Your Thyroid + Copper

This post is the second installment in my ten-part Minerals and Your Thyroid series, where I’m highlighting eight thyroid-supportive minerals (iodine is two parts) and one troublemaker: fluoride.

Prior post: Calcium

Copper symbol: Cu
Atomic number: 29

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, when it comes to thyroid health, Dr. Richard Shames states, “More important than vitamins are minerals.” He says that minerals are “absolutely crucial to thyroid function, especially copper, zinc, and selenium.” (More on zinc and selenium later in this series.)

Copper is a powerful antioxidant and according to Dr. Amy Myers, “Copper is an essential trace mineral for bone health, connective tissue health, cardiovascular health, lipid metabolism, neurological health, and skin health.”

[I thoroughly address optimal thyroid nutrition in my best selling cookbook, The Essential Thyroid Cookbook: Over 100 Nourishing Recipes for Thriving with Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’sThe educational component of the cookbook details not only thyroid-supportive minerals, but also vitamins and amino acids that help to optimize thyroid function. The mouthwatering recipes are chock full of these supportive nutrients.]

While it’s important to ensure that you’re getting adequate copper from your diet, it’s also important to know that many with thyroid issues experience copper overload or copper toxicity, aka copperiedus.

But you don’t have to have low thyroid function to have copper overload.

When we think of “heavy metals” and heavy metal toxicity, the metals that often come to mind are mercury, lead, and cadmium. But copper overload is one of the most common heavy metal toxicity conditions.

According to Dr. Ann Louise Gittleman, “Copper and zinc tend to work in a seesaw relationship with each other. When the levels of one of these minerals rise in the blood and tissues, the levels of its counterpart tend to fall. Ideally, copper and zinc should be in a 1:8 ratio in favor of zinc. But stress, overexposure to copper, or a low intake of zinc can throw the critical copper-zinc balance off, upsetting normal body functioning.”

This imbalance can slow thyroid function. Dr. Gittleman goes on to say that a copper-zinc imbalance can not only keep us weight loss resistant, but can also thwart that important T4 (the inactive form of thyroid hormone) to T3 (the active form of thyroid hormone) conversion.

When the thyroid is underactive, it can inhibit your digestive system from absorbing those above-mentioned, “critical” thyroid minerals – copper, zinc, and selenium. This is a classic negative feedback loop. You need these minerals for proper thyroid function, but low thyroid function can keep you from absorbing them.

A copper/zinc imbalance can also lead to:

  • Compromised immune function
  • Sun sensitivity
  • General skin sensitivities
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Panic attacks
  • Acne
  • Psoriasis
  • Migraines
  • Eczema
  • Attention deficit
  • White spots on fingernails
  • Severe PMS
  • Extreme cases: schizophrenia 

Interestingly, not only are copper and zinc minerals, but they’re also considered neurotransmitters – chemical messengers that keep our brain cells communicating with one another.

Our diet heavily influences the type and amount of neurotransmitters in our system and the right minerals – and vitamins – are critical to the production of these “happy chemicals.” This is why so many of the above-mentioned behavioral and mood issues are often a result of a copper/zinc imbalance.

I’m not an expert on testing for copper deficiency or copper toxicity. For general metals/minerals testing, here is how I’ve historically understood things, in order of efficacy:

  1. Stool analysis (reveals exposure level and how well the liver can remove metals/minerals)
  2. Hair analysis (reveals long-term exposure and how efficiently metals are able to enter cells)
  3. Urine analysis (reveals exposure and how well the body can eliminate metals through the urine)

I’ve read that simple blood testing is adequate for testing copper – and zinc. But because excess copper sets up camp in our tissues, not blood, it’s argued that blood testing can reveal “normal” copper levels in the presence of copper overload. 

I’ve also learned that some doctors recommend a 24-hour urine sample test for copper, which is said to be more accurate than blood testing.

Again, when it comes to testing, I don’t have the answer. Please talk with your functional medicine doctor about the best way to test for minerals.

Focus on Food
To bring your copper/zinc ratio into balance, it’s better to focus on replenishing zinc than reducing copper. So get plenty of zinc-rich foods like (okay, here’s a sneak peek into installment eight of this series): spinach, sea vegetables, mushrooms, beef, chicken (dark meat), turkey (dark meat), lamb, pork, eggs, oysters, crab, lobster, scallops, natto, peanuts, adzuki beans, garbanzo beans, kefir, yogurt, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, oats, chili powder, asparagus, and…dark chocolate (!).

You also need to avoid foods that deplete zinc, like sugar, refined carbohydrates, alcohol, and caffeine. 

You may want to largely avoid consumption of the copper-rich foods (listed below) – until your ratio is brought back into balance (check out the list – who wants to eschew these foods long-term?!). And you may need to watch out for copper in your multi-vitamin.

The best food sources of copper are (ready?): spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, mustard greens, beet greens, kale, asparagus, sea vegetables, mushrooms, oysters, crab, shrimp, clams, lobster, tempeh, natto, peanuts, adzuki beans, garbanzo beans, lima beans, kidney beans, lentils, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut and cabbage, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, amaranth, buckwheat, oats, garlic, chili powder, blackstrap molasses, olives, sweet potatoes, peas, Brussels sprouts, beets, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, broccoli, eggplant, fennel, leeks, parsley, basil, pineapple, raspberries, kiwi, and…dark chocolate (!).

If you’re deficient in copper, in addition to eating the above-mentioned copper-rich foods, Dr. Shames suggests 1-2 mg of copper per day (this is the dose commonly found in multi-vitamins).

A quick word about plant-based diets. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, “Disruption of the copper-zinc ratio is an overlooked contributor to intractable fatigue that follows excessive reliance on a plant-based diet.

“While Americans have been receiving a broad education on the nutritional value of plant foods, evidence has accumulated to indicate that diets that rely too heavily on plant food sources have special problems of their own.

“It is tragic that Americans who have been inspired to adopt healthier diets have been so harmfully misled by the anti-animal foods dogma, often against their better instincts.”

You can read the entire WAP article here.

Environment, Exposure, Elimination…
We can also become copper-heavy through environmental exposure from:

  • Water from copper pipes
  • Copper cookware
  • Fungicide- and pesticide-laden foods
  • Copper IUDs (ParaGard)

It’s not a bad idea to supplement with heavy metals binding agents (chelators) while focusing on zinc-rich foods. 

Natural metal chelators include:

  • NAC (N-acetylcysteine): binds and removes metals/minerals; considered “the oral chelator”
  • EDTA: “the gold standard” for eliminating metals; binds and inactivates metals
  • Chlorella: considered to be one of the best detoxifiers and is able to remove heavy metals, pesticides, and PCBs from body tissues
  • Chlorophyll: good at binding to heavy metals and removing; it’s because of its high level of chlorophyll that chlorella got its name
  • Garlic: widely, historically used to remove metals; 3-5 fresh, raw cloves daily is beneficial; wait 10 min. after cutting or crushing garlic to cook or eat raw to allow the allicin (organosulfur compound) to develop
  • The rinds of grapefruit, lemons and limes: pectin from the rinds has lead to dramatic detoxing in clinical trials

Lastly, as with just about every health imbalance, it’s important to reduce stress and to support adrenal function. As I like to say, “All roads lead back to the adrenals.”

Stress causes overproduction of two adrenal hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. And excess cortisol can deplete copper.

Healthy adrenals produce a copper-binding protein. But if the adrenals are dysregulated/fatigued/weakened, this binding protein wanes, in which case the adrenals are unable to bind copper, leading to copper excess. 

Important note for this whole Minerals series: You may see some slight discrepancies in the list of foods in this post and the list of foods in my thyroid- and immune-supportive nutrition chart (which you can download for free here). This is because for the chart, we created a ranking system. If each thyroid- and immune-supportive food didn’t have a broad enough nutritional spectrum such that it represented enough nutrients, it didn’t make the cut. In other words, the list in this post may be slightly more inclusive.

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