Hair Analysis: Copper Deficiency, Anaemia & More

I’ve written quite a lot about high copper as seen in hair tissue mineral analysis (hair analysis) and sometimes in blood tests, because this is the most common presentation that we see. If you want to read more about high copper and how it can affect your health, you can check out my previous posts:

Up until recently I haven’t had many cases of low copper. However, this seems to be becoming more common. In 2005 Interclinical Laboratories (1), reviewing their data, said that copper deficiency was rare and until recently it has not been talked about a lot, although it is obviously a problem for some people.

This increase in copper deficiency is likely due to changing dietary choices, increase in processed foods and eating out, meaning people are not eating as many copper-rich foods as they once did. The added increase in digestive disorders, and the widespread use of medications and supplements that deplete or interfere with copper absorption are the other major factors.

Dr Axe says that copper is the third most prevalent mineral in the body, but it can’t be made by the body itself. Because many of the body’s processes use copper and it can’t be stored in sufficient amounts, it must be obtained from the diet. I’ve included a chart at the end of copper rich foods (2).

Luckily for vegetarians and vegans, nuts (cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, almonds, pistachios) and some legumes (peanuts, borlotti beans, lentils, soy beans) are good food sources for copper.

Increasing high copper foods through diet is your best way of supplementing as the body will only use what it needs. However, there may be cases where a specific copper supplement is required.

Other conditions with similar presentations to low copper include infections, drug toxicity, autoimmunity, B12 deficiency, folate deficiency, myelodysplastic syndrome, aplastic anaemia and lymphoma with bone marrow involvement (3).

Medically Induced Low Copper

In some cases medically induced (iatrogenic, ie caused by medications/treatments) low copper may present as a result of the situations below, for example:

  • excess zinc, iron or vitamin C supplementation (see below)
  • inadequate stomach acid, which is required for digestion generally and in particular for digestion of copper. Drugs like proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers that suppress stomach acid secretion interfere with copper uptake
  • history of bariatric surgery, such as gastric bypass
  • history of gastrectomy (surgical removal of a part or all of the stomach)
  • history of upper gastrointestinal surgery
  • malabsorption syndrome, such as celiac or inflammatory bowel disease, where a person may not fully absorb all the nutrients in their food.

Obviously gut function is one of the major causes we would think of these days for a lot of conditions, but particularly in this situation where the body is unable to absorb the copper from the food or from supplements and to assimilate it.

Genuinely low Copper & Anaemia

However, there are some cases where copper is genuinely low and this can be an under-recognised reason for anaemia. This type of anaemia may be unresponsive to iron, vitamin B12 or folate supplementation. Usually in these instances iron levels have been tested regularly.

Many doctors, however, automatically prescribe iron to any patient with signs and symptoms of anaemia without actually testing to see if iron is deficient. Or people self-prescribe zinc through winter or for immune support, not realising this can upset other finely balanced levels. It is definitely a balancing act between zinc and copper!

Symptoms of Copper Deficiency

Some of the mild to moderate symptoms of copper deficiency may include:

  • Fatigue and weakness – Copper is essential for absorbing iron from the gut, so when copper levels are low the body struggles to absorb the iron, which may lead to iron deficiency anaemia. In addition, cells use copper to generate ATP, which is the body’s main source of energy.
  • Brain fog, problems with memory and learning – Copper plays an important role in brain function and development, and a deficiency may make it harder to learn and retain information. There may also be a connection with Alzheimers and Parkinsons.
  • Pale skin/face & premature greying of the hair – Copper is used by enzymes that produce melanin, the pigment which colours the skin. Therefore, copper deficiency could affect the production of this pigment, causing pale skin. There is also a suggestion that for the same reason, deficient copper may lead to premature greying of the hair.
  • Shortness of breath – due to lack of iron and consequent poor oxygenation and low immune function.
  • Frequent illness – People who are often unwell may have copper deficiency because copper plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system. When copper levels are low, the body may struggle to make immune cells, affecting the body’s ability to fight infection.
  • Weak and brittle bones – Studies have shown that people with osteoporosis may have low levels of copper, due to the processes copper is involved in in the bones.
  • Arthritis – Copper is involved in maintenance of all the cells and is therefore important for assisting with joint and muscle pain.
  • Sensitivity to cold – Copper, along with other minerals like zinc, helps balance thyroid function. Thyroid has an effect on metabolism and if thyroid levels are affected by inadequate copper, there may be a tendency to feeling the cold.
  • Anaemia which does not improve with treatment – this is where the patient has had multiple rounds of iron supplements of infusions, but the levels have not improved or drop quickly.
  • Thyroid function – Copper is required for proper thyroid function, where it works with the other trace minerals (zinc, potassium, calcium) that are needed for balance.
  • Multiple Sclerosis – There is some evidence to show that people diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, early-stage multiple sclerosis, and various immunodeficiency disorders actually have unrecognized copper deficiency (4).

Causes of Low Copper

There are a range of causes for low copper:

  • Genetics, which would include inherited low copper or poor gut function from the parents
  • Lowered intake of copper through anorexia or malnutrition
  • An increased need during pregnancy, lactation and in premature babies
  • There may be increased losses caused by impaired absorption from condition such as IBS, coeliac, Crohn’s and general gut dysfunction.
  • As mentioned above too much zinc, iron and vitamin C can drive down copper levels.

What can you do about Low Copper?

According to a recently published study (5), mild to moderate copper-deficiency appears to be reversible when recognised early.

This, however, is not something to be treated at home as the balance between copper, zinc and iron is a delicate one and from a homeopathic and nutritional perspective is something that needs professional help. I have seen how easy it can be to drive down copper unintentionally by taking zinc through the winter as an immune support.

Copper supplementation is not required in high amounts and is relatively easy to achieve from the diet. However, if the body is unable to assimilate nutrients, then a different approach is required.

Again, from a homeopathic perspective this would include individualised constitutional treatment to balance up the whole system, probably including a bowel nosode for gut function and tissue salts to support uptake and assimilation, and iron, zinc and copper levels generally. I do sometimes use supplementation if levels are very low but my aim is always to get the system to function more efficiently.

I’ve included the food source chart below (6) just for reference. There are easy options for vegetarians and vegans in here and this can be a good, low-risk place to start, but your best option is going to be hair analysis to ascertain what is going on.

Sources of Copper


Amount
RDI
Beef liver, cooked 28 g 458%
Oysters, cooked 6 133%
Lobster, cooked 145 g 141%
Lamb liver, cooked 28 g 99%
Squid, cooked 85 g 90%
Dark chocolate 100 g 88%
Oats, raw 1 cup (156 g) 49%
Sesame seeds, roasted 28 g 35%
Cashew nuts, raw 28 g 31%
Sunflower seeds, dry roasted 28 g 26%
Mushrooms, cooked 1 cup (108 g) 16%
Almonds, dry roasted 28 g 14%

 

Getting a Hair Analysis

I’ve worked with InterClinical Laboratories for almost 20 years and find their reports give me everything I need to understand what is going on and prescribe homeopathically.

In terms of reading a hair analysis, this takes a lot of experience and knowledge, so make sure you work with a practitioner who has had plenty of experience. What you see on the front of the hair analysis is not necessarily what you get!

Resources:


Melanie Creedy trained in the UK in the early 1990s and holds a Bachelor of Health Science in Homeopathy. She is registered with the Australian Register of Homoeopaths (AROH) and is a member of the Australian Homoeopathic Association.

She was Vice President and Professional Development Coordinator of the Australian Homoeopathic Association from 2011 to 2015 and is editor of the AHA National Newsletter.

Melanie has used homeopathy for 30 years and has been in practice since 1998. For many years she ran The Children’s Ear Clinic in Western Australia, but since her tree change to Tasmania, has a special interest in women’s and children’s health generally and helping individuals manage their journey on the spiritual path with homeopathy and her range of essences. Melanie has developed her own methods of dealing with complex cases over the years and offers distance consultations via phone and skype to allow people Australia-wide to access her services.

Homeopathy is a traditional medicine. It may be used in conjunction with other medicines. For any ongoing chronic condition or serious acute illness, it is important to be assessed or examined by your GP or specialist. Always seek medical advice in emergencies. The information provided in this blog does not constitute medical advice but is for information only. If in doubt as to the appropriateness of a  suggestion or treatment seek advice from your healthcare professional.