Anger, poor focus, impulsivity, defiant behavior in kids: what's the copper connection?

mood learning & behaviour nutrients & supplements
Copper and ODD

Are anger, ADHD, and ODD actually a copper problem? 


Copper is an essential mineral. We usually get plenty of it from a variety of foods like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds, and we need it for the proper functioning of various enzymes and metabolic processes. 

Here are 3 ways copper influences mental wellness, mood, and attention:

  1. Neurotransmission. Copper is needed for the proper function of the enzymes involved in dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin management. Those three neurochemicals are key players in mood regulation, motivation, and emotional well-being.
  2. Protection. Copper helps maintain a healthy blood-brain barrier. This barrier protects the brain from excessive inflammation and oxidative stress which contribute to a range of disorders including depression and anxiety. Copper itself has protective antioxidant properties when present in appropriate amounts. 
  3. Energy. Copper is involved in the production of energy at the cellular level. We need significant cellular energy to cope with stress. 



Don't Run Out And Get Copper Supplements For Your Kids


Copper is critical to the brain and to proper neurotransmission but too much or too little copper can contribute to ADHD, aggression, rage, and moodiness in kids. Plus, every parent needs to be aware of Wilson's Disease - a genetic condition in which copper accumulates in the liver and brain and in which copper supplementation is extremely dangerous.  

But that aside, let's look at some of the studies on copper and mood.

Various studies have looked at the connection between copper and mood and at face value they look confusing and inconsistent.

Morley Robbins, a well-known health educator points to low dietary copper as a major contributor to anxiety and depression and many of his followers report amazing cognitive improvements with low doses of copper supplementation.

In a randomized controlled trial on 80 adults with ADHD lower copper levels were associated with better response to treatment with a vitamin-mineral supplement that included copper suggesting that low copper (among other minerals) could correlate with the ADHD symptoms.

But in a study on a group of 600 adolescents, decreased sustained attention and poor short-term memory problems existed despite normal blood copper levels.

Why such inconsistency? Is there a copper link?


Here's what I think when I look at the studies on copper and behavior...

  1. Not all ADHD cases have the same underlying mechanism. In some cases, ADHD behavior seems to be related to low levels of dopamine but in other cases, the inattention and impulsivity have more to do with high norepinephrine or high glutamate. Since different nutrients impact the brain in different ways, it seems unlikely that there will ever be one conclusive finding about how to use nutrients for a symptomatic condition like ADHD that can be applied to all kids. Interestingly, copper can increase norepi levels.

  2. Some of the research on copper looked at blood levels and some looked at hair levels - these are very different ways to assess copper in the body that do not necessarily correlate. It's not surprising to get inconsistent conclusions if we compare studies that use the different types of testing.

  3. Very few of the studies looked at bound versus free levels of copper. 95% of our copper should be bound to Ceruloplasmin. When copper is too high relative to Ceruloplasmin it is less usable and can cause a) a functional copper deficiency and b) a high degree of oxidative stress that puts pressure on the nervous system. So even if serum copper looks ok, it might still be causing problems if it's high relative to Ceruloplasmin. 

Clearly copper is important to the brain, but it's important to assess it properly before deciding what to do. 


High Copper Could Be The Problem


I find the most compelling research on the connection between copper and behavior to be that of the Walsh Research Institute. They have been looking at the impact of copper on mental health for over 30 years and have worked with at least 30,000 cases of mood, behavior, and mental health issues including ADHD, depression, conduct disorders, and violent offenders.

The WRI found high copper to be a significant part of the problem in:

  • 60% of ADHD cases, 
  • 95% of postpartum depression cases,
  • 75% of violent offender cases,
  • Close to 90% of conduct disorder cases.

The two issues they found to dominate these cases are:

  1. Too much Copper relative to Zinc
    • causing low dopamine (and associated symptoms like low motivation, depression, and poor focus) and high norepinephrine (associated with agitation, anxiety, anger, and impulsivity);
  2. Too much free copper (unbound)
    • causing excessive oxidative stress and inflammation which are known contributors to a range of mental health concerns including depression and anxiety.

The WRI has been criticized for not conducting expensive peer-reviewed studies on their findings, but peer-reviewed or not a sample size of over 30,000 cases gives us compelling data in our evolving understanding of what makes it so hard for some people to cope with stress.


What Can Cause High Copper?


While low copper can usually be attributed to poor diet, here are theories as to why some people have high copper.

  1. Genetics. Some people seem to be genetically more prone to storing copper though the genes involved have not been clearly identified. In the postpartum depression cases studied, the retention of copper after birth seems to be due to a genetic predisposition, although it's not clear.

  2. Estrogen Dominance. Estrogen promotes the retention of copper, an argument could be made that higher estrogen levels from exposure to xenoestrogens in the environment could play a role. 

  3. Environmental Exposure. Exposure to copper-containing pesticides could contribute to copper overload in those susceptible to copper accumulation. High copper soil additives are even often used in organic farming. Some swimming pool additives are copper-based and older houses and schools may still have copper pipes inside or coming into the home.

  4. Mold and mycotoxins, and dysbiosis in the gut. These factors can reduce absorbability of Vitamin A which is important in the binding of copper to Ceruloplasmin. Low Vitamin A can contribute to high unbound copper.


The Bottom Line On Copper


It's all about balance, especially when it comes to minerals.

We need copper. But we need it to be in balance with Ceruloplasmin and other minerals. Minerals work together - like an interconnected web. When it comes to mineral deficiency, it's rarely supplementation with one mineral that will fix an imbalance problem. 

High copper relative to zinc can be a significant contributor to agitation, ADHD, anger, and impulsivity in kids and the best way to assess copper is through blood.

You'll want to look at blood copper, zinc, and ceruloplasmin together. That way you can see the levels themselves, the ratio of copper to zinc, and the amount of free, unbound copper vs usable copper. That's how you can really know if copper - either too much, too little, or too much unbound - is a contributing factor to your child's ADHD, rage, impulsivity, and conduct disorder.

If you don't have access to that kind of blood testing you can use a hair test but you can not take the copper and zinc levels excreted in hair at face value. You'll need the help of someone who really understands the interconnections between minerals to help you interpret a hair mineral test.

The impact of too much copper, or copper that is not properly balanced with other minerals like zinc and iron, seems to have a significant impact on mental health. Enough to make it worth testing out if you're a concerned parent whose child is having a hard time tolerating life's stressors.



Decreased Serum Cu/Zn SOD Associated with High Copper in Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) -

Kicinski et al. (2015). Neurobehavioral function and low-level metal exposure in adolescents. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 218(1), 139-146.

Magnesium, zinc and copper estimation in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -

Rucklidge et al. (2014). Moderators of treatment response in adults with ADHD treated with a vitamin–mineral supplement. Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 50, 163-171.




About Jess Sherman, FDN-P, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist and a trauma-sensitive Family Health Educator specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is also a teacher, with a Master's degree in education. Her Calm & Clear Kids introductory course, her Amino Acids (with kids!) Quickstart program, and her signature Resilience Roadmap,  along with her book Raising Resilience, have helped families in at least 44 countries improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, and mood disorders and reduce their reliance on medication. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work with families, and she continues to bring an understanding of the 5 Core Needs For Resilient Health to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses, workshops and as a contributor to print and online magazines. 

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The content on this website and in the guides and courses offered here is meant to provide information so that parents can make informed decisions and discuss these issue with their health care teams. It is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or individualized care.