Anger, poor focus, impulsivity, defiant behavior in kids: what's the copper connection?
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.
One of the key ways in which copper affects mental health is through its role in the production of neurotransmitters - it's needed for the proper function of the enzymes that produce dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These neurochemicals are all key players in mood regulation, motivation, and emotional well-being.
Copper also plays a role in maintaining the blood-brain barrier, a protective barrier that prevents substances from entering the brain that can cause inflammation and oxidative stress and have been linked to a range of disorders, including depression and anxiety.
Copper is also involved in the production of energy at the cellular level and has protective antioxidant properties.
Don't Run Out And Get Copper Supplements For Your Kids
Copper's critical to the brain and to proper neurotransmission. But is it too much or too little copper that can contribute to ADHD, aggression, rage, and moodiness in kids?
Various studies have looked at the connection between copper and mood but at face value they look confusing and inconsistent.
Morley Robbins, a well-known health educator points to low dietary copper as a major issue contributing to anxiety and depression because of how essential it is for cognitive function. Many of his followers report amazing health improvements with low doses of copper supplementation.
As for ADHD, 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 group of 600 adolescents, even normal blood copper correlated with decreased sustained attention and poor short-term memory.
Why such inconsistency? Here's what I think when I look at the studies...
First off, 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.
Another issue with the research on copper is that some looked at blood levels and some looked at hair levels - these are very different ways to assess copper in the body that often do not correlate.
And lastly, very few of the studies looked at usable versus free levels of copper. When copper that is free (unbound) is not usable by cells and can cause a) a functional copper deficiency and b) a high degree of oxidative stress that puts pressure on the nervous system's capacity to regulate the stress response. So unless unbound copper is taken into account, copper might look ok when it's really causing problems.
Clearly copper's important to the brain, but it's important to assess it properly before deciding what to do. Every parent needs to be aware of Wilson's Disease - a genetic condition in which copper accumulates in the liver and brain. In the case of Wilson's Disease, copper supplementation would be extremely dangerous.
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 findings suggest that high copper was a significant part of the problem in 60% of the ADHD cases they evaluated, 95% of their postpartum depression cases, 75% of their violent offender cases, and nearly 90% of their conduct disorder cases.
The two issues they found to dominate these cases are:
- Too much copper relative to zinc leading to low dopamine (and associated symptoms like low motivation, depression, and poor focus) and high norepinephrine (that can look like agitation, anxiety, anger, and impulsivity).
- Too much free copper (unbound and unusable) 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, that's compelling data in our evolving understanding of what makes it so hard for some people to cope with stress.
What Can Cause High Copper?
Some people seem to be genetically more prone to storing copper.
Since 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.
Also, exposure to copper-containing pesticides could contribute to copper overload.
Some swimming pool additives are copper-based and can lead to copper overload as well and, in older houses and cities there may still be copper pipes inside or coming into the home.
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.
The Bottom Line On Copper
It's all about balance, especially when it comes to minerals.
We need copper. But we need usable copper. And we need it in balance with other minerals. Minerals work together - like an interconnected web. When it comes to mineral deficiency, it's rarely supplementation with that 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 (in my opinion) 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 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) - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3661234/
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) - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1110863016300283
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.