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What is copper and what does it do?

Copper is a mineral that you need to stay healthy. Your body uses copper to carry out many important functions, including making energy, connective tissues, and blood vessels. Copper also helps maintain the nervous and immune systems, and activates genes. Your body also needs copper for brain development.

Copper, an essential mineral, is naturally present in some foods and is available as a dietary supplement. It is a cofactor for several enzymes (known as “cuproenzymes”) involved in energy production, iron metabolism, neuropeptide activation, connective tissue synthesis, and neurotransmitter synthesis [1-3]. One abundant cuproenzyme is ceruloplasmin (CP), which plays a role in iron metabolism and carries more than 95% of the total copper in healthy human plasma [4]. Copper is also involved in many physiologic processes, such as angiogenesis; neurohormone homeostasis; and regulation of gene expression, brain development, pigmentation, and immune system functioning [1]. In addition, defense against oxidative damage depends mainly on the copper-containing superoxide dismutases [5,6].

A wide variety of plant and animal foods contain copper, and the average human diet provides approximately 1,400 mcg/day for men and 1,100 mcg/day for women that is primarily absorbed in the upper small intestine [1,2,7-9]. Almost two-thirds of the body’s copper is located in the skeleton and muscle [1,3].

Only small amounts of copper are typically stored in the body, and the average adult has a total body content of 50–120 mg copper [1,2]. Most copper is excreted in bile, and a small amount is excreted in urine. Total fecal losses of copper of biliary origin and nonabsorbed dietary copper are about 1 mg/day [1,2]. Copper levels in the body are homeostatically maintained by copper absorption from the intestine and copper release by the liver into bile to provide protection from copper deficiency and toxicity [3].

How much copper do I need?

The amount of copper you need each day depends on your age. Average daily recommended amounts are listed below in micrograms (mcg).



  Birth to 6 months

200 mcg  

  Infants 7–12 months

200 mcg  

  Children 1–3 years

340 mcg  

  Children 4–8 years

440 mcg  

  Children 9–13 years

700 mcg  

  Teens 14–18 years

890 mcg  

  Adults 19 years and older

900 mcg  

  Pregnant teens and women

1,000 mcg  

  Breastfeeding teens and women

What happens if I don’t get enough copper?

Copper deficiency is rare in the United States. Copper deficiency can cause extreme tiredness, lightened patches of skin, high levels of cholesterol in the blood, and connective tissue disorders affecting the ligaments and skin. Other effects of copper deficiency are weak and brittle bones, loss of balance and coordination, and increased risk of infection.

What are some effects of copper on health?

Scientists are studying copper to understand how it affects health. Here are several examples of what this research has shown:

Cardiovascular disease

Studies looking at the effect of copper intake on heart disease have had mixed results. More research is needed to understand whether getting more copper from the diet or supplements might raise or lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Alzheimer’s disease

Some research shows that people with higher levels of copper in their blood have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Other research, however, shows that high amounts might increase Alzheimer’s disease risk. More research is needed to determine whether high or low levels of copper affect the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Research is also needed to find out whether dietary supplements that contain copper could affect the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or its symptoms.

Can copper be harmful?

Yes, copper can be harmful if you get too much. Getting too much copper on a regular basis can cause liver damage, abdominal pain, cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Copper toxicity is rare in healthy individuals. But it can occur in people with Wilson’s disease, a rare genetic disorder. It can also occur if copper-containing water pipes leach copper into drinking water in your home or workplace.

The daily upper limits for copper include intakes from all sources—food, beverages, and supplements—and are listed below in micrograms (mcg).



  Birth to 12 months

Not established  

  Children 1–3 years

1,000 mcg  

  Children 4–8 years

3,000 mcg  

  Children 9–13 years

5,000 mcg  

  Teens 14–18 years

8,000 mcg  


10,000 mcg  

Where can I find out more about copper?

• For more information on copper:
• For more information on food sources of copper:
o Office of Dietary Supplements, Health Professional Fact Sheet on Copper
o U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), FoodData Central 
o USDA, Copper content of selected foods


1. Collins JF. Copper. In: Ross AC, Caballero B, Cousins RJ, Tucker KL, Ziegler TR, eds. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 11th ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2014:206-16.

2. Prohaska JR. Copper. In: Erdman JW, Macdonald IA, Zeisel SH, eds. Present Knowledge in Nutrition. 10th ed. Washington, DC: Wiley-Blackwell; 2012:540-53.

3. Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2001.

4. Hellman NE, Gitlin JD. Ceruloplasmin metabolism and function. Annu Rev Nutr 2002;22:439-58. [PubMed abstract]

5. Allen KG, Klevay LM. Copper: an antioxidant nutrient for cardiovascular health. Curr Opin Lipidol 1994;5:22-8. [PubMed abstract]

6. Owen CAJ. Biochemical Aspects of Copper: Copper Proteins, Ceruloplasmin, and Copper Protein Binding. Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Publications; 1982.

7. Klevay LM. Copper. In: Coates PM, Betz JM, Blackman MR, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Dietary Supplements. 2nd ed. London and New York: Informa Healthcare; 2010:604-11.

8. Klevay LM. Is the Western diet adequate in copper? J Trace Elem Med Biol 2011;25:204-12. [PubMed abstract]

9. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. What We Eat in America, 2013-2014. 2017.

10. Health information data from U.S. National Institutes of Health

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