Anemia – due to Excess Copper: Male Athlete, 37

Patient History: 

This pro hockey player began to develop heavy legs followed by a rapid build up of lactic acid when skating.  This had frequently been a problem on and off throughout his career.  As discussed below, this was determined to be primarily due to a subclinical anemia related to imbalances of iron, zinc, and copper. 

The trace elements iron, zinc, and copper directly, or indirectly, affect thousands of critical enzyme reactions affecting almost every aspect of human health & physiology including oxygen transportation, immune system function, hormone balance, detoxification, and many other critical functions.  

Further, dietary intakes of iron, zinc, and copper all affect each other’s absorption. More so, those individual absorption rates are affected by both the relative and absolute levels of each mineral, both in the food eaten, and by what is already in storage in the body.  Collectively all these factors impact the corresponding physiological functions each of those minerals affects within the body.  

This being the case, it’s not surprising that most common health problems are usually directly or indirectly affected to some degree by imbalances between these three critical elements.  For this reason, these nutrient levels and balances should always be carefully monitored in any full-time athlete or highly active person.  

The average healthy body has 2.5 - 4 g of iron, 2 - 3 g of zinc, but just 100 mg of copper.  

What is important to recognize is that this relatively small requirement for copper — in comparison to iron and zinc — means that copper levels must be maintained within a relatively narrow optimum range (compared to most other nutrients), if functions related to copper, zinc, and iron are to occur in an optimum manner.  And unless one is using metabolic testing, this optimum level of copper is very tricky to achieve without a very strong knowledge of nutrition and the symptoms of copper excess or deficiency.

As relates to this narrow range and anemia specifically, too little copper prevents the proper re-absorption of iron already in the body.  Too much copper prevents additional absorption of iron from food.

This individual’s HTMA showed a significant excess of copper in his tissues, which was due to a large intake of seeds, nuts, and nut butters.  The resulting high tissue copper level was antagonistic to iron absorption and was made worse by regular consumption of coffee which also inhibits iron absorption.  High tissue copper interferes with zinc uptake and testosterone production, reducing the potential for recovery after training.  High tissue copper also enhances tissue calcium accumulation which inhibits intracellular potassium, sodium, and phosphorus uptake, which slows metabolic rate and cellular ability to produce energy.


Increased potassium, iron, and zinc supplementation, and reduction of nut butter, seed and coffee intake. 


Due to his very high metabolism, within 48 hours this athlete’s metabolism responded and within a few days had fully renormalized.  

Important Note: Anemia can also result from an excess of zinc, which can cause a copper deficiency, which will also prevent the proper absorption of iron.  See next case study.