The Legend of Copper Toxicity
by Jon Sasmor RCPC (Mineral Guide, MinBalance LLC)
Updated March 13, 2022
One of the main differences between the Root Cause Protocol (RCP) and other nutritional programs: The RCP appreciates copper's wonderful natural functions. Other programs blame "copper toxicity" for every imaginable symptom.
How the Legend of Copper Toxicity Arose
The myth or legend of "copper toxicity" first arose around the 1970s with the work of Carl Pfeiffer MD who attributed certain biochemical imbalances, but not others, to the effect of copper.
Copper research never emphasized the idea of "copper toxicity" until a few decades after:
- people began adding megadoses of inorganic iron to food as "fortification",
- the soils and agricultural practices began to decline,
- synthetic chemicals took over the food and pharmaceutical industries, and
- humankind generally began trying in many ways to compensate for declining food quality with synthetic nutrients.
Thus, by Dr. Pfeiffer's time, many different aspects of modern life had begun to dislodge copper from its ability to perform its biological functions.
Since then, "copper toxicity" has expanded. It sometimes is said that everyone has "copper toxicity", and that it causes every symptom on any given list or questionnaire.
Many of the teachers I greatly respect have adopted the paradigm of "copper toxicity", including Dr. Paul Eck, Dr. Rick Malter, Dr. Lawrence Wilson, Dr. Carl Pfeiffer, Dr. William Walsh, Rick Fischer, and others. I agree with all of them about many things, and I admire their important work to educate about the importance of minerals.
However, the time has arrived to question the Legend of Copper Toxicity.
What the Legend Says
"Copper toxicity" usually is identified by various indirect indicators on a hair tissue mineral analysis (HTMA). Indirect indicators must be used because "copper toxicity" doesn't always show as a high copper level on an initial test.
Occasionally, "copper toxicity" may be identified from overt high hair copper levels. Some practitioners measure serum copper and ceruloplasmin levels, and identify "copper toxicity" from high copper level and/or high copper/ceruloplasmin ratio.
Questionnaires may be given, which usually include a wide variety of symptoms. Highly likely, you could match some symptoms to yourself and easily conclude you have "copper toxicity".
Later, after supplements are given to remove copper (such as ascorbic-acid-C and zinc), copper may rise on a hair test as symptoms reappear or worsen. But,
- Is excess copper being removed, or are the destructive supplements just knocking copper out of ceruloplasmin and making copper become toxic?
- As ceruloplasmin function is damaged by losing its copper, does iron get stuck in cells everywhere and cause the symptoms being blamed on copper?
- Have we scavenged copper from the enzyme sites where it was supposed to be working for us?
- And, by using excess zinc, have we weakened ourselves by locking down energy-making redox chemistry?
Copper's Wonderful Qualities
Copper does many wonderful things in the body! These include catalyzing:
- energy production enzymes (and we need energy for everything else!),
- antioxidant defense enzymes, and
- ferroxidase enzymes that keep us safe from the most abundant, damaging oxidant in the body, iron.
Copper must be bioavailable to work right. It must be properly bound to ceruloplasmin, hephaestin, cytochrome C oxidase, superoxide dismutase, and other enzymes that put copper to work.
So how did copper come to be considered "toxic" and get blamed for all sorts of symptoms?
Copper as the Primary Oxidant?
Many would agree that a multitude of different symptoms and unwanted phenomena may be attributed to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress involves unpaired electrons causing damaging chemical reactions in our bodies.
Copper is a redox-active mineral with two oxidation states, +1 and +2. Copper can give and receive an electron in redox reactions.
As a redox-active mineral, copper itself can cause oxidative stress. However, it does so only when not properly embedded in working copper enzymes.
The Legend of Copper Toxicity would say that excess copper is causing your oxidative stress-related issues. However, there's 60 times as much iron as copper in the human body! And unbound iron itself causes severe oxidative stress via the damaging Fenton reaction.
Copper: Our Hero, Protecting from Iron Oxidative Stress!
Copper enzymes, among many other functions, perform redox reactions that help protect the body from rusting. Rusting occurs when iron meets oxygen, unless iron is kept under control by copper-dependent processes.
Copper (our hero!) protects from iron oxidative stress. At every step, copper-dependent enzymes protect us from iron. Without copper working correctly for you in enzymes, then iron gets stuck, and causes oxidative stress. Then you get all kinds of symptoms.
Thus, copper is a convenient scapegoat for the dirty work of . . . stuck iron.
In contrast to its bad reputation, copper in copper-based enzymes protects from stuck iron causing oxidative stress. When working right for you, copper is the all-star anti-oxidant!
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Copper Toxicity Remedies Cause Copper Toxicity
Many common, popular, synthetic supplements and processed food ingredients dislodge copper from its enzyme sites or indirectly prevent copper's beneficial actions. Then copper stops working for us.
Indeed, once it's dislodged from its binding sites, copper itself may cause oxidative damage. But worse, the ferrous (+2) iron which then becomes stuck will cause even more oxidative damage.
Synthetic supplements and food fortifications that, in any amount, interfere with copper function include:
- iron (Fe)
- zinc (Zn)
- ascorbic acid (synthetic form of one part of vitamin C)
- vitamin D (not really a vitamin)
- molybdenum (Mo)
- B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, orotate)
As many of the proponents of "copper toxicity" correctly point out, there indeed are numerous toxic exposures in the modern world which interfere with copper function.
However, the synthetic nutrients they usually advocate are among the toxic exposures that block copper's function! Many isolated synthetic nutrients used in nutrition programs do bad things, just like other synthetic chemicals do.
Many of the above synthetic supplements are the same ones recommended by practitioners for "copper toxicity". Thus, the remedies for "copper toxicity" dislodge copper from its enzymes and wreak havoc on copper's wonderful functions.
As the much-needed copper leaves the body, iron gets stuck in cells, which makes symptoms show and worsen.
"Copper toxicity" occurs when synthetic nutrients or chemicals are ingested that make copper stop working and iron become stuck and toxic. These include the synthetic nutrients from the list above, which we encourage you to STOP in the Root Cause Protocol.
After giving synthetic supplements that dislodge copper from its enzymes, many practitioners then go chasing the "toxic" effects of copper. But they miss the loss of copper's beautiful energy-making, iron-mobilizing, and anti-oxidant functions, which they haven't helped you restore.
Nutritionally, what has been called "copper toxicity" mainly occurs indirectly as the result of iron food fortification, chemical exposure, and synthetic nutritional supplements from the list above. It is always accompanied by a failure of copper function, which can be remedied by a protocol to improve copper function.
"Copper toxicity" is a legend because too much copper isn't really the cause of one's problems. Instead, "copper sabotage" might be more appropriate. Exposures to other substances, including popular nutritional supplements, sabotage copper's ability to do its heroic work!
How to Make Copper Work for You!
If you experience symptoms coinciding with high hair copper, high serum copper/ceruloplasmin ratio, or other "copper toxicity" indicators, then copper isn't working for you, which means iron isn't working for you either.
The priority is to get copper and iron working for you again, not to remove copper.
Though oxidative stress indeed can relate to just about any symptom, it's not fair to blame copper for all oxidative stress. Copper may cause a little oxidative stress when not used properly; however iron seems likely to cause much more oxidative stress.
"Copper toxicity" has taken on a mythical nature, blaming all oxidative stress-related effects on just one relatively rare, highly beneficial redox-active mineral, an unlikely culprit.
Unlike other programs, the Root Cause Protocol identifies the root cause of oxidative stress and inflammation. Copper is the exact mineral needed to keep iron moving and prevent iron-related oxidative stress. Root Cause Protocol is designed in every way to activate copper to mobilize iron.
Copper blaming, though usually with good intentions for healing, seems a primitive and fearful approach before the Root Cause had been identified by Morley Robbins and others. The removal of copper in "copper toxicity" programs will produce or worsen bioavailable copper deficiency, which always will result in iron dysregulation. That's how copper and iron work together.
Many people benefit by switching to mainly natural nutrient sources, rather than synthetics. The Root Cause Protocol is one way to transition from synthetic supplements to more effective natural nutrient sources.
For a detailed guide on how to get started restoring copper function, please see the Root Cause Protocol Handbook. If you'd like a personalized consult with me about how copper and other minerals are working for you based on your lab results, please click here.