Orthomolecular medicine is a medical sub-field where practitioners focus on balancing nutrients in the body. They do this mostly by using dietary supplements to manage nutritional deficiencies and toxicities. High levels of copper have been associated with numerous health issues, particularly those that are associated with mental health. For individuals with high levels of copper, the use of a chelator like tetrathiomolybdate may be necessary in addition to changes in diet and the use of supplements.
Zinc and Copper
Zinc competes with copper for binding sites so they are often studied together. In one study on patients with anxiety it was shown that zinc levels were low and copper levels were high. In another study, the researchers concluded that “there are mechanisms that are built to decrease serum concentration of Zn and to increase serum concentration of Cu in the presence of inflammatory conditions, so that a common feature of several age-related chronic diseases is an increase of the Cu to Zn ratio (CZr).”
High copper levels are also associated with post-partum depression and other mental health issues. Copper levels increase during pregnancy. For women suffering from post-partum depression, it may be partially caused by an inability to bring copper levels back to normal levels. Just supplementing with zinc though is not likely to reduce copper levels significantly. Many practitioners use a combination of zinc along with tetrathiomolybdate to free up copper in the body so it can be bound and excreted.
What is Tetrathiomolybdate?
Molybdenum is an essential trace element for virtually all life forms. It has a number of uses in multiple industries but the majority of molybdenum that is produced is used to create steel alloys. A complex that contains sulfur and molybdenum is called a thiomolybdate. A tetrathiomolybdate is a thiomolybdate with four sulfur atoms – a combination that can form complexes with copper.
Molybdenum enters food through the soil. The potential copper-binding activity of this element was first discovered in cows and sheep that ate from soil high in molybdenum. The molybdenum then formed complexes with sulfur and was bound to copper in the animals. If levels of copper are normal, this activity of molybdenum can have adverse effects. If levels of copper are abnormally high, however, it can be a useful tool in restoring normal copper levels.
After being used in livestock for many years, tetrathiomolybdate started to be used to treat patients with Wilson disease – a genetic condition that causes copper accumulation in the liver. Tetrathiomolybdate forms complexes with copper to get levels of free copper under control and also inhibits copper-containing enzymes.
What are Normal Levels of Copper?
The ways copper is most often measured are either with serum or urine. The normal copper levels for urine are between 20-50mcg for a 24-hour test. Urinary excretion of copper above 60mcg may occur with Wilson disease or during chelation therapy. Chelation moves copper through the body so it is excreted, which can increase urine levels.
Serum copper levels that are below the normal range may be an indication of Wilson disease. This test measures ceruloplasmin, which is a copper-containing protein found in the blood. In Wilson disease, the liver does not move into ceruloplasmin so it accumulates. After being allowed to accumulate in the liver, copper will be forced into the blood stream and build up in parts of the body where it can become toxic. A normal range for ceruloplasmin is 20 to 35 mg/dL. A result below 10mg/dL may be a sign of Wilson disease.
Although there are dietary recommendations for daily zinc intake, there are not reliable tests for detecting zinc deficiency. Still, a blood test may be used to gain a general idea of zinc status.
How are Zinc and Tetrathiomolybdate Dosed?
A common prescription we see is for 50mg of zinc to be taken twice daily combined with 20mg doses of tetrathiomolybdate taken 3 times per day at meals and 3 times per day between meals (for a total dose of 120mg daily). For patients without Wilson disease, a treatment course may last only a few months until copper levels are under control.
Copper and The Walsh Approach
Dr. William Walsh, PhD has been a pioneer in the development of advanced nutrient therapies, which are a type of orthomolecular medicine. The basic principle is that imbalances of certain nutrients can have profound effects on how the body functions. In many cases these therapies are used for patients with chronic conditions that are difficult to treat or have no treatments available that are completely successful. Because of copper’s potential influence on a variety of mental health conditions, healthcare practitioners who follow Dr. Walsh’s approach sometimes prescribe zinc and tetrathiomolybdate to balance levels of these essential metals.