Copper in Your Child’s Diet

Copper is similar to iron in many ways, and it’s an important micronutrient. Copper deficiency is rare compared to iron deficiency, and often, special monitoring is required to diagnose it. On the other side, excess copper in the body may be toxic and can lead to specific symptoms and syndromes.

What is the role of copper in your child’s diet?

Copper has multiple roles in our body. It’s important for the formation of hemoglobin, and it facilitates absorption of iron in the intestine. Copper also plays a prominent role in the formation of red cells.

Copper is an ingredient of some components of mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, and is therefore required for forming energy (ATP). It’s also needed for the creation of skin pigments. Copper gives strength to collagen and helps improve the strength of soft tissues.

[Read: 9 Lessons I’ve Learned About Feeding Kids.]

What are the natural sources of copper?

Copper is present in a variety of food sources, which is one reason copper deficiency isn’t very common. Nuts, beef, liver, mushrooms and beans are good sources of copper. Other good sources include oysters and other shellfish, green leafy vegetables, honey and cocoa.

As a generalization, the average American diet has less-than-ideal levels of copper. Vegetarians tend to have better copper levels than children on a regular American diet.

What causes copper deficiency?

Low copper may be seen in children who are malnourished and following a limited diet. Children who have short bowel (short small intestine) may have low copper levels. These children may have a high small intestinal ostomy, an opening on the abdominal wall through which a piece of the bowel is connected to the outside, through which these patients could lose copper in their intestinal secretions.

Children on intravenous nutrition are at risk of developing copper deficiency and require copper supplements with their nutrition. Zinc competes with copper for absorption and can reduce copper absorption. Children on extra zinc supplementation in their diet are at risk of copper deficiency and need to be monitored. Newborn babies accrue copper in their body in the last trimester. Therefore, premature babies with short bowel and on IV nutrition are at higher risk of copper deficiency and require close monitoring.

[See: Starting Solids With Your Baby? Avoid These 8 Mistakes.]

What are the signs and symptoms of copper deficiency?

Fortunately, overt copper deficiency is not common.

It’s often detected via blood tests, and children with severe copper deficiency develop anemia, similar to iron deficiency. Sometimes anemia can become significant enough that it requires a blood transfusion. Children can also develop a low neutrophils count, which is a type of white blood cell.

Since copper is involved in energy metabolism, progressive copper deficiency can cause fatigue and poor activity. Even rarer is the development of weakness of limbs, especially the lower limbs.

How can copper deficiency be diagnosed and treated?

Doctors diagnose copper deficiency by measuring copper levels in the blood. Mild deficiency may be managed by improving the child’s diet via foods with higher copper content. Sometimes, copper may have to be added to a child’s diet with the help of your child’s physician. Some children who develop copper deficiency, especially children with short bowel and on IV nutrition, will need copper supplementation adjusted in their IV nutrition.

Excess copper and its problems

Copper toxicity is very rare these days, especially acute copper toxicity. Chronic toxicity occurs from long-term exposure to copper, in amounts beyond the daily need for copper. Over time, this could lead to liver and kidney damage.

Excess copper can be the result of higher copper-containing water sources and cooking or storing food in copper cookware. For the most part, copper utensils are rarely used nowadays, and water is well-regulated and therefore hardly a concern.

Rare genetic disorders like Wilson’s disease can lead to liver damage and neurological problems in children and adults.

[Read: What to Do If Your Child Is Diagnosed With a Rare Disease.]

Copper toxicity is managed by identifying and removing extraneous sources of copper, and occasionally using medication that bind and remove copper called chelating agents. Wilson’s disease is treated with a low copper diet, copper chelating medications and Zinc supplementation.

Management requires careful assessment and evaluation by your child’s physician or gastroenterologist.

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