Copper Toxicity and Adrenal Fatigue

Copper and Adrenal Fatigue (AF) are deeply intertwined. Even a slight imbalance in the copper to zinc ratio can set up a positive feedback loop between copper, stress and AF.

Using technical, scientific language:

Zinc is required for the production of adrenal cortical hormones. Therefore, if zinc levels are too low, or copper levels too high, the production of these hormones decreases – and quite rapidly!

Copper is needed for our body to form ATP (aka energy). However, in order to do so, it has to bind to either metallothionein or ceruloplasmin. These two substance though, are only produced when our adrenals send a signal to our liver to do so. When our adrenals aren’t working properly (in the case of AF), they get a little bit slack (slackness depending on your stage of AF) and don’t do their job. Consequently, instead of being used by the body, copper accumulates in the blood and/or tissue.

But copper stimulates our nervous system and brain function increasing the response of our fight-or-flight mode. As we become more sensitive to stress we lose zinc quickly and our adrenal glands become even more depleted. But as our adrenal glands become more depleted less copper is utilised, perpetuating the problem!!

Furthermore, excess copper impacts the functioning of our liver causing it to not be able to produce the copper binding substances. When these aren’t produced, we have trouble forming ATP and fatigue entails.

If that got a bit confusing, here is a diagram to show the feedback loop between copper toxicity and adrenal fatigue.

Copper Toxicity and Adrenal Fatigue



The Chemical Effects of Copper Toxicity in our Bodies

We have covered the basics of excess copper (symptoms, causes, testing for copper toxicity, the detox process, diet, digestion and the effect of grains on copper toxicity). This post is going to be a bit more scientific – we’re going to discuss the chemical effects copper toxicity has in our bodies.

So we know that when excess copper accumulates in our body it can have both physical and mental impacts on our health…but why does this occur?

dopamine copper

The neurotransmitters in our brain and our autonomic nervous system are considerably impacted by excess copper. When we accumulate copper it impedes our brain’s ability to break down dopamine. It also decreases histamine levels and increases norepinephrine levels. These chemical reactions (or lack of) are what cause the psychological symptoms (anxiety, insomnia, depression, feeling like we are going to lose our mind etc.) we experience.

Copper Toxicity and Addiction

It is the disruption to dopamine and norepinephrine that can lead to addiction. Copper is needed in the synthesis of the neurotransmitters that regulate our thoughts, mood and behaviours. Given the minimal range of optimal copper, too much or too little can cause significant drive to self-medicate with psychotropic substances. Why psychotropic substances? Well drugs like MDMA, amphetamines and PCP cause chemical reactions that mimic our natural neurotransmitters, initially giving users the ‘boost’ of energy that the body is unable to give due to excess copper. When these drugs wear off, the user wants more to give them back that feeling, which leads to the cycle of addiction.

Copper Toxicity and Mood

Histamine is an important neurotransmitter. It is responsible for regulating pain sensitivity, sleep, tear production, sex drive and mood. Copper is responsible for breaking down histamine and when there is too much copper in our body, histamine is excessively degraded, leading to histapenia (low histamine levels). At extreme levels, excessive degradation of histamine can cause paranoia and hallucinations.

Copper Toxicity and Anorexia

Putting the above chemical effects of excess copper together, copper toxicity can actually play a role in anorexia. Whilst anorexia is a mental health issue, copper toxicity can actually affect the physical aspect of the disease.

Excess copper and low zinc can lead to a loss of taste and smell which results the desire to skip meals because the person suffering the imbalance has lost their appetite. As the person skips meals, their copper-zinc ratio becomes even further out of whack, making the lack of appetite fall even more.

As the copper-zinc ratio becomes more imbalanced, the excess copper begins to have psychological effects on the sufferer. Excess copper can cause the sufferer to ‘detach’. Yet at the same time, the copper toxicity is wreaking havoc with the neurotransmitters in their brain causing them to feel anxious and depressed.

Scarily, the anorexia and copper toxicity biochemically feed on themselves – as the copper-zinc balance worsens they want to eat less, the psychological symptoms worsen, and the copper-zinc ratio worsens even further. It is a scary, viscous cycle.

What to eat with Copper Toxicity

In order to detox from excess copper we need to heal our gut and digestive system. We can do this by (1) Eating more animal products, (2) eating more fat, (3) avoiding dairy products, (4) avoid foods that further deplete zinc and/or increase copper and (5) drink more water.


  1. Eating more animal products

Animal products are the most concentrated source of zinc. In particular, we should eat more:

  • Beef,
  • Lamb,
  • Chicken,
  • Buffalo,
  • Eggs, and
  • Venison.
  1. Eating more fat

Adding more fat into your diet will help with bile production and enable a clearer pathway for the excess copper to be excreted. Make sure that you are eating good quality fat, none of these chemically manufactured seed oils – that will just make your condition worse!

  1. Avoiding dairy products

So dairy doesn’t actually add copper to your body, but it does contribute to depleting your zinc levels and throwing your copper-zinc ratio further out of whack. It is especially detrimental to copper toxicity when dairy is eaten with foods high in phytates (rice and grain-based foods such as wheat bran, rice bran, whole wheat, corn, rye, oats and brown rice) as it dramatically decreases our body’s ability to absorb zinc.
Toxic Food - What NOT to eat with Hashimoto's

  1. Avoid foods that further deplete zinc and/or increase copper

These foods include:

  • Chocolate,
  • Shellfish,
  • Coffee,
  • Sugar,
  • Wheat,
  • Soy,
  • Avocados,
  • Leafy greens,
  • Sunflower seeds,
  • Sesame seeds, and
  • Beef liver. is an excellent website for analysing which foods have high levels of copper or a less than optimal zinc-copper ratio.

  1. Drink more water

So we touched on the importance of drinking water to mobilise the excess copper before. But it is important not to drink water half an hour before, or an hour after eating, as this can dampen digestion through diluting gastric juices. Another important note if you want to go down the route of TCM, never drink cold water (for the same reason as not eating cold food).

Ok so these guidelines seem all well and good on paper, but the truth is, in the early stages of the copper detox process you may not be able to stomach all that meat and fat. And that’s ok. Detoxing takes time. We found that homemade chicken broth with a little bit of organic, grass-fed butter (and yes we know we said to avoid dairy, but this was one of the fats we could tolerate, you could always try ghee) was all we could eat for a while.

But as our digestion starts to heal and the copper detox process begins, we can slowly introduce more foods. For example, we were able to tolerate a little bit of chicken breast and some zucchini. We also could eat pumpkin seeds – and whilst technically they are high in copper, they are one of the few plant-based sources of high zinc.

Grains and Copper Toxicity


You know we don’t recommend eating grains – especially gluten containing grains and especially, especially if you suffer from an autoimmune disease. But there is a connection between grains and copper toxicity that is particularly relevant to today’s diet.

The level of zinc in plant-based foods tends to be low. When grains are refined, their zinc-copper ratio is disturbed, pushing the ratio further out of whack and in favour of copper.

Whole grains contain high levels of phytates which interfere with our body’s ability to absorb zinc. Therefore, when we eat whole grains (a food already low in zinc), the phytates prevent us from absorbing the little amount of zinc in them. Copper absorption is less affected by phytates further pushing the copper-zinc ratio in favour of copper.

The increased copper-zinc imbalances in grains have more of an impact on us today than in older generations. Previous generations liberally ate animal products and saturated fats which helped to balance out the high copper ratio in the grain products they ate.

But when we were encouraged to consume less animal products and adopt a ‘healthy’ plant-based diet, we began to eat more grains and other foods containing phytate. Scarily, many people on these diets believe that these foods are excellent non-animal sources of zinc and protein (and don’t worry if that is/was you – we used to believe it too!). Unfortunately, this is resulting in malabsorption of nutrients, zinc deficiencies and copper toxicity.


Digestion and Copper Toxicity

Copper toxicity has a wide range of effects on our digestive system. The shift to a ‘healthier’, plant-based diet can cause a build-up of copper, impacting our digestive system which is already functioning at sub-par due to the increasing deficiency in zinc, protein and fat.

Some people experience a craving for high copper foods with copper toxicity. But this can be because the copper-zinc imbalance is having an impact on their digestion.

digestive-systemPoor digestion means we can’t break down and absorb fat and protein properly. It feels like we develop an ‘intolerance to fat’ – you know, feeling queasy after eating rich meals, bloating, gas, not being able to poo, running to the toilet to poo and feeling ‘heavy’ after eating.

Excess copper (and declining zinc relative to copper) coupled with a vegetarian, low/no fat diet causes the production of bile and digestive juices to decline. This then causes the ‘fat intolerance’ feelings to develop and the thought of eating meat and fat becomes unpalatable.

It’s this trouble with digesting meat and fat that leads many of us to eat a more plant-based diet. But by avoiding these essential nutrient this exacerbates the copper toxicity problem and ironically makes the condition worse!

Eliminating or reducing fat in our diet inhibits the production of bile and gastric juices. However, copper is predominately detoxed through bile. So those poo problems you’re having – that’s a result of reduced bile flow and a low/no fat diet.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), those of us suffering from copper toxicity also tend to have a spleen yang deficiency. Since these ‘healthy’ diets are predominantly plant-based, they tend to be raw or cold (think salads). However, eating cold foods further exacerbates the digestive problems we are experiencing as digestion is dampened by cold foods. TCM categorises a spleen yang deficiency as symptoms of poor digestion, mucus build-up, a bloated tongue that is pale and covered in ‘fur’ and fluid retention.


Diet and Copper Toxicity

detox copper eat meat

Inspired to adopt the ‘healthier’ diets touted by the health system (think low/no fat, vegetarian, meat free week, low cholesterol – all that anti-animal food stuff), we are now facing serious health problems.

If you have read our other posts, you will know how important maintaining an optimal zinc to copper ratio is. Copper is present in most foods (and our modern environment). When zinc is present in abundance, and we have enough quality protein available to bind it, the copper we consume can be managed effectively by our body and the excess can easily be excreted through bile.

However, the push to eat less animal products and a ‘healthier’ diet has led to us not being able to source enough zinc for the copper elimination process to occur.

Generally, these so called ‘healthy’ diets are heavily plant-based. Unfortunately, the best and most bioavailable sources of zinc are found in animal products. Therefore, when we live on one of these ‘healthy’ diets our zinc levels are sharply reduced relative to copper.

Not only that, these ‘healthy’ diets suggest you reduce your animal protein intake and, god forbid you even consider eating saturated fat! But, it is the zinc, protein and fats (for bile production) that are required to eliminate excess copper from our bodies.

A diet lacking in zinc, protein and fat can lead to excess copper building up in tissues in an unbound, inorganic form, which is highly immobile and creates a low-level toxicity that interferes with many body systems. As we have said in our earlier posts, particularly affected are our liver and brain, but also our digestion.

How to Detox from Copper


Detoxing from excess copper is a long and difficult process…and it is important to understand as much as you can about the condition because taking the wrong steps can exacerbate the condition.

If you have read my initial post, you will know that with pretty much everything I have tried, I have felt worse before I have felt better. This is because as your body is detoxing, the copper is mobilized and exits through many of the body’s detox pathways. As it does this it can cause a wide range of symptoms including:

  • Headaches,
  • Racing thoughts,
  • Anxiety,
  • Mood swings,
  • Digestive problems,
  • Very orange poo(!),
  • Skin conditions, and
  • Increased fatigue.

Be aware of your detox symptoms and if they are too severe, you may need to slow down the detox process.

So how do we actually detox from copper?

1. Eliminate the source of copper

Whilst this is the most important step, it is also the most difficult. To do these, you need to identify all possible sources of copper in your life (diet, lifestyle, environment etc.) and get rid of as many as humanly possible (because you probably aren’t going to be able to eliminate your exposure to some xenoestrogens when you’re out and about).

2. Supplement with zinc

Zinc is the most natural way of removing copper efficiently. As we have talked about in our previous post, zinc and copper have a close relationship, working together to help our body function. It is not the amount of copper and zinc in our body, but the ratio that matters. The optimal ratio of zinc to copper is 8:1, therefore supplementing with zinc can help bring this ratio back into balance. (Make sure to check with a practitioner about how much zinc to take – more is not always better).

Drink more water

3. Drink water

Ok so we know we should be drinking 8 glasses of water a day, but how many of us actually do this? When trying to detox from copper it is important to not only drink the recommended amount of water, but more. The water in our body helps to get the copper mobile and moving through the detox pathways.

4. Increase copper antagonists

These are minerals that help rebalance copper (excrete copper). The main copper antagonists are manganese, vitamin B, C and E, sulphur, selenium and molybdenum.

5. Sweat

Using saunas, steam baths and anything that increases sweating is helpful in removing copper from your body. Steam baths with added clay and Epsom salts also help to pull out toxic metals (and the Epsom salts help you to relax too – just be careful not to swallow any…unless you can get to a toilet very fast). We like to body brush before the bath too, not only does it open your pores, it also has a relaxing routine too it.

6. Coffee enemas

Coffee enemas are used to help eliminate toxins, not just copper, from our body. There is some controversy surrounding enemas and their health benefits, but if you are at your ‘wits end’, like us, trying to find answers, anything is worth a try!

7. Reduce/eliminate foods high in copper from your diet – Check out our copper toxicity and diet post for what foods this includes.

detox copper eat meat

8. Eat foods high in zinc – Again, check out our copper toxicity and diet post.

9. Address your adrenal health

This is easier said than done. In our previous post we mentioned the relationship between adrenal fatigue and copper toxicity is more like a catch 22. Read our post on adrenal fatigue and copper toxicity here.

10. Practice meditation

Meditation, among its other benefits, can help turn off your overstimulated sympathetic nervous system (caused by excess copper) and help you to relax (which will also help in step 9).

11. Identify if methylation and gene mutations are an issue

We suggest reading Dr Amy Yasko’s book Autism: Pathways for Recovery (downloadable free from her website).

What Causes Elevated Copper?

In today’s world copper-zinc imbalances are rather common. However, many people do not suffer from copper toxicity as their livers are able to detox the excess copper effectively. The problem occurs when our body’s liver is not functioning properly – this happens especially in people suffering from autoimmune diseases because we can’t clear heavy metals very well.

copper causes

There are numerous causes of copper toxicity, including:

1. Zinc deficiency – As we said in our previous post, copper and zinc have a very close relationship which act together in our body. Zinc is required to form ceruloplasim and metallothionein which bind to copper and carry it into our mitochondria. While the actual amount of copper and zinc doesn’t matter too much, it is the ratio of zinc to copper that has the most significant impact. Ideally, we want a zinc to copper ratio of 8:1.

However, the push by the public health system to eat less meat, eliminate fat and cholesterol from our diets means we are not getting enough zinc in our diets (animal protein is the highest form of concentrated zinc). But not only that, because of over farming, antibiotics and environmental toxins, our soil has now had its zinc sources depleted.

2. Copper plumbing – Copper can leach from copper pipes into our water sources causing copper toxicity. In some instances, copper sulphate is also used in our water supply to prevent and control algae contamination.

3. Other vitamin and mineral deficiencies – Elevated copper in our bodies can also result from deficiencies in vitamin C, vitamin B, iron, chromium, manganese and selenium.

4. Other heavy metal toxicity – This is especially significant for us suffering from autoimmune diseases as our liver is unable to detox heavy metals effectively. As a result, there may be a build-up of toxic metals such as cadmium and mercury. When our copper binding proteins are busy trying to clear these metals, they are unable to transport copper, leading to an excess in our body.

5. Lifestyle factors – This includes contraception (especially birth control pills and IUDs which increase retention of copper in the kidneys), copper cookware, jewellery, swimming pools and some prescription medications.

6. Xenoestrogens – Today we are exposed to countless more chemicals in our environment than our grandparents. Estrogenic compounds, commonly found in plastic, cosmetics, petrochemicals and pesticides disrupt our endocrine system causing our bodies to retain copper.

7. Imbalances in copper binding substances – An imbalance in ceruloplasim and metallothionein (due to reasons other than low zinc) can cause copper toxicity.

8. Inherited – Unfortunately this one can’t be avoided if you have inherited excess copper from your mother. This can occur if your mother had high levels of copper and passed them through the placenta to you (gee, thanks mum! But we still love you to the moon and back!).

9. Genetic Disorders – In particular Wilson’s Disease and Pyroluria.

10. Diet – We have dedicated a whole blog post to the role of diet in copper toxicity (still to come), but the key point is that eating foods with high copper to zinc ratios (and vice versa) can lead you to accumulating copper.

11. Impaired methylationMethylation is one of the pathways our body uses to detox heavy metals. When we can’t methylate properly this can lead to the build-up of heavy metals in our bodies. In particular, a defected MTHFR gene mutation (an no, we are not swearing….although when suffering from copper toxicity you most definitely want to, this is actually the name of the gene) can result in the body not being able to break down heavy metals effectively, leaving them to accumulate in our body.

12. Adrenal Fatigue – Because it wasn’t causing us enough problems anyway. We have written another post dedicated to copper toxicity and adrenal fatigue (still to come), but the main take away is that copper and adrenal fatigue is a catch 22.


Copper Toxicity – Why Should I Care?

Copper is an essential trace element that our bodies need for vital functions. It works with zinc to:copper-zinc-scale

  • Produce ATP for cellular energy,
  • Produce and repair connective tissue,
  • Form collagen,
  • Metabolise iron,
  • Produce optimal immune function,
  • Enable our reproductive systems,
  • Provide a healthy nervous system,
  • Enable cardiovascular function, and
  • Develop neurotransmitter production and function.

This list is not exhaustive of the functions zinc and copper work together to achieve – but as you can see, the relationship is responsible for some serious systems in our body!

What happens with the copper-zinc balance gets out of whack?

There are 3 kinds of copper-zinc imbalances: insufficient copper, excess copper and copper bio-unavailability (there also exists a rare genetic disorder – Wilson’s Disease – where the body is not able to effectively excrete copper, leading to brain and liver damage).

The first 2 are self-explanatory. Copper bio-unavailability occurs when there is excess copper in our bodies, but it isn’t easily accessible. This occurs when copper binding proteins are deficient and may lead to both a copper deficiency and copper excess at the same time!

When someone is deficient in copper they may experience:

  • High blood pressure,
  • Depression,
  • Chronic fatigue,
  • Miscarriage,
  • Chronic fungal infections,
  • Loss of libido,
  • Heart disease,
  • Food cravings and compulsive overeating, and
  • Addiction.

Copper toxicity occurs more often than insufficiency. When someone is suffering from excess copper they may experience a wide range of both physiological and psychological health problems, including:Stages of adrenal fatigue

  • Anaemia,
  • Brain fog
  • Hair loss,
  • Candida,
  • Impaired digestion (e.g. fat intolerances, feeling queasy after eating animal protein, bloating, gas),
  • Insomnia,
  • Autism,
  • Bipolar,
  • Schizophrenia,
  • Anxiety,
  • Depression (generally from the anxiety and insomnia),
  • Adrenal fatigue (though this is a chicken-and-the-egg problem, more on this in later posts),
  • Light sensitivity (sometimes so bad that you need to wear sunglasses inside),
  • Burn easily by the sun,
  • Fluid retention,
  • Anorexia,
  • PMS,
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Candida, and
  • Many, many more….

Excess copper stimulates the nervous system, having a profound impact on the neurotransmitters in our brain and causing a similar effect on the body as caffeine or amphetamines. The excess copper tends to accumulate in the liver, brain and reproductive organs. When excess copper accumulates in the thyroid it can lead to hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s disease.

The copper-zinc relationship has such an important role to play in our bodies. Copper has a very narrow range for optimal function – both too much and not enough, is associated with an increase in oxidative stress. The key is to try and keep the two minerals in balance (which is easier said than done in today’s society), as too far in either direction leads to trouble.

Copper Toxicity – My Story


2015 was a dreadful year. In January I had to have a vaccination deemed compulsory for my university placement. The affects of this vaccine on my body were terrible…although terrible is probably an understatement! I now know it was due to the fact that I have an impaired methylation cycle and my body cannot detoxify heavy metals – which are used as adjuvants in vaccines.

Adjuvant: An adjuvant is a substance that is added to a vaccine to increase the body’s immune response to the vaccine.

Methylation: Methylation is a vital metabolic process that occurs in every cell and organ of our body. There would be no life without it!

As a result of my body’s inability to detox itself, I went through many tests to try an understand why I couldn’t function. Finally I discovered I had a copper toxicity problem.

I seriously thought I was going crazy. Try explaining to your GP that you feel like your head is too heavy for your body! My GP thought I was insane. My copper toxicity symptoms also caused a racing mind and a terrible “tired but wired” feeling.

My body’s inability to detoxify itself meant any heavy metals that I came in contact with (and they are a lot more common than you would think) would just continue to build up in my system. This meant I could not sleep for a YEAR! It is true and I tried every sleep aid, natural and prescription on the market that you can imagine (Stilnox was the worst, I was so worried about what I might have done under it that I had to have mum sleep in the bed with me).

The more I couldn’t sleep, the more the heavy metals built up in my body and then the more I couldn’t sleep. This negative feedback loop compounded my symptoms and by the end of the year I was at the point of having to admit myself to hospital.

I felt like I was going crazy, I couldn’t function, I couldn’t sleep – all I would do is lie in my bed and cry. In my most depressed state, I couldn’t see anyway out.

But thankfully I did!! And please trust me when I say that there is always help, it might take time, but you will get back your health.

Dealing with copper toxicity is tough at the best of times and to make it worse, it often goes unrecognized by doctors. Because of this, we’ve decided to write a group of blog posts on everything we know about copper toxicity and the process we took to help detoxify heavy metals. We really hope that our experience can help you in your recovery.