The Copper- Iron Connection

Imagine a seesaw. Like the kind you rode with a friend as a kid. One goes up, the other goes down, or you can find a place in the middle where your two weights balance each other.

Many nutrients in our body play this exact same game. And as you may recall, once one of you is down on the ground, it can be really hard for the one up in the air to get back down if the other doesn’t let you down!

Copper and iron are on a seesaw just like this. But they’re also both affected by the levels of their metallic forms we may be exposed to in our diet or water. Once this balance is thrown off, it can cause a lot of problems that are difficult to identify. This imbalance makes it look like other things are the cause instead of being just another symptom. 

Iron is an extremely abundant mineral compared to copper, iron being the 4th most abundant element, and copper being the 25th. Yet both are extremely important to our physical and mental health. If our bodies become overwhelmed with iron, it completely throws off our copper metabolism. 

But it gets even more complicated!

Throw zinc into the mix (#24 on the list) and things can get really out of whack. Simply put, too much or too little of any of these can start a chain reaction that leads to big problems. And supplementation has played a huge role in creating a serious crisis in our health when it comes to these three critical nutrients.[1

Let’s start with copper, since if there’s not enough available to make a critical enzyme called ceruloplasmin, our ability to regulate iron is going to be completely wrecked. But what’s really crazy is we can be both toxic with excess copper and deficient at the same time! That’s because we can be loaded up with metallic forms of copper that our body can’t use, while simultaneously having a lack of bioavailable copper. The same thing can happen with iron. 

Copper IUDs are considered one of the most effective contraceptives, for both preventive and emergency use. It shuts down reproduction by acting as a spermicide, and increasing prostaglandins and white blood cells. Prostaglandins, which our body can make from polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) like omega 3, are vasodilators. They increase blood flow and constriction of the uterus, contributing directly to dysmenorrhea (painful periods with menstrual cramping).[2] The issue with copper is a major contributor to the menstrual issues experienced by so many women, indicating an excess of metallic copper. This can also be a result of hormonal birth control, with a well-established link to elevated levels of copper in the blood which is also linked to increased risk of death from heart disease.[3] Sources of copper that can contribute to problems include cookware or cups (Moscow Mule, anyone?), and in drinking water from copper pipes.

Something humans have been doing to make this much worse is to use ascorbic acid as a supplement and a food preservative. Ascorbic acid directly interferes with copper metabolism, reducing ceruloplasmin levels but not reducing copper toxicity.[4] All those years I was using Emergen-C and drinking High-C or taking multivitamins with ascorbic acid! Don’t forget all the “vitamin C” skin serum products, which don’t contain vitamin C at all, just ascorbic acid. They are not the same thing. You may even find it added to something like your favorite organic hummus. It then increases the levels of copper entering the cells, where it can cause the most harm.[5]

Inadequate ceruloplasmin levels cause iron to become trapped in the liver and other tissues, because unbound iron floating around is extremely toxic. This free iron is a highly reactive oxidative species that goes around essentially rusting the body from the inside out. Iron accumulation or hemochromatosis is the direct cause of many diseases and the process of aging, itself. Iron toxicity causes a process called fibrosis, where tissues become overdeveloped, thickened and hardened.[6] This can happen throughout the body. Part of that mechanism is slow suffocation. Iron bound in hemoglobin transports oxygen through the blood, but CO2 and copper are both needed to get the oxygen into the cells. The dysregulation of iron and copper causes the body to slowly suffocate. Even in the presence of what looks to be adequate iron and hemoglobin, the underlying dysfunction of this imbalance can be perniciously lurking and causing symptoms undetected. 

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, she was told she was anemic. No matter how much red meat, vitamin C, cherry juice and other supplements she took, we could not get it to move. Now consider that she also had a huge fibroid, as in fibrosis. It took me quite a while to finally connect all the dots to get to where we are now. Her second pregnancy has shown that this approach is effective, as her fibroid remained only a couple centimeters as opposed to about 12cm just 4 years ago. The doctors had previously said surgical removal was the only way she could safely get pregnant again. 

So the iron/copper issue plays a big part in the epidemic of hormone and fertility issues. Speaking of fertility, many pregnant women have suffered through having to take the huge iron pills they give out like candy. It completely messes up their digestion. And pathogens in the gut compete with us for that iron, so they love this problem. In fact, iron overload causes so many problems that look just like chronic Lyme disease, it’s hard to tell the difference. And it’s very likely that iron overload creates the condition for a chronic infection like Lyme, mold, Candida, COVID, etc in the first place. 

Many people also supplement with large amounts of zinc, relative to what we can easily acquire from our regular diets. Animal products tend to have higher amounts of zinc, and plants have higher levels of copper. So, a diet that is extreme in one or the other can also contribute to an imbalance of these nutrients. Plants have copper, and non-heme iron, but very low zinc. Zinc deficiency impairs our ability to make the proteins that transport other nutrients like iron and copper. But supplementing zinc to make up for the dietary deficiencies just creates bigger problems, by reducing the bioavailability of copper. And I know what you’re wondering, but no, supplementing with more copper does not balance out the equation. Attempting to compensate for imbalance diets with supplements only makes things worse, a fact to which I can personally attest. 

Now how do we become iron toxic? That’s the easy part. There’s tons of iron in our drinking water, including if you’re getting it from a spring or well. In NYC, our water filters were literally rusted after a few months. Cast iron pipes in old plumbing are still very common. I’m not sure what’s worse, iron, copper or PVC pipes, but at least the iron and copper are easy to filter out unlike the stuff leached from PVC! It took me a really long time to figure out my body has a really hard time trying to use the iron in a cast iron skillet, just like the iron added to fortified flour or cereals. Most likely, it’s going to become free iron and my body will have to work really hard to trap it and minimize its potential to do harm. Interestingly, iron in hemoglobin that is bound to oxygen is less magnetic than that which is not bound to oxygen. So this dysregulation can be directly affected by magnetic fields, and has been shown to be sensitive to EMFs.[7][8] This brings us around to overall metabolic health, and how well we are oxygenating our tissues by supporting healthy carbon dioxide tolerance. A subject for another article, but a critical component in the process of healing our bodies. Suffice it to say, low tissue oxygen is going to cause a lot of chronic pain and other disease, and it is a direct result of iron/copper dysregulation.[9]

Now it’s the question of the chicken or the egg? Did copper dysregulation cause iron dysregulation, or was it supplementing with zinc or was it an infection or medication or EMFs……?

Luckily, it doesn’t matter which came first. Now we know we are in this mess, and there were many many ways to get here. 

The first step in finding a solution, is to identify potential causes specific to you. Address issues with water, including for bathing, and throw out the cast iron cookware. Stop taking supplements containing iron, copper, or zinc, including fortified foods (even Whole Foods organic sourdough bread is usually fortified, and yes, most likely your favorite pastry shop is using fortified flour, sorry.) 

Then incorporate whole vitamin C from fruits, and orange juice works great for this, as it also helps with estrogen issues related to the iron overload. Just don’t drink it when you eat other foods with iron in them. It is a great source of bioavailable copper and helps pull the excess iron out of the body. 

As do dairy products, which are great sources of an enzyme called lactoferrin. Our bodies produce it too, but if we are in a mess already it’s a good idea to get some help. Raw milk is the highest source, but you can even get some from hard cheeses that are also low in lactose (if you have issues with lactose, that’s another symptom of overall metabolic problems, and dairy didn’t cause them but it sure could help fix them!) Important to note here that dairy does not cause mucous any more than non-dairy alternatives, indicating it has more to do with the underlying conditions of the body than it does with the milk itself.[10][11

Focus on red meat for iron and zinc, and fruits and veggies low in carotenoids for copper. This is a slow process, and it won’t happen if you are still suppressing your metabolism with disordered eating like low carb, vegan, carnivore, intermittent fasting, “detoxing,” or over exercising. A critical part of the solution is finding balance and letting go of the extremes.

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