Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The body's copper:zinc ratio (and why vegetarians and women on birth control should be more concerned)

For women choosing a type of birth control, often the only considerations made are: Will I gain weight?  Will I have mood swings?  Will I have cramps?  And so on...
There are actually several more things to consider when choosing a method of birth control.  I recently  stumbled upon some information that left me unsettled.  Those using the copper IUD, a birth control that is free of hormones,  may be experiencing side effects related to nutrient imbalance due to increased copper in their bloodstream.  This can also be true for those using hormone birth control, which similarly increases the level of copper in the body.

The Zinc:Copper ratio in the body is very important.  While copper is available in many common foods, zinc is found in fewer foods and its bioavailability is inhibited by oxalic acid (found in spinach, sweet potatoes, and rhubarb), phytic acid (found in unleavened bread, raw beans, seeds, nuts, and grains), and caffeinated beverages such as coffee and tea containing tannins.  Zinc is best absorbed by the body from meat (especially beef), seafood, and eggs.  For a vegetarian women on birth control, her Zinc:Copper ratio is likely to be unbalanced.  Ideally it should be around 8:1.  Initially I was researching this subject because of skin breakouts I have been experiencing  the past 6 or so months.  This is unusual for me, but I had not considered that a non-hormone form of birth control could affect my skin.  My research has led me to believe that the copper IUD can in fact lead to skin problems, as well as many other problems far more disconcerting.  Zinc, a mineral that is important in numerous reactions in the body, is necessary to function.  Using a copper IUD puts more copper into the bloodstream.  Many (most) types of hormonal birth control increase the amount of estrogen in the body, which increases copper retention on the kidneys.  Copper builds up in the liver, hindering its ability to detoxify blood, including ridding the body of excess estrogen and other toxic metals when it blocks zinc binding sites.  Low zinc:copper ratio is linked to PMS, anxiety, head aches, paranoia, ADD, depression, spaciness and other mental conditions (Holistic Back Relief Acupuncture & Wellness Center ).  This is scary.

Pamela Wartian Smith's book "What you must know about Vitamins, Minerals, Herbs & More: Choosing the Nutrients that are Right for You" has been very helpful in my quest to dissect my health and explore ways to supplement it.  It details the foods that contain high amounts of all the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids etc. that our bodies need.  It also describes how these compounds interact with others, and the symptoms related to deficiency (it's a very detailed book, but I am currently too lazy to sumarize all of its components).  It's a really good resource if you are trying to decide which supplements to take.

Among the list of 36 symptoms of Zinc deficiency described on page 103 of the book are the following:
behavioral disturbances (depression, hostility, irritability)
cravings for surgary food
brittle nails
decreased ability to taste
decreased ability to smell
hair loss
decreased sexual function
immune deficiencies
impaired wound healing
white spots on nails
sleep disturbances
poor appetite
memory impairment

And the list goes on.  Basically, I do not want to have excess copper in my body and I am wondering if it is possible to combat this problem with supplementation.  I have recently (since last summer, 2010) been trying to avoid meat.  I buy it once in a blue moon, and allow myself a Costco sample here and there, but have otherwise drastically reduced my animal consumption.  With the current statistics on how livestock production contributes to greenhouse gases and is otherwise generally very resource intensive, I can't feel good about frequent meat consumption  But now I'm freaked out about my health and feel that I should either stop using birth control or start eating meat.

Zinc IS found in sources other than meat, but it's more difficult to absorb.  Eating quality protein with a meal increases absorption.  The amino acids, found in eggs for example, have been found to counteract the negative effects of phytate on zinc absorption.  See THIS article describing a study done at UC Davis by the Nutritional Department.  The article also describes the possible inhibitory effect of iron on zinc absorption.  The researchers believe that adding copper to the diet does not affect zinc levels unless they are already low.  However, in their study, they added only 2mg per day to the diet.  Also, the measured quantity was zinc absorption.  The zinc:copper ratio would have to be increased if copper was added to the diet, whether or not it affected how much zinc the body absorbed.  Also, this study was concentrated on copper in the diet rather than that from an IUD.

According to the book I previously mentioned, zinc supplements are absorbed best by the body in the forms zinc picolinate and zinc citrate.  I  purchased a 50mg zinc picolinate supplement, but have not been taking it consistently (alas, the irregular and sometimes frenzied life of a college student).  I plan to start taking it twice a day, with food.

Aside from supplementation, here are some non-meat foods with high zinc (from the aforementioned book as well as this website).  Those that have a high zinc:copper ratio are starred*.  Foods that also contain oxalic acid or phytic acid are in ().  Ideally, they should be eaten with protein to combat the inhibitory effects.

fresh oysters*
ginger root
eggs, particularly the yolk**
(brazil nuts)
(lima beans)
soy lecithin
(hazel nuts)
green peas
shrimp** (8:1!)
(whole wheat bread)
black beans*
raw milk
grape juice
olive oil
string beans

So there you go.  Hopefully that was more informative than confusing.  I'll write more later on copper toxicity, and how to rid your body of excess metals.  Also, maybe some specially formulated recipes to promote zinc absorption?  We shall see.

This article, written by Dr. Paul C. Eck and Dr. Larry Wilson, describes how copper toxicity can lead to a range of mental disorders, PMS, Anorexia, and various other scary situations.  Read it HERE

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