Copper is considered an essential mineral in the diet. But too much copper is a toxic ticket to misery and can lead to headaches and hair loss, to nausea and poor appetite, to liver and kidney damage. Among the many possible signs of excess copper are several of the symptoms of ADHD, particularly hyperactivity, impulsivity, and aggressiveness.
And because it blocks the production of serotonin, a mood-balancing neurotransmitter, excess copper can also trigger emotional, mental, and behavioral problems—from the everyday, like depression and anxiety, to the severe, like paranoia and psychosis.
That’s why it’s so important to make sure that there are high enough levels of zinc to counteract the effects of any excess copper.
But before you run to get your child tested for excess copper, there are several signs to check for first.
14 Signs Your ADHD Child Has Excess Copper
There are many telltale signs of an ADHD child with a high-copper/low-zinc imbalance. I describe them below, from the most to the least telling.
If even a few of these are a match for your child, it would be wise to supplement the diet with zinc or at least get your child tested for copper levels.
#1. An ADHD stimulant medication like Ritalin didn’t work and may have made your child even worse.
In my clinical experience, stimulants don’t work well in children with a copper excess. The ADHD child with copper excess also tends to have more side effects from stimulant medication, such as becoming more agitated and anxious, sleeping poorly, or losing her appetite.
Most ADHD medications work by increasing levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that provides alertness, mental acuity, positive mood, and the motivation to seek and find pleasure, or a sense of reward.
In this case, copper is a good guy: it helps generate dopamine.
But an excess of copper creates an excess of dopamine and its partner norepinephrine, causing symptoms like hyperactivity, agitation, irritability, and aggressiveness. And a dopamine-boosting medication only makes matters worse!
Dopamine excess is also produced by elevated levels of HPHPA, a byproduct of imbalanced intestinal bacteria. Many of the ADHD children I see in my practice have both copper excess and intestinal imbalance, and their symptoms don’t improve until both problems are treated.
That’s why detecting and correcting 1) copper excess and 2) intestinal imbalance are top priorities in my Plus-Minus Plan (please see Finally Focused for further reading).
#2. Your drinking water is or was high in copper.
Copper pipes are common in homes built from the 1960s to the present—and these pipes can corrode, leaching copper into drinking water.
Oddly, newer homes are more likely to have the problem: over time, a coating forms on the inside of copper pipes, shielding the water from the copper. Brass pipes are an alloy of copper and zinc and can also contribute to the problem.)
There are several ways to protect your ADHD child (and yourself) from copper in drinking water:
- Let the cold water run. If you haven’t used the faucet for a few hours, let the cold water run for 30 to 60 seconds before drinking it.
- Don’t use the hot water faucet for drinking or cooking. Hot water dissolves copper more quickly. If you need hot water for drinking or cooking, get it from the cold-water tap, and heat it up. That’s particularly important when making baby formula.
- Install a water filter. Reverse osmosis, ultra-filtration, distillation, ion exchange, and activated carbon all take a high percentage of copper out of the water.
- Check copper levels. You can contact your local water supplier to find out the level of copper in the water. Levels that exceed 1,300 parts per billion are harmful, according to the EPA. Copper can also be a problem in well water, from the copper in rock. Have your well checked for copper (and other contaminants) at least once yearly.
#3. Your ADHD child is a picky eater.
Low levels of zinc dull the sensations of taste and smell, decrease appetite, and (strangely enough) make meat seem repulsive. Restore zinc and your ADHD child might actually stop playing with her food and start eating it.
#4. Your ADHD child has digestive problems.
Zinc is a must for the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—which is why children with low zinc and high copper often have poor digestion.
#5. Your ADHD child is a vegetarian or vegan.
Red meat, seafood, and chicken deliver lots of zinc; meatless diets can be low in the mineral, elevating copper. In fact, choosing to be a vegetarian might also be the result of a high-copper/low-zinc imbalance.
#6. Your ADHD child has allergies.
Allergies are a common symptom of copper excess, which weakens the immune system.
#7. Your ADHD child has white spots on his or her fingernails.
Your doctor might disparage this as a symptom of zinc deficiency, saying it’s self-care folklore, not scientific fact. But it’s commonplace for me to see patients who have white spots on their fingernails—and who then test positive for a zinc deficiency.
#8. Your ADHD child has sleeping problems.
As I pointed out earlier, zinc plays a key role in the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps us snooze. If your child is a poor sleeper, chances are he needs more zinc.
#9. Your ADHD child was overactive and had sleeping problems as an infant.
If the mom had a copper excess, the baby might have it, too. The pregnant body automatically dumps extra copper into the placenta. Your ADHD child might have been born with high-copper/low-zinc—and hyperactivity and sleeping problems, two common symptoms of ADHD.
#10. Your ADHD child has started puberty.
The metabolic demands of puberty burn up zinc, sometimes causing copper excess. This may be a major (and usually overlooked) reason why ADHD sometimes worsens when puberty begins.
#11. Your ADHD child is under stress.
What ADHD child isn’t? ADHD children are stressed in every area of their lives—at school, at home, with their friends, with no respite anywhere. High levels of stress translate into high levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol—which blocks the activity of zinc.
With less brain-balancing zinc available, your child is more likely to feel overwhelmed by stress and pump out more cortisol, further interfering with zinc. But you can break this vicious cycle by supplementing your child’s diet with zinc.
#12. Your ADHD child is a non-stop competitive athlete, with frequent practices and games.
Zinc is lost through sweat—and high-intensity daily exercise can drain the body of zinc. Vegan and vegetarian athletes are particularly at risk for zinc deficiency.
#13. Your ADHD child was exposed to BPA (bisphenol A).
Worldwide, billions of pounds of this zinc-binding, zinc-blocking chemical are produced each year, for the lining of food cans, for plastic products, and for the coating on receipts.
But even BPA-free products might not be the answer: BPA is often replaced with similar chemicals that also bind zinc. In fact, many environmental toxins deplete zinc. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences offers a few ways to reduce your child’s exposure to BPA and similar chemicals.
- Don’t microwave polycarbonate plastic containers.
- Avoid recyclable plastic containers with codes 3 or 7; they may contain BPA.
- Opt for glass, ceramic or stainless-steel containers, particularly for hot foods or liquids.
- Use BPA-free baby bottles.
#14. Your child has ADHD and anorexia.
The symptoms of anorexia nervosa are almost a perfect match for the symptoms of zinc deficiency: decreased appetite and meat avoidance; decreased taste and smell; nausea and bloating after eating; insomnia and poor sleep habits; depression; and attention difficulties.
The good news is that a study shows that anorexic adolescents supplemented with 50 mg of daily zinc had improvements in many symptoms of the eating disorder.
How to Test for Excess Copper
There’s only one way to know for certain if your child has excess copper and low zinc: A hair test that measures zinc and copper levels (Hair Trace Mineral Analysis).
With results in hand, your doctor can definitively determine whether or not your child has excess copper and low zinc. And if she does, there’s a straightforward, simple way to treat the problem: take zinc.
But there’s also a medical test for copper your doctor should avoid: the Ceruloplasmin Test, which measures a protein that transports copper throughout the body. The problem? This test only detects very elevated copper. Ninety percent of results are in the normal range—even in children with copper excess.
For more information on copper and how it can affect children suffering from ADHD, please see my award-winning book, Finally Focused.
Yours in health,
James M. Greenblatt, MD
Founder, Medical Director, Psychiatry Redefined
There’s an obscure allergy that might be causing ADHD symptoms in many children, read more about it here.