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Trace Amounts of Copper Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer's Disease

Story at-a-glance -

  • Exposure to even trace amounts of copper in drinking water may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Copper interfered with the proper functioning of a protein LRP1, which helps clear amyloid beta, a toxic protein linked to Alzheimer’s, from the brain
  • If you’re deficient in zinc, and many are, it can lead to copper toxicity, and thereby possibly increase your risk of Alzheimer’s
  • Excess copper stimulated inflammation of brain tissue that likely contributes to Alzheimer’s; separate research found that brain inflammation appears to worsen Parkinson’s disease symptoms such as depression, fatigue and cognitive impairment

By Dr. Mercola

Copper is an example of a heavy metal that's a nutrient at low concentrations but extremely toxic at higher levels. Your body uses copper for bone growth, nerve conduction, hormone secretion and more; yet in excess, and especially in non-organically bound form, it's been linked to oxidative stress and brain damage that may lead to cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease.

In fact, one recent study found that exposure to even trace amounts of copper in drinking water (at levels one-tenth of US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) water quality standards for copper) may increase the risk of Alzheimer's.1

Copper Linked to the Onset of Alzheimer's Disease

The study, which involved mouse and human brain cells, found that mice exposed to trace amounts of copper in their drinking water had copper accumulated in their circulatory systems and blood vessels.

Over time, the metal interfered with the proper functioning of a protein known as lipoprotein receptor-related protein 1 (LRP1), which helps clear amyloid beta, a toxic protein linked to Alzheimer's, from the brain.

Copper exposure also appeared to compromise the blood-brain barrier, causing it to become leaky. The researchers explained:2

" …the copper stimulated activity in neurons that increased the production of amyloid beta. The copper also interacted with amyloid beta in a manner that caused the proteins to bind together in larger complexes creating logjams of the protein that the brain's waste disposal system cannot clear.

…This one-two punch, inhibiting the clearance and stimulating the production of amyloid beta, provides strong evidence that copper is a key player in Alzheimer's disease…

In addition, the …copper provoked inflammation of brain tissue which may further promote the breakdown of the blood brain barrier and the accumulation of Alzheimer's-related toxins."

It's important to note that the study used very low levels of copper, equivalent to what many Americans would consume in a normal diet. Some people, however, may be getting higher exposures to copper than they realize…

Is Your Drinking Water Elevating Your Copper Levels?

The use of copper piping in home construction in the US started in the early 1960s. By 1970, it was almost exclusively the material of choice for water piping, and it's now estimated that 98 percent of all homes built after 1970 have copper pipes.

Water with pH below 6.5 can corrode copper pipes. This breakdown of the pipes not only introduces high levels of copper into your tap water, but also causes pitting, or "pinhole" leaks, which can allow other contaminants into the pipe and the water passing through it.

The copper in drinking water is inorganic and your body processes it very differently than the copper you consume through the food you eat, making it far more toxic. Increasing research now shows that when excess copper accumulates in your body, it interacts abnormally with the beta amyloid protein in the brain, which oxidizes and destroys your body's nerve cells.

Some precautions you can take to reduce your exposure to excess copper include:

  • Install a water filter system, which is specifically designed to remove heavy metals, such as a reverse osmosis system.
  • Replace your copper cookware with ceramic. Ceramic is completely safe and very easy to clean.
  • It is common to overdose on copper in your mineral supplement. Unless you are under the supervision of a physician you will want to avoid taking copper in excess of between 50 -100 micrograms. Many supplements use an inorganic copper similar to the more toxic type that flakes into tap water from corroding copper pipes. In fact, many companies use copper sulfate, which is used as a pesticide.

This is one of the problems when you use synthetic supplements. When you consume nutrient-rich whole foods as the primary source of your vitamins and minerals, it gives your body the opportunity to more easily vary the absorption rate and prevent any potential toxicity problems.

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Copper Toxicity Could Be Considered Zinc Deficiency

Zinc is copper's primary antagonist. That is, it helps reduce copper toxicity and also removes excess copper from your body naturally so you maintain a proper zinc-copper balance. If you're deficient in zinc, and many are, it can lead to copper toxicity, and thereby possibly increase your risk of Alzheimer's.

It's estimated that up to 45 percent of adults over the age of 60 may have lower than recommended zinc intakes; even when dietary supplements were added in, an estimated 20-25 percent of older adults still had inadequate zinc intakes, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.3

Any time you isolate one mineral and ingest it independently of the others, the potential exists for imbalance, or in the worst case, overdose, and this is true of zinc and copper. Just as zinc deficiency can lead to copper toxicity, taking too much zinc can interfere with your body's ability to absorb other minerals, especially copper.

For adults, the RDA for zinc is about 11 milligrams (mg) per day for adult men and 8 milligrams for women. If you are lactating or pregnant, you need about 3 mg more. For children, 4-8-year-olds need about 5 mg, and 9-13-year-olds need 8 mg, while infants need only about 3 mg.

Protein-rich foods like meats are high in zinc. Other good dietary sources of zinc include raw milk, raw cheese, beans, and yogurt or kefir made from raw milk. If you are healthy and you eat a well-balanced diet, you will rarely need supplements to complete your body's zinc needs and help keep your copper levels naturally controlled.

Inflammation Involved in Both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Symptoms

The above-mentioned study found that excess copper stimulated inflammation of brain tissue that may contribute to Alzheimer's disease. Separate research also found that brain inflammation appears to worsen Parkinson's disease symptoms such as depression, fatigue and cognitive impairment.4 After testing more than 120 Parkinson's patients, the researchers found that those with increased levels of inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 had more severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue and cognition.

You actually need some level of inflammation in your body to stay healthy. However, it's also possible, and increasingly common, for the inflammatory response to get out of hand. If your immune system mistakenly triggers an inflammatory response when no threat is present, it can lead to excess inflammation in your body, a condition linked to asthma, allergies, autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer and other diseases, depending on which organs the inflammation is impacting.

Unfortunately, chronic inflammation typically will not produce symptoms until actual loss of function occurs somewhere. This is because chronic inflammation is low-grade and systemic, often silently damaging your tissues over an extended period of time. This process can go on for years without you noticing, until a disease, like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, suddenly sets in in symptomatic form.

Diet accounts for about 80 percent of the health benefits you reap from a healthful lifestyle, and keeping inflammation in check is a major part of these benefits. It's important to realize that dietary components can either trigger or prevent inflammation from taking root in your body. For example, whereas trans fats and sugar, particularly fructose, will increase inflammation, eating healthy fats such as animal-based omega-3 fats found in krill oil, or the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), will help to reduce them.

If you have not already addressed your diet as a means of protecting your brain health and cognitive function, this would be the best place to start, regardless of whether you're experiencing symptoms of chronic inflammation or not. To help you get started, I suggest following my free Optimized Nutrition Plan, which starts at the beginner phase and systematically guides you step-by-step to the advanced level.

Extreme Altitudes Linked to Increased Brain Lesions

There's still quite a bit we don't know about the complex workings of the human brain and how it's impacted by our modern world. For instance, a study of U-2 high altitude reconnaissance pilots found they have a poorly understood type of brain lesion three times more often (and four times as large) as brains of other military personnel.5

The pilots regularly fly at 64,000 feet (and sometimes as high as 70,000 feet, where the curvature of the Earth can be seen). For comparison, commercial flights typically fly at about 30,000-40,000 feet. While the U-2 pilots are at increased risk of decompression sickness, which can lead to slowed mental processing and cognitive decline, the increased brain lesions were found even in pilots who had not experienced decompression sickness.

It's unknown what the long-term effects of the lesions might be, but it's known that they do represent damage to the brain's white matter. Similar lesions in aging brains have been linked to an increased risk of stroke, dementia and death, although the pilots in the study currently have no mental impairments. It's thought that others exposed to extreme altitudes, such as high-altitude mountain climbers and deep-sea divers, may also be at risk of the lesions.

Coconut Oil for Brain Health and Alzheimer's

Where your brain health is concerned, adding coconut oil to your diet is one simple strategy virtually everyone can embrace. One of the primary fuels your brain needs is glucose, which is converted into energy. Your brain actually manufactures its own insulin to convert glucose in your bloodstream into the food it needs to survive.

If your brain's production of insulin decreases, or your brain cells develop resistance to it, your brain literally begins to starve, as it's deprived of the glucose-converted energy it needs to function normally. This is what happens to Alzheimer's patients -- portions of their brain start to atrophy, or starve, leading to impaired functioning and eventual loss of memory, speech, movement and personality.

In effect, your brain can begin to atrophy from starvation if it becomes insulin resistant and loses its ability to convert glucose into energy. Fortunately, your brain is able to run on more than one type of energy supply, and this is where coconut oil enters the picture. There's another substance that can feed your brain and prevent brain atrophy. It may even restore and renew neuron and nerve function in your brain after damage has set in.

The substance in question is called ketone bodies or ketoacids. Ketones are what your body produces when it converts fat (as opposed to glucose) into energy, and a primary source of ketone bodies are the medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil! Coconut oil contains about 66 percent MCTs. Therapeutic levels of MCTs have been studied at 20 grams per day. According to research by Dr. Mary Newport, just over two tablespoons of coconut oil (about 35 ml or 7 level teaspoons) would supply you with the equivalent of 20 grams of MCT, which is indicated as either a preventative measure against degenerative neurological diseases or as a treatment for an already established case.

Everyone tolerates coconut oil differently, so you may have to start slowly and build up to these therapeutic levels. My recommendation is to start with one teaspoon, taken with food in the mornings. Gradually add more coconut oil every few days until you are able to tolerate four tablespoons. Coconut oil is best taken with food to avoid upsetting your stomach.

Healthy Fats Are Essential for Brain Health

The saturated fats in coconut oil are but one example of a healthy fat your brain needs. Animal-based omega-3 fats contain two fatty acids that are also crucial to human health, DHA and EPA. Most of the neurological benefits of omega-3 oils are derived from the DHA, which is one of the major building blocks of your brain.

About half of your brain and eyes are made up of fat, much of which is DHA -- making it an essential nutrient for optimal brain function. Your brain activity actually depends greatly upon the functions provided by its outer, fatty waxy membrane to act as an electrical nerve-conduction cable, so adding omega-3 fats to your diet, via wild-caught fish or a supplement like krill oil, is also important.

A reasonable goal will be to have as much as 50-70 percent of your diet as healthy fat, which will radically reduce your carbohydrate intake. It can be helpful to remember that fat is far more satiating than carbs, so if you have cut down on carbs and feel ravenous, this is a sign that you have not replaced them with sufficient amounts of healthy fat. Sources of healthy fats that you'll want to consider adding to your diet include:

Olives and olive oil (for cold dishes) Coconuts and coconut oil (for all types of cooking and baking) Butter made from raw, organic grass-fed milk
Raw nuts, such as pecans or macadamia Organic pastured egg yolks Avocados
Pasture-finished meats Unheated organic nut oils

Another Tool for a Healthy Brain: Intermittent Fasting

Another powerful tool you can consider implementing is intermittent fasting, which affects brain function by boosting production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Research suggests that fasting every other day (restricting your meal on fasting days to about 600 calories), tends to boost BDNF by anywhere from 50 to 400 percent,6 depending on the brain region. BDNF activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons, and triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health.

This protein also protects your brain cells from changes associated with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. BDNF also expresses itself in the neuromuscular system where it protects neuro-motors from degradation. (The neuromotor is the most critical element in your muscle. Without the neuromotor, your muscle is like an engine without ignition. Neuro-motor degradation is part of the process that explains age-related muscle atrophy.)

So BDNF is actively involved in both your muscles and your brain, and this cross-connection, if you will, appears to be a major part of the explanation for why a physical workout can have such a beneficial impact on your brain tissue — and why the combination of intermittent fasting with high intensity exercise appears to be a particularly potent combination as well.

So whether it's copper toxicity, chronic inflammation or another cause entirely that has the potential to damage your brain, in many cases the solution is the same: a healthy lifestyle comprised of whole foods, healthy fats, exercise and, perhaps, intermittent fasting, too.