Understanding Mineral Balance between Zinc: Copper (12:1 ratio)

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.


Cornell U has a drug that mops up Copper for breast cancer patients

Targeting copper to treat breast cancer

Friday, July 10, 2015
Photo of Linda Vahdat, M.D.Linda Vahdat, M.D. In 2007, a woman facing an almost certain death sentence took a chance on a drug that needed a second chance itself. The woman had stage IV breast cancer that had spread to her liver. Chemotherapy had eliminated her primary tumor, and surgeons had removed the liver metastases, leaving her in a status called “no evidence of disease” (NED). But oncologists cannot eliminate microscopic distant metastases—and this woman had the “triple negative” subclass of breast cancer, which is particularly aggressive and prone to bouncing back. Patients like her usually relapse within a year, with death following swiftly.
So, as part of a two-year clinical trial of advanced breast cancer patients, the woman began taking a drug that mops up copper, thought to play a role in tumor growth. The drug, tetrathiomolybdate (TM), had already failed a series of previous cancer clinical trials, but this new trial has since been extended several times and there is still no sign of cancer in the woman after eight years.
The full trial results are equally striking, as Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC) oncology fellow Eleni Nackos reported last month at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). At a median follow-up of nearly five years, 62 other women in the 75-patient TM trial also had no detectable cancer. Among them were 12 of the 15 other women with stage IV triple negative breast cancer, whose typical median survival is months, with NED status only a temporary reprieve.
Though these are extremely small numbers and the study had no placebo arm, University of Chicago oncologist Olufunmilayo Olopade says she was “blown away” by the data presented at ASCO. “What was so compelling about this study was that they were looking [at] women who were at high risk of recurrence,” she adds.
Yet the promise of copper depletion appears tarnished—not by clinical results but by corporate strategy. WCMC oncologist Linda Vahdat, who led the trial, now wants to proceed with a larger, phase III trial of TM for triple negative breast cancer. But the rights to treating cancer with TM are held by a Swedish biotech company that is developing the drug instead for Wilson disease, a rare inherited disease of copper accumulation. The company, Wilson Therapeutics, has no immediate plans to test TM in cancer patients, its CEO acknowledges, and for now will not sublicense the drug.
TM, easily synthesized in the lab, has a long history as a copper chelator—a compound that binds and inactivates ionic copper. In veterinary medicine, it cures copper poisoning in sheep, which are very sensitive to copper in their food. Around 1990, George Brewer, a University of Michigan (UM) physician and geneticist, began testing TM in people with Wilson disease.
The cancer connection emerged after work by several research teams showed that copper boosts angiogenesis, the creation of new blood vessels, which solid tumors need to grow and metastasize. Brewer, with colleagues at UM, gave TM to female mice genetically engineered to develop breast tumors. None of the treated animals became cancerous, whereas more than half of control mice did. Under a microscope, says Brewer, he could see dormant, precancerous cells in the treated mice “just sitting there, not growing because they couldn’t develop a blood supply.”
The mouse work led to a series of human trials of TM in various types of cancers, with disappointing results. Instead of abandoning the drug, Brewer concluded that that copper depletion would be more effective against the microtumors that seed metastases, which differ biologically from the primary tumor. He tried to convince a biotech company, Attenuon, to use TM to prevent recurrence in cancer patients in remission, but the company instead enrolled people with bulk tumors. These trials, too, failed.
Meanwhile, aware of the UM mouse work and studies linking copper to angiogenesis and metastasis, Vahdat organized the current phase II trial. Like Brewer, she concluded that the drug was best deployed in people at risk of recurrence, and she raised money for the small trial from private foundations and cancer nonprofits.
At ASCO, Nackos reported that the drug reduced copper in patients’ blood by about half, with few serious side effects. That may have triggered several antitumor mechanisms. For example, TM treatment lowered the number of bone marrow–derived, angiogenesis-promoting cells in blood, probably because copper is needed to activate growth factors important to those cells. TM’s “real value is to prevent metastasis,” Vahdat says. “And that’s by changing the tumor microenvironment … It’s a totally different way to treat cancer.”
To mount a phase III trial, Vahdat sought Wilson Therapetics’ version of TM because it only needs to be taken once a day. Wilson will provide it at cost, but the company will not fund the trial. And Vahdat’s recent application for a $10 million grant from a U.S. Department of Defense program devoted to breast cancer was rejected.
Wilson Therapeutics CEO Jonas Hansson says he has closely followed Vahdat’s phase II trial, which he calls “promising.” His company is now reviewing all the literature on TM and cancer. “We are in the evaluation phase,” Hansson says. “We just can’t give these rights [to TM] away, because we ourselves want to understand it first.”
The impasse with Wilson had left Vahdat increasingly frustrated. “They have laserlike focus on Wilson’s disease, because that’s what their investors have invested in,” she says. “But they are interested in cancer, and I think ultimately when the timing is right for them, that they will look into it. It’s just that I’m ready and raring to go right now.”
Connie’s comments: To ensure that we do not have too much copper, increase your intake of Zinc rich foods.