High Copper, Environmental Toxicity and Thyroid Dysfunction

Over the past few years I have had more and more patients, particularly women, presenting with high anxiety and varying levels of what we would term “stress”.

While many of these patients will have had blood tests, in the majority of cases they come back within range and their GP will tell them their thyroid function is fine. However, I would view a picture presenting with a combination of high anxiety, irritability, trouble sleeping, palpitations, weight gain, low energy, for example, as potentially being a thyroid problem.

As homeopaths, we are taught to first treat constitutionally, ie treat the whole person, and I have generally expected this to work. However, in recent times I have been finding that responses to a well-chosen remedy are not always successful.

This article looks at the connection between thyroid dysfunction, elevated copper, environmental factors and my own clinical journey to find management protocols. I share this information, as it can be the next step in an individual’s journey, particularly if they are one of the people who has a mix of the symptoms and situations discussed.

How do we approach a case?

The homeopathic approach to managing a case is set out in The Organon of Medicine (1), which is basically Samuel Hahnemann’s Homeopathy for Dummies! He tells us we must:

  1. See clearly what needs to be cured,
  2. Know what our medicines can do,
  3. Understand how to adapt what is curative in the medicines to what we have found to be diseased in the patient, according to clear principles.
The homeopath must also know what the obstacles to recovery are in each case and be aware of how to clear them away for restoration of health.

In our modern world, the list of ‘obstacles to recovery or cure’ are many and increasing. Some of these are going to perhaps be ‘maintaining causes’. The difference between these two being that we may be unable to remove a maintaining cause from the patient’s life and environment, and treatment will be supportive or palliative. We can bring improvement and improved quality of life but we cannot bring about ‘cure’ because it is impossible to remove this ‘maintaining cause’. I’ve outlined some of these factors below.

The Organon of Medicine refers to the fact that in a chronic case that does not improve with the best homeopathically selected medicine, this is a sign that the cause maintaining the disease still persists, ie some circumstance is to be found in the lifestyle or the environment of the patient, which must be removed for improvement to begin or to hold.

Obstacles to cure & maintaining causes

Some of the potential causes in our modern world are below, but no doubt we could all come up with others to add to this list.

• Unrelenting stress
• Unhealthy relationships
• Negative beliefs and attitudes
• Poor nutrition, including obsessive nutritional beliefs and practices
• Sedentary life style
• Over-exercising
• Addictions to substances such a nicotine, alcohol, drugs
• Addiction to the internet and social media
• Overuse of natural medicines (supplements, herbs, etc)
• Overuse of pharmaceutical drugs – prescribed and self-medicated
• Surgical interventions
• Indiscriminate use of pesticides, both in farming and by the home gardener
• Toxicity in our food, homes and general environment; for example lead, mercury, artificial preservatives and colourings, hormones
• Toxic homes and workplaces; for example furnishings, damp, moulds and spores, lighting, EMFs
• Geopathic stress
• Poor water quality generally from plastic water tanks, poorly treated town water, toxicity in rain and ground water

Over the last year or two an increasing number of my cases have been presenting with what I came to suspect were thyroid issues. I’ve certainly seen my share of thyroid issues and Hashimotos, an auto-immune form of thyroid dysfunction, which is generally already diagnosed and often medicated before the patient arrives at my door. I have also seen quite a number of cases which at first sight seem to be classic stress and anxiety, which is so common today.

Some cases present with symptoms linked to the menstrual cycle, with symptoms worse before the menses, and some mid cycle, and some are menopausal or peri-menopausal. Most of these patients have had issues with sleep. Almost without fail all have tested negative in a standard blood test for issues with their thyroid, so thyroid function appears to be within range.

In the past, I have been sceptical about these negative thyroid tests but in most cases good constitutional prescribing has usually resolved the whole picture without any other interventions. However, as time has gone on I have seen more and more women where this has not been enough to bring satisfactory results.

Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis

I have used hair analysis (HTMA) in my practice for more than fifteen years, in cases where well prescribed remedies do not bring change.

More and more I am seeing these types of cases, with a whole range of physical presentations. Through an examination of the individual cases, often coupled with hair analysis, it has become evident that the standard medical blood tests do not tell the whole story, but more worrying, the real story is often about the impact of our environment on our health.

The standard medical blood tests do not tell the whole story, but more worrying, the real story is often about the impact of our environment on our health.

While I would consider myself a classical homeopath, that is, I always first look at the whole person and seek the Simillimum (the remedy which fits the whole picture) in each case, I also find myself frequently considering the environment in which a patient has either grown up or is currently living, because we are subjected to a toxic cocktail of substances on a daily basis. And while not everyone is affected by these toxins, there does seem to be an epidemic of people coming through the clinic with health complaints which need a different kind of prescribing than, say, five years ago.

In the last couple of years, the number of hair analysis I am requesting has increased quite dramatically, although I still do not order them routinely. This tells me that something has changed either in the population or in the type of patients who are seeking help from homeopathy.

A hair analysis gives us a snapshot of the state of play of the various minerals in the body, particularly endocrine function, so adrenals, thyroid and hormones. While I am a homeopath and not a naturopath, it is very useful to understand what may be going on in our patients, particularly if well-chosen remedies are not helping. From this information, we may choose to change our remedies or perhaps add an organ remedy, bowel nosode, some tissue salts or even refer for further testing or to another practitioner for additional support.

One of the most common presentations is elevated copper and I have listed below the symptom picture you may expect. Obviously high copper is not the only thing we will see, but it is certainly becoming an increasing problem and if you read the list of causes of high copper you will understand why. Not only can a susceptible individual pick up copper from their environment, they may inherit a copper load (and heavy metals) from the parents, and we are now seeing a third or even fourth generation who have lived in an artificially high copper environment due, for example, to medical and manufacturing practices.

High copper & low iron

Many of the patients with high copper will also present with low iron, because the two are antagonistic (high copper pushes down iron levels). More and more children are also being diagnosed with low iron in a blood test, so this would also lead you to consider, among other things, high copper and the related symptom picture.

High copper & high or low zinc

Pyrroles disorder is another increasingly common problem, which is about B6 and zinc levels (high copper/low zinc), again connected with the higher copper and heavy metal toxicity. Equally we may see high copper and high iron where there is a mutated MTHFR gene (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase), another term we are likely to hear these days.

What is more important to understand is that these conditions are not the cause of the illness, but symptoms of the underlying problem and that by treating the person as a whole, we can bring about a return to health.

Back in 2005 Interclinical Laboratories undertook some analysis of their HTMA reports and found that in Western Australia, which is a major mining state, 40% of reports would show high copper levels. Deficiency of copper is much less common, with this presentation seen in around 7% of individuals over 35,000 HTMA reports (2). I have only seen a couple of cases in all my years which presented with significantly low copper. This can be caused by over supplementation of zinc and/or iron, among other things.

I have used homeopathic ‘chelation’ for more than fifteen years for high copper, mercury, cadmium, lead and so on, working out protocols for the more complex cases. Over the years, I have seen an increase in patients presenting with high copper and have delved into the symptom picture that this may present. More recently I have increasingly considered the connection between high copper and thyroid function, as I have seen an increase in the presenting picture and in cases where constitutional prescribing has failed to bring improvement.

It is hard to know which comes first – high copper or thyroid problems – but of course these elevated levels are part of a bigger picture and are also a symptom of the dis-ease, rather than the cause.

Sources of Copper

Copper (3) is found naturally in many foods in very small amounts, but it is the copper that comes from our environment that is a major problem. As you read through the list you may be surprised at the list of everyday substances which lead to an increase in copper in our system.

Sometimes, on a hair analysis, the elevated copper is not evident, as it may hide away in the tissue, so knowing what to look for is also part of the investigation. However, when copper is a big issue it is going to be staring us in the face! Often, I don’t need a hair analysis to be fairly certain it is part of the problem, although confirmation is always good and brings additional useful information on mineral levels and ratios.

Common sources of copper
  • Hormones (Oral Contraceptive Pill, patch, Mirena, HRT, copper IUD, IVF drugs) are a major source. Not just taking them, but potentially an inherited load from a mother who has taken the OCP or IVF drugs in the past.
  • Hormones are found in our drinking water supply, partly through the disinfecting process but also eliminated in the urine from the food we eat, which has been fed hormones in the growth process, and through hormones we ingest, as above. They end up in our water system because (so some sources say) they cannot be completely filtered out. (4)
  • Steroid drugs such as prednisone can raise tissue copper levels and deplete zinc.
  • Other medical drugs may impair the liver’s ability to remove copper from the system, a process which should happen naturally to maintain homoeostasis.
  • Chlorinated swimming pools and hot tubs, through the use of fungicides.
  • Fungicides and insecticides generally.
  • Dental prosthesis and other dental materials.
  • Copper pipes (and potentially plastic pipes – see below).
  • Hair treatments and dyes, particularly red hair colours.
  • Haemodialysis.
  • Industrial emissions and wastes.
  • Smoking – see below.
  • Vitamin tablets often contain copper, which people may take on a daily basis, not realising part of their problem is elevated copper.
  • Some foods are naturally high in copper (dark chocolate, some teas, nuts, avocados, yeast, soy products, dried fruit, mushrooms, shellfish and organ meat).
  • Some foods have artificial hormones added in the growth process, such as the hormones fed to cows, chickens, etc.
  • Environmental xenoestrogens are a considerable issue, being substances which mimic oestrogen action, affect oestrogen levels, or bind to oestrogen receptors. Chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), dichlorodiphenyl-trichlorethane (DDT), some drugs (e.g., anti-epileptic drugs), fungicides, cotinine, phytoestrogens, mycotoxins, bisphenol A (BPA) – which is found in many household plastics, phthalates, alkylphenols, and metalloestrogens. (5)
  • Xenoestrogens are present in a number of substrates such as cigarette smoke, automobile exhaust, chemical industry pollutants, grilled meat, volcano dust, forest fire smoke, milk, water, and cosmetic products. This means the whole population may be exposed to them and while at the high end of the scale, there are becoming more prevalent issues with a variety of cancers and in the clinic we are seeing hormonal and thyroid issues. (5)

Presenting picture of high copper in relation to women’s health

These are some of the symptoms which we may see in a patient who potentially has elevated copper in a hair analysis (6). Many of these symptoms also relate to thyroid dysfunction.

• Feelings of doom.
• Fatigue and exhaustion.
• Foggy, spacey mind or racing thoughts.
• Obsessive thoughts.
• Mood swings.
• Super-sensitive, weepy.
• Depression.
• Feelings of loss of control.
• Paranoia.
• Despair, suicidal feelings, hopelessness.
• Problems with concentration and memory.
• Eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, overeating.
• Panic attacks, high anxiety, free floating anxiety.
• Insomnia, interrupted sleep.
• Yeast infections (candida).
• Aching muscles or muscle cramps.
• Hypoglycaemia.
• PMS.
• Dry skin.
• Arthritis.
• Calcium spurs.
• Constipation.
• Headaches, migraines.
• Racing heart.
• Adverse reaction to vitamins and minerals.
• Chocolate cravings.
• Glandular Fever/Epstein Barr in the history.
• Low blood pressure.
• Cold hands and/or feet.
• Hypothyroid (author: my observation is thyroid dysfunction generally).

About the Thyroid Gland

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ located in the neck just in front of the trachea. The thyroid hormones regulate basal metabolism, oxygen use, the production of ATP, calcium homoeostasis and nutrient metabolism.

The thyroid hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) are produced and secreted by the thyroid gland in response to thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) from the anterior pituitary. Synthesis of the amino acid–derived T3 and T4 hormones requires iodine. Insufficient amounts of iodine in the diet can lead to goiter and other disorders, as can taking iodine in excess or when not required (7).

The thyroid hormones have a complex inter-relationship with the reproductive hormones and imbalance can impact libido, fertility and other reproductive functions. (8)

Presenting picture and cause

An overactive or dysfunctioning thyroid is quite common today, and seen more and more in younger adult women and in some men as well. Serum levels of T3 and T4 are often elevated. TSH is often low, but not necessarily.

Some of the presenting symptoms may be as listed (9). Compare these with the symptoms of high copper!

• Nervousness and tremor.
• Anxiety and/or irritability.
• Trouble sleeping.
• Excessive hunger or thirst.
• Mental fogginess and poor concentration.
• Menstrual changes.
• Feeling bloated/fluid retention.
• Increased heart rate (tachycardia) and palpitation
• Aches and pains.
• Weight gain.
• High cholesterol levels.
• Feeling hot or constantly cold.
• Feeling constantly fatigued.

From a homeopathic perspective, we would usually find stress in some form to be a major cause of thyroid dysfunction, for example, over work, having a baby, balancing work and family, relationship issues. This has been borne out in several studies on the effects of chronic stress on thyroid levels (10) (11).

Stress may be coupled with other factors such as genetics, inherited copper or mercury toxicity and environmental toxicity, and here we are also looking at miasmatic factors, which relates to what we inherit from our parents and family generally. (7)

Environmental factors which impact thyroid function

Some of the risk factors to the thyroid are medical radiation, environmental sources of radiation, environmental pollutants and excessive iodine intake.

As with elevated copper, we see many of the same culprits, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and bisphenol A (BPA).

Dr Brent (12) noted that environmental factors account for about 30% of the risk for auto-immune thyroid disease. Risk factors that are easily avoided include certain drugs, cigarette smoke, stress (although difficult to prove but again seen in practice), selenium deficiency and contaminated well water (perchlorates). (13)

Environmental toxins can interfere with thyroid function, including affecting thyroid hormone synthesis, metabolism and excretion. Most of these toxins reduce circulating thyroid hormone levels or impair thyroid hormone action, although some may influence the pituitary and TSH secretion, or even act as thyroid hormone receptor agonists.

A number of environmental toxins also interfere with iodine uptake and low iodine intake increases susceptibility. However, incorrect dosage of iodine can also alter thyroid function. The thyroid is able to compensate, continue to produce a normal amount of thyroid hormone despite disruption, in response to some of these environmental factors, by increasing serum TSH. (12)

Organochlorines in our environment are becoming increasingly studied for their adverse impacts on health and, in particular, thyroid function. The observations of one study also suggested, as with copper, the part prenatal exposure plays in the development of several adverse health indicators (e.g. increased prevalence of thyroid antibodies, impaired fasting glucose level, increased thyroid volume, decreased thymus volume, decreased neurobehavioral performance, increased hearing and dental disorders) in a young generation born to highly exposed mothers in polluted areas. (14)

What does this mean in practise?

I see many patients who have done the rounds of doctors and perhaps some other modalities. Often the problem has been identified by a naturopath and supplementation undertaken. Sometimes, because of results always being within range in a blood test, patients have been satisfied that the thyroid is in fact functioning as it should be. But a close look and some close questioning will prove this is not the case.

In my experience, the best way to manage any case is to first work out a constitutional remedy, based on the whole picture. My view is that in order to bring about long-term improvement, it is necessary to bring the system back into balance with the simillimum (the remedy which fits the whole picture), while supporting the weakened organ, in this case the thyroid.

Sometimes the simillimum will resolve the issues with anxiety and sleeplessness quite nicely without any further chelation or thyroid support, but often the common symptoms of hair loss, weight gain and anxiety do not resolve altogether. Presenting pictures have differed widely, so at first glance they may not seem to be a case of thyroid dysfunction, because the symptom picture might be joint pain, constipation, depression and so on.

This is a work in progress, with new information and insights coming regularly into the mix. The impact of our environment and also our many medical interventions is wide ranging and often permanent. Certainly, in practice my questioning is extending not just to current environment but childhood and also parent’s living environment, jobs and factors such as whether parents were inclined to spray widely with chemicals, etc.

I consider myself a classical homeopath from the perspective that I firstly seek the remedy which covers the whole case. The more I learn and study and the more patients I see who have done the rounds of other modalities, the more I see that homeopathy is a more gentle, much less invasive, more effective tool than many. As homeopaths, we have the tools to support many of these patients and bring change or at least improved quality of life in many cases.

This is an edited version of an article published in the peer reviewed journal of the Australian Homoeopathic Association, Similia, in July 2017.


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Additional References

Gamble, J. Mastering Homeopathy 3; Obstacles to Cure: Toxicity, Deficiency & Infection; Karuna Publishing 2010
Dr Janet Hull http://www.hairanalysisprogram.com/
Wilson, L. Nutritional Balancing and Hair Mineral Analysis; 4th revised edition. 2010
Marchese, M. Environmental Medicine Update: Copper Chelation and Cancer. 2013. http://www.townsendletter.com/AugSept2013/enviromed0813.html