hormones and neurotransmitters all over your body. Copper protects the lining of blood vessels and myelin. It supports energy production. Did you hear that? Energy! How many of you suffer with chronic fatigue? If you have iron deficiency anemia that doesn't respond to iron supplementation, and your ferritin remains suppressed, you might be copper deficient. You need iron to make hemoglobin, the main component of red blood cells, and you cannot absorb iron without copper. Long story short, copper deficiency is sometimes at the heart of resistant iron deficiency anemia. An "RBC copper" blood test can reveal this.

Symptoms of copper deficiency include pale skin, gray hair, skin lesions or dryness, dizziness, weakness, poor immunity, shortness of breath and malabsorption issues. Low copper is associated with low white blood cells, leukemia and other blood irregularities. Here's what else you should know:

1. Zinc supplements lower copper levels. If you've been consuming zinc supplements for a long time then you might be copper deficient, and vice versa. Ask your doctor about the zinc to copper ratio, but it's about 10 to one.

2. Elevated copper can cause neurological problems, possibly schizophrenia, phobias and panic attacks; however, the research isn't clear on this. Some people produce large amounts of a group of chemicals known as pyrroles. In excess, pyrroles irreversibly latch onto zinc and vitamin B6 and take it out of the body via urine. Once zinc is depleted, copper levels rise. So is it the copper that causes the problem, or the high pyrroles? If you or someone you love is coping with a mental illness, a simple urine test can tell whether pyrrole levels are high.

3. Copper is part of a transport system in your body that protects the inner lining of your blood vessels. Deficiencies will make your vessels lose elasticity and rupture easily.

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4. Copper is needed to make melanin, so deficiencies are often seen in people with premature gray hair.

5. Cardiac arrhythmias can result from low copper status.

6. Copper helps you make elastin and collagen and these are components of bone and connective tissues. Copper may be useful for osteoporosis.

7. Resveratrol supplements are drug muggers of copper.

8. Copper can help you manage cholesterol.

Columnist Suzy Cohen is a registered pharmacist and author.

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