Nutrient Dense Foods and the Copper-Zinc Connection - Radiant Life

Nutrient Dense Foods and the Copper-Zinc Connection

by Kayla Grossmann

A glistening ring of oysters plucked from the ocean, a slice of liver atop a bed of tender onions, a savory beef stir fry tossed with butter, a heap of sprouted pumpkin seeds enjoyed from the palm of your hand: what do these foods have in common? Not only are they wonderfully, perhaps even flawlessly, delicious- but they are also beautifully balanced in the trace minerals zinc and copper. In an era where our foods are far too often factory manipulated, and low-fat, low-calorie dieting praised as the pathway to "health," many people are not receiving the proper amounts of these vital nutrients. Discover how a zinc-copper mineral imbalance may be effecting your day to day activity, and what you can do about it.

nourishing traditions

Understanding Mineral Balance

The body has sophisticated systems for keeping trace mineral levels in a state of steady harmony and at fine-tuned ratios that promote the optimal function of the cells. If levels of certain minerals like zinc, copper, iron, manganese, selenium or chromium dip for example, the body is stimulated to absorb those nutrients more fully from the diet, thus correcting the imbalance. Conversely, if the blood and cells are sufficiently overloaded, the liver is prompted to excrete unneeded minerals. On an even more intricate level, a deficiency in one mineral often creates an surplus in another as the body makes internal shifts in an attempt to self-regulate.  

Generally these elegant processes work in concert to successfully modulate the inherent biochemical swings that occur with our daily activity, keeping the body in a state of homeostatic stability and vigor. However this graceful system is easily interrupted by the ravages of disease, stress, and toxins, as well as by the consumption of nutrient deficient foods that lack the critical mineral content to build preliminary stores. Given these overt disruptions, these systems simply cannot compensate and the body becomes overloaded, resulting in destructive and evasive mineral imbalances. Left undetected, such subtle nutrient disparities can have devastating and chronic impacts on health. 

Zinc-Copper Ratios

According to leaders in the field of functional medicine, one of the most commonly observed mineral imbalances in clinical practice is the pairing of insufficient zinc with excess copper. Research suggests that these dynamic minerals are most compatible when hovering in the range of an 8:1 to 12:1 zinc-copper ratio. For example, someone consuming about 15 mg of zinc per day would require around 1.5 mg of copper.  In nature this correlation is almost flawlessly observed in sources of animal protein, where levels of zinc and copper occur in balanced quantities. Yet due to the inherent variability of our modern world, these minerals are not always experienced in such perfect harmony.

While copper and zinc work synergistically to promote such fundamental life-sustaining processes as immune response, nervous system function and healthy digestion, they are also antagonistic in character. This means that as levels of one decline, the other will rise. Therefore if one nutrient falls out of balance, both levels shift- confounding symptoms and making this dynamic relationship quite troublesome. The relatively common occurrence of excess copper with deficient zinc can thus lead to such diffuse and overlapping symptoms as: 

  • fatigue
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • severe PMS
  • learning disabilities
  • headaches
  • impaired memory
  • behavior changes
  • loss of appetite and taste perception
  • slowed sexual maturation
  • sensitive skin
  • hair loss
  • diarrhea
  • delayed wound healing

Where Has All The Zinc Gone?

Experts estimate that 1 in 10 Americans have diets that are overtly deficient in zinc, although many more are believed to struggle with insufficiencies. Zinc is actually present in a wide variety of protein containing foods from animal products- such as red meat, egg yolk, organ meats, and seafood- to certain nuts, seeds, beans and cereal grains. The recommended daily allowance for zinc is currently set at 8-11 mg, which is certainly achievable from food sources. Yet, the issue lies not simply with crude zinc intake, but also in how accessible the sources are by the body. Plant sources of zinc are bound by anti-nutrients like phytic acid and therefore not easily absorbed. While irritating phytates can be neutralized by the processes of soaking and sprouting nuts nuts, legumes and grains (as was practiced in many traditional cultures), your average handful of granola, slice of bread, or dollop of hummus have certainly not been prepared with such virtuous care. Beef/lamb liver and oysters are by far the best sources of this powerful mineral, with four times the absorption rate of their plant counterparts, and a balanced ratio of other trace minerals. However in our fat-phobic, grain-chomping society, people have been wrongfully shooed away from incorporating these sacred, zinc-rich foods. Some experts even estimate that during the paleolithic era humans consumed an average of 50 mg of zinc per day from whole food sources. What's more, all-too common struggles such as excess sugar intake, alcohol, stress, heart disease, and infection further suppress levels of this critical nutrient.

An Era of Copper Dominance

Zinc insufficiency is truly just one piece of the puzzle. Because of the dramatic zinc-copper interplay, efforts to nibble away at zinc containing foods can be easily thwarted by an excess of copper. Overall, copper is not a sweepingly bad nutrient- in fact it is critical to the formation of many essential enzymes and is necessary for normal metabolism, neurotransmitter synthesis and red blood cell formation. However, copper is highly reactive and needs to be consumed within a relatively narrow range and balanced by zinc intake- else it easily becomes dominant and suppresses the levels of other trace minerals. Because grains and other plant-based foods tend to have a higher copper to zinc ratio, those judiciously following a Standard American Diet can be unknowingly driving copper levels up if intake is not properly balanced with adequate zinc-rich meats, organ meats and seafood. Another element that often goes unrecognized is the multiplicity of inorganic copper sources existing in our environment, which can contribute to toxicity when experienced in excess. For example, although not commonly discussed, chemical-treated water flowing through copper pipes causes a low-level erosion that releases copper into our drinking water. There is also copper found in such unassuming places as in multivitamins, medications, dental fixtures, cookware, birth control, fungicides, and pesticides. Thus while copper-containing foods are certainly not hazardous in and of themselves, the cumulative sources can become problematic if not properly balanced.

Regaining Zinc-Copper Balance

Minerals are complex and function in delicate patterns throughout the body- many of which we don't even fully understand. Thus when working towards regaining a state of nutritional balance, it is important to do so slowly and collaboratively, finding the full support that you need. Everyone has a unique situation and intricate physiological patterning that can be difficult to navigate on one's own. Here are a few preliminary steps to get you started on the way to regaining an optimal zinc-copper balance:

1. Test Mineral Levels

If you suspect that you have copper-zinc imbalance it is best to work with a provider to get a comprehnsive picture of your mineral status.  

  • Have mineral status tested by serum, urine or hair mineral analysis. Because mineral balance is so delicate, this will allow you to make appropriate supplementation decisions based on your unique situation.
  • To get started you can also try the Zinc Assay Test- a taste test I have written about before. Keep in mind however that while popularly used, there has only been one study on its efficacy.

2. Limit Exposure to Copper

Complete a brief review of your environment and lifestyle to assess if there are unneeded sources of copper in your life. For example:

  • Limit copper cookware
  • Get a good water filter that removes leached minerals and pesticides
  • If you take a multivitamin, check to see that it doesn’t have copper 

3. Increase Zinc Intake

If possible, increase whole food sources of zinc to get a balance of synergistic nutrients.

  • Consume red meats, organ meats, and seafood. Desiccated Liver capsules are a great source of balanced zinc for those who do not have such items in their diet.
  • Soak and sprout nuts, seeds, grains and legumes. Learn how in the cookbook Nourishing Traditions, or enjoy from trusted vendors such as Better Than Roasted Nuts.
  • If you decide to supplement with zinc, try a form of ionic zinc or liquid zinc sulfate as they are tend to be more easily absorbed than tablets and capsules.

4. Heal the Adrenals

Stress triples the rate of zinc depletion. The adrenals must also be working properly in order to stimulate the liver to remove excess copper.


The Perfect Health Diet by Paul Jaminet, Ph.D & Shou-Ching Jaminet, Ph.D

RHR: Could Zinc-Copper Imbalance Be Making You Sick? by Chris Kresser, L.Ac

The Diet Cure by Julia Ross, M.A.

Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT

Addiction by Pam Killeen

Photo: Oysters by Peri Epex/Courtesy Flickr

*All articles and information on this website are for educational purposes only. They are not to be regarded or relied upon as medical advice. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Consult your health practitioner if you have health problems. 

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