Copper Overload Linked to Autism, Schizophrenia and Postpartum Depression

Autism is particularly susceptible to copper overload and the effect on dopamine and norepinephrine  levels.

In his recent interview with Dr Mercola, Dr Walsh discusses copper, an important trace metal, that plays a distinct role in the synthesis of norepinephrine, a major neurotransmitter. Free copper impacts the levels of dopamine by causing this

Dopamine neurotransmitter is synthesized by humans and animals from L-Dopa in the kidneys and brain. It is also produced in plants.  This neurotransmitter is associated with the reward center, affecting desire, motivation craving for reward, associative learning (primarily positive reinforcement and classical conditioning), and positive emotions, particularly ones which involve pleasure as a core component (e.g., joy, euphoria and ecstasy).  It also manages aspects of motor control and in controlling the release of various hormones.

Norepinephrine is synthesized from the amino acid tyrosine by a series of enzymatic steps in the adrenal medulla and postganglionic neurons of the sympathetic nervous system. While the conversion of tyrosine to dopamine occurs predominantly in the cytoplasm, the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine by dopamine β-monooxygenase occurs predominantly inside neurotransmitter vesicles. The metabolic pathway is:

Phenylalanine → Tyrosine → L-DOPA → Dopamine → Norepinephrine

Broadly speaking, the effect of norepinephrine on each target organ is via the symptathetic nervous system for the purpose of of making the body more conducive to active movement, often at a cost of increased energy use and increased wear and tear. Known as the “fight or flight” neurotransmitter it can be contrasted with the acetylcholine-mediated effects of the parasympathetic nervous system, which modifies most of the same organs into a state more conducive to rest, recovery, and digestion of food, and usually less costly in terms of energy expenditure.

Elevated levels of unbound, ‘free copper’ (copper overload) have a direct effect on the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine. The consequence is lower levels of the reward center and increase levels of stress and anxiety. 

“It all has to do with an enzyme called metallothionein that is genetically expressed. Some people don’t have that system working,” Walsh explains. “These persons have copper overload, which we find virtually in every autistic patient, most patients with schizophrenia and almost everyone with postpartum depression.

That’s a recipe for very high norepinephrine — which means anxiety and depression — and low dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter), which is a hallmark of ADHD … a nasty combination.

We find the sociopaths innately have low copper levels. People who have undermethylation tend to have low normal copper levels … The good news for mental disorders is that there are more than 100 really important biochemicals in the body, but only a few dominate mental disorders.

If we had to do lab testing for 100 of them, it would be really difficult. If we had to adjust the levels of these and normalize 100 different factors, it would make life very difficult. But we found that by just focusing on maybe seven or eight nutrient factors, we could help 95 percent of the patients we see with nutrient therapy.”

How to Measure Your Zinc and Copper Status

Zinc experts typically agree that plasma zinc provides the most accurate measurement. The taste test has some minor value but is among the least reliable. To accurately measure copper, serum copper is the way to go, and most labs throughout the world provide good copper assays.

Walsh recommends doing a ceruloplasmin test at the same time, because then you can determine how much free radical copper you have, which gives you a good indication of your level of oxidative stress. A high sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP) test would also be useful as a marker of inflammation.

“By the way, oxidative stress runs through every single mental disorder we see, without exception,” Walsh says. “Every one of them seems to have extraordinary oxidative stress — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, a violent child or an autistic child.”

Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle strongly promotes oxidative stress, with processed foods, processed vegetable oils, excessive net carbs and excessive protein being some of the most potent factors. This kind of diet causes a reduction in ketones and a radical increase in reactive oxygen species and secondary free radicals.

Exposure to non-native electromagnetic fieldsglyphosate and other pesticides, fluoride-contaminated water and other toxic exposures only add to the problem. Typically, copper and ceruloplasmin levels tend to go hand in hand, being either high or low together. The ideal level for copper, with respect to mental health, is somewhere between 75 and 100 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) in serum. The ideal amount of ceruloplasmin has to do with whatever your level of copper is.

Ideally, the percentage of copper in your ceruloplasmin should be around 85 to 90 percent. “It’s really great to do both simultaneously, because then you have a really good picture of not only the copper situation, but also the level of oxidative stress,” Walsh says.

Heavy Metals and the Autistic Brain

Walsh has tested 6,500 autistic patients. As a group, they have much higher toxic metal levels than their siblings or the general population. Walsh believes their toxic burden is likely due to an inborn predisposition that makes them more likely to accumulate toxins and/or vulnerable to the effects of toxins.

“Thousands of these parents, maybe more than half, told a very sad story of how they had a child who was developing normally, was beginning to speak and was singing and charming their grandparents. Then maybe the child got sick.

They took him to a pediatrician and the pediatrician — I’ve heard this story hundreds of times — said, ‘Oh, you’re behind on your shots. You’re behind on your vaccinations.’ They took a sick child and gave them multiple vaccinations, at that time, with thimerosal and mercury.

Hundreds of these families said that within a day or two, their child changed forever. Lost all speech, the personality changed, they became sick. They became intolerant to served foods. They were just very troubled little human beings.

When they went to specialists, eventually they wound up with the diagnosis of autism and were told that it was incurable and that there was no hope really for recovery. We’ve seen a lot of human misery just talking with these families. It’s just a shocking and terrible thing.”

Walsh suspects autistic children have an insufficiency of natural antioxidants such as glutathione and metallothionein, rendering them more vulnerable to the effects of environmental exposures, including vaccines and poor diet. It’s worth noting that 1 in 3 children diagnosed with autism does not have true autism caused by epigenetic variations.

Many of these children have a good chance of recovery, whereas classic Kanner autism is a permanent, life-long epigenetic condition (named after Leo Kanner, who discovered autism in the 1940s1), although some measure of improvement can be made even in these cases.

Metallothionein Promotion Nutrient Therapy for Autism

The fact that autistic children tend to have extraordinary copper and zinc imbalances means their metallothionein protein is not functioning. Metallothionein is required for homeostatic control of copper and zinc. Walsh has developed a metallothionein promotion nutrient therapy: a formulation of 22 nutrients known to enhance genetic expression and function of metallothionein. This protocol has been used on more than 2,000 autistic patients, with measurable improvements in outcome.

“The most important antioxidants in the brain are somewhat different than the rest of the body. I call them the three musketeers. It’s glutathione, metallothionein and selenium. It’s specific to the brain,” he explains.

Technically, selenium is not an antioxidant per se, but it does increase glutathione levels and enhances the function of metallothionein and, in the brain, glutathione and metallothionein work together. Glutathione is your first line of defense. The problem is, autistic children typically have a poor diet (it’s hard to get them to eat anything) and with the oxidative overload, they quickly run out of glutathione. When you run low on glutathione in your brain, your metallothionein level increases.

“Metallothionein doesn’t work unless you have oxidized glutathione. It’s a hand in glove situation. It’s the backup system for glutathione in the brain, and we know that without selenium, that whole system doesn’t work well,” Walsh explains.

I take selenium every day. It’s a trace mineral, so you don’t need much, up to about 200 mcg per day, and you definitely need to be mindful not to overdose. As noted by Walsh, of all the trace metals, selenium has the narrowest division between deficiency and overload, so you need to be careful when supplementing.

Zinc also needs to be normalized, as it is the No. 1 factor for enabling metallothionein to function and support glutathione. According to Walsh, for mental and physical health, you need a plasma zinc level between 90 and 130 mcg/dL. Many mental patients have a genetic weakness in zinc normalization; they’re born with zinc deficiency, and need far higher amounts than typical to maintain a healthy zinc level.

On Thimerosal

Walsh has also investigated the thimerosal issue, looking for evidence of mercury toxicity in the brains of autistic children. In fact, he was the first person to actually measure mercury in autistic brains.

He was able to receive brain tissue samples from Johns Hopkins, and using the Argonne facility called the Advanced Photon Source, he did over 1 million chemical analyses on brain tissue from autistic and non-autistic children. Every autistic child analyzed had received thimerosal-containing vaccinations.

However, no mercury could be found in the brain tissue. One explanation for this is that the tests were done years after the vaccinations. The half-life of mercury in the human body is 42 days. The half-life of ethyl or methyl mercury in the brain is 70 days.

“I think what it amounts to is that mercury is a terrible poison. It’s a terrible insult,” he says. “I think these vulnerable kids should never be exposed to it. However, it doesn’t stay in the body and it doesn’t do continuing damage. I think after a year or so, it has left the body, even though there are tens of thousands of families who are trying therapies that will take the mercury out of their child’s brain when it’s no longer there.”

Copper and Emotions

The effect of elevated total or free copper on neurotransmitters is significant. As a cofactor in the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine, the effect of copper and emotions is profound. Dopamine is a mood enhancing, feel good neurotransmitter. And there is an important need for dopamine to convert to norepinephrine. But there needs to be a balance. When there’s too little dopamine and too much norepinephrine, which occurs in the presence of elevated copper, the effect of copper and emotions is important to address. 

Elevated copper is an indication that the body is having a difficult time managing free radicals and heavy metals. This often occurs when there is insufficient amino acid uptake to produce important metal binding metalothionine’s, such as ceruloplasmin, which binds free copper and neutralizes it. An excess of other heavy metals, which can be characterized as oxidative stress, also leads to a general inability to neutralize and mobilize metals such as copper. Lead, mercury, cadmium and aluminum are examples of the most reactive of free radicals. We are exposed to oxidative heavy metals from the air, water and soil. We are exposed through industrial pollutants, silver fillings, smoke, skin products, etc. Metals are a major reason for taking anti-oxidant free radical scavengers.

At Second Opinion Physician we will check your hair, plasma, serum and whole blood to get a good picture of your oxidative stres and the potential impact of copper and emotions. If you’ve already had these tests, let us know your results and we will prepare a supplements and lifestyle plan to get levels back on track.

Copper and Emotions

…the main thing that happens with metal retention is copper toxicity because everybody is getting copper constantly. Almost everything you eat has some copper in it. A lot of really popular foods like coffee, chocolate, avocado, soy, shellfish like shrimp and lobster, and certain beans and nuts like pecans are pretty high in copper.

This isn’t a problem with good liver, gall bladder and especially adrenal function. If adrenal function is strong, we just mobilize that copper and excrete it through the bile. Unfortunately, the way we live these days, that is not what is happening. Most people are not able to get rid of the excess copper. How many people have impaired liver function, congested gallbladder or adrenal fatigue? Probably the majority these days.

If adrenal function becomes impaired, the copper builds up in the liver, brain, joints and lungs. When this happens, you see very specific problems, including mental problems, liver problems and detoxification problems. Phase II liver impairment is often made worse by copper toxicity , if not actually caused by it.

You also see a lot of copper toxicity with asthma and breathing problems, including emphysema. Copper also tends to build up in the joints, leading to arthritis. Chronic skin problems are also an indication of copper toxicity .

Vegetarian diets are very high in copper because the vegetable foods are a great source of this mineral. Since vegetarians don’t eat meat, and possibly not even eggs, they are not getting enough zinc, which is the natural antagonist to copper. Zinc naturally balances copper and keeps it from building up in the tissues. If you are not eating much in the way of meat and eggs, you will develop copper problems.

Excess copper interferes with energy production at the cellular level. It impairs various energy pathways in the cell so it contributes to the very fatigue that tends to make you retain copper, leading to a vicious circle. Once this pattern gets going, it is totally self-reinforcing and very difficult to break, even by adding zinc-rich foods back into the diet.

Copper is an excitotoxin, and is stimulating to the brain. This is why you will see copper toxicity in manic states like paranoid and bi-polar disorder. The so-called copper head tends to be very emotional, very intense, often very creative. Such individuals are prone to crash and burn because their overactive mind is being supported by a very fatigued body.

Copper toxicity is a major factor in irritable bowel syndrome because copper is excreted through the bile and certain things will cause you to suddenly dump copper. If you have been building up copper, anything that causes an increase in your metabolic rate will cause a copper dump and it comes out through the bile. If you are copper toxic and suddenly under a lot of stress, this may bring on an irritable bowel episode because suddenly excess copper is moving through your bowels and irritating them.

The tendency of copper to build up in the body is similar to iron, which is another essential nutrient that is also a heavy metal. They’re both highly electrical, very conductive metals that produce a lot of free radical activity and have to be bound by special proteins, such as ceruloplasmin and metallothioine. The production of these proteins is controlled by the adrenal glands, and they are produced in the liver. If the adrenals are not functioning properly and the liver is impaired, possibly from copper buildup, you will not produce these binding proteins, so copper remains in free form. That makes it a toxic and reactive free-radical generator capable of causing a lot of damage.

The increase in copper is stimulating, it gets you going, which is just what you need in the short term. But chronic unremitting stress never gives you time to recover, you never get to address your biochemical imbalance, you never have that down time to excrete the excess copper now.

When your adrenal glands are in great shape, you can excrete excess copper whenever you need to. But when your adrenal glands are just hanging on by their fingernails, just barely able to mount a stress response, you have an excess of stimulating copper. It becomes very hard to go to sleep and the mind races. You think, think, think, worry, worry, worry, and all of that makes it worse. You are always worn out. In fact, people with chronic fatigue often wake up tired because they don’t really ever rest.