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We often talk about nutrients in terms of their individual benefits. But the truth is that essential vitamins and minerals actually function as part of an inter-connected web. A bit like an extended family, they often work together, sometimes pull apart and the relationships can be complex when you start to scratch beneath the surface.

One particularly important nutrient relationship to understand is the one between copper and zinc. These two minerals work hand-in-hand for many important jobs but they are also antagonists. This means that if one is too high it can cause the other to become too low and vice versa. So whilst it’s important to maintain optimum levels of both copper and zinc, it’s also crucial to pay close attention to the ratio between the two. When your copper: zinc ratio is out of balance, health problems can happen as a result.

✔ Takeaway no. 1 : When your copper : zinc ratio is out of balance health problems can start to happen

Zinc has many roles to play in the body but is perhaps best known for its crucial involvement in immune function, growth and development, wound healing, antioxidant functions and for a proper sense of taste and smell. The body doesn’t have a specialised storage system for zinc so you need to consume it regularly as part of a balanced diet. Meat is considered to be a more bio-available source of zinc than plant foods so vegetarians and vegans may need to eat up to 50% more zinc than non-vegetarians to reach optimal levels.

Less well known than zinc, but no less important, copper is a vital co-factor in many enzymes and biochemical processes in the body, including those involved in antioxidant defence, immune function and iron balance. Elevated copper levels can contribute to increased oxidative stress, and in high levels, copper can become toxic.

✔ Takeaway no. 2 : Zinc and copper are both involved in immune function & antioxidant defence systems

As well as their individual roles, the ratio between zinc and copper is of vital importance. A balanced copper: zinc ratio can help to support immune function, fight infection and keep inflammatory processes balanced too.

Free radicals are harmful compounds that can cause cell damage and destruction if left unchecked. Both copper and zinc are needed for an important antioxidant enzyme called superoxide dismutase (SOD) that helps to fight free radicals and reduce oxidative stress; the ratio between the two is vital for keeping this enzyme functioning optimally.

Research shows that during times of chronic inflammation and poor health there is often an imbalanced copper: zinc ratio (higher copper & lower zinc). A study published in 2017 found that decreased levels of zinc, reduced activity of the SOD enzyme and a higher copper: zinc ratio were all associated with higher inflammation in patients with inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD).1  

Optimal brain health also relies on a balanced copper: zinc ratio. In a 2017 meta-analysis, researchers looked into the association between copper, zinc and Alzheimer’s Disease.2 They found that copper levels were significantly higher and zinc levels were significantly lower (high copper: zinc ratio) in Alzheimer’s Disease than healthy controls. Some research has also shown an association between a high copper: zinc ratio and autism & ADHD.3 In one study, researchers found that as the severity of autism increased, so too did the copper: zinc ratio.4

An imbalanced copper: zinc ratio has also been reported in disturbed sleep,5 a higher risk of physical disability in the elderly6 and even in patients with heart failure.6

✔ Takeaway no. 3 : An imbalanced copper: zinc ratio may be associated with inflammation, sub-optimal brain health, disturbed sleep and even cardiovascular health problems

Clearly the ratio between copper and zinc is an important one. So how can you make sure yours is within balance? First step, check your diet provides good sources of both minerals. You will get good levels of both copper and zinc in a varied, balanced diet that includes plenty of minimally processed wholefoods cooked from scratch. When wholegrains are processed into refined versions the outer portion of the grain is removed along with much of the mineral content (including zinc and copper), so choosing wholegrains over refined versions is a great start.  Some foods, such as sesame seeds, crimini mushrooms, asparagus, lentils, pine nuts and broccoli are great sources of both.

✔ Takeaway no. 4 : Ensure your diet contains good sources of both copper and zinc

If you’re looking to supplement your diet with a daily multivitamin & mineral formula, it’s particularly important to ensure it contains both copper and zinc, unless you know that your ratio is out of balance (this can be ascertained by testing). For most people, it is recommended that a daily multivitamin containing both zinc and copper in a balanced ratio is the best way to support this important relationship.

✔ Takeaway no. 5 : Check your daily multivitamin & mineral contains both zinc and copper to support this important balance

1. Mohammadi E, Qujeg D et al. Evaluation of serum trace element levels and superoxide dismutase activity in patients with inflammatory bowel disease: translating basic research into clinical application. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2017 Jun; 177(2): 235-240
2. Li DD, Zhang W et al. Serum copper, zinc, and iron levels in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease: a meta-analysis of case-control studies. Front Aging Neurosc. 2017 Sep 15; 9:300
3. Viktorinova A, Ursinyova M et al. Changed plasma levels of zinc and copper to zinc ratio and their possible associations with parent and teacher symptoms in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2016 Jan; 169(1):1-7
4. Li So, Wang JL et al. Serum copper and zinc levels in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Neuroreport. 2014 Oct 22;25(15): 1216-20
5. Luojus MK, Lehto SM et al. Serum copper, zinc and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein in short and long sleep duration in ageing men. J Trace Elem Med Biol. 2015 Oct; 32:177-82
6. Alexian I, Parissis J et al. Clinical and echocardiographic correlates of serum copper and zinc in acute and chronic heart failure. Clin Res Cardiol. 2014 Nov; 103(11): 938-49

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