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Zinc and Copper Ratio

The Zinc and Copper results we see on our blood tests, need to be reviewed as a ratio. Zinc needs to be roughly in a 1:1 relationship with Copper levels, meaning they need to be close to equal values. If copper levels are higher, as is often the case in our modern lifestyle, then issues may present themselves. However, Copper is not the evil mineral it is often thought of as will be discussed. The solution is once again to eat fresh organic foods, drink filtered water, and keep everything in balance. The Goldilocks effect once again!

Let's discuss Zinc first. Zinc is an essential trace element, more easily obtained from animal products. It is absorbed in the small intestine, but essentially it requires stomach acid (Hydrochloric acid - HCl) to be able to do that.

Zinc and Copper Ratio levels on a blood test

  • Desirable Zinc levels are >14umol/L

  • Zinc deficiency shows up when plasma Zinc levels are <12umol/L

  • Low albumin levels often mean low zinc

  • While laboratories give reference ranges for copper, the important point is that copper levels should be in a 1:1 ratio with zinc to be considered healthy.

  • Copper deficiency is defined as <11umol/L

  • Neutropenia may be a sign of copper deficiency, or Vitamin B12 and Folate deficiencies

  • A good way to measure your zinc:copper metabolic balance is via Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA).

  • Caeruloplasmin levels, the storage form of copper, are often elevated in inflammatory states

  • Iron metabolism is intrinsically linked to Zinc and Copper levels, as well as Vitamin A.

How much Zinc do we need per day?

  • 8-14mg/day

  • Supplementation should not exceed the upper limit of 40mg else it starts competing with iron, magnesium, calcium, and copper. Higher levels may cause nausea, vomiting or discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract.

  • Zinc supplementation should not be taken on an empty stomach as it may cause nausea and vomiting.

  • Zinc levels below optimal levels may cause some of the symptoms seen below.

An infographic highlighting separate sections of the body that may be impacted by Zinc deficiency.
Zind Deficiency shows across many parts of our body.

What is Zinc needed for?

Zinc is required for more than 100 enzymatic reactions in the body, and deficiencies may be seen in the following situations:

1. Immunity

Zinc is an antioxidant which means it protects us from nasty oxidative processes that occur in our body. Zinc protects us from both physical and mental stress, infections, and toxins that may include excess copper, mercury, cadmium for example. Did you know that if you have any leaking dental amalgams in your mouth, that only 1 mercury molecule will trap up to 1000 zinc molecules! A low zinc level, can also predispose you to Candida. Frequent sore throats, colds and sinusitis, ear infections, gastroenteritis, thrush, boils, pimples, delayed healing of wounds, prolonged infections, conjunctivitis may all be signs of zinc deficiency. You may see low zinc levels on a Full Blood Count (FBC) with a low White Cell Count (WCC) present.

2. Digestion

Zinc is key for effective digestion. Zinc, along with Vitamin B1 and B6 are needed for stomach acid (HCl) production that then stimulates pancreatic enzyme secretion. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) is needed for Zinc absorption, but conversely, if you don't absorb Zinc you don't make sufficient stomach acid (HCl). This results in the condition called hypochlorhydria. This may then predispose you to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) which allows bacteria to be present in the small intestine when they shouldn't be. Zinc therefore corrects wind, bloating and intestinal urgency. Zinc deficiency may result in a loss of taste, smell, and appetite. Zinc is also protective against Helicobacter pylori (H.pylori). Zinc is important for our folate metabolism.

Good levels of Vitamin B6 is needed for good levels of Zinc.

3. Brain function and moods

Zinc is needed for abstract thinking, alertness, multitasking, mood and memory. It is needed for effective production of our neurotransmitters - Serotonin (Happiness), Melatonin (going to sleep well at night), Dopamine (appropriate motivation), and noradrenaline (keeping anxiety under control like the conductor of an orchestra). Therefore, disrupted sleep, poor memory, moodiness, depression, poor coping with stress, and temper outbursts can all be signs of zinc deficiency. Children can present as being hyperactive, fidgety and have temper tantrums.

4. Skin

Zinc is needed to activate Vitamin A which helps skin conditions like dermatitis, dry skin, eczema, psoriasis, pimples, hair loss, tinea, thrush, and warts. We also see redness at elbows and knees as early signs of zinc deficiency. As an aside, Vitamin A is needed to load copper into caeruloplasmin to make bioavailable copper needed for iron absorption.

Zinc is needed for Vitamin A which is needed for copper which is needed for iron!

Zinc as discussed, needs to be in a 1:1 relationship with copper in our body. If this ratio tips in favour of being higher copper, then cholesterol levels may rise.

Zinc is used not only for cholesterol management, but for the flow on sex hormones that are produced by cholesterol. Importantly for females, progesterone is needed to minimise a lot of female reproductive issues; and for males zinc is needed for testosterone production. As such, sexual function, loss of libido, infertility, and menstrual issues are often seen in zinc deficiency.

7. Allergies

Allergies are affected by an altered Zinc: Copper relationship - when copper levels are higher. This may be seen as hay fever, runny nose, and itchy skin.

8. Hair and Nails

Brittle nails, hair loss and early greying hair are signs of Zinc deficiency. Nails may be brittle with classic vertical white ridges on them, as shown below.

Fingernails showing white horizontal spots as a sign of Zinc Deficiency
White horizontal flecks on nails are often present in Zinc deficient people..

9. Metabolism

If you have low blood sugar within 3 hours of eating (postprandial hypoglycaemia), and are craving foods, you may very well be zinc deficient, or suffer from blocked zinc activity. Additionally, if you have alcohol intolerance you may have zinc deficiency (discussed below).

People may be iron deficient, because they are Zinc deficient, because they are HCl deficient, which is often related to stress! Metabolism of minerals is an intricate affair.

10. Liver function

Zinc is needed for the formation of the liver function enzymes alkaline phosphatase (ALP), lactate dehydrogenase (LD), and alcohol dehydrogenase for metabolising alcohol. Hence if you're deficient in zinc, you may not tolerate alcohol well.

11.Respiratory conditions

Asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, chest infections may all present themselves in individuals with zinc deficiency.

12. Joints

Zinc is needed for synovial fluid viscosity to cushion our joints so arthritis may be present in zinc deficiency.

13. Eyes and Night Vision

Zinc deficiency is associated with a decreased release of Vitamin A from the liver, which may contribute to symptoms of night blindness.

Where do we get Zinc from?

  • Shellfish like Oysters are very good sources of zinc

  • Red meat

  • Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds

  • Eggs

  • Whole grains and legumes

  • Kale, Broccoli

  • Note: Meat, eggs and seafood are great sources as they come with the cysteine and methionine needed for zinc absorption. These foods also do not have the inhibitors to zinc absorption, as can happen in plant sources.

Oysters in particular have great levels of zinc, copper and iron in the correct ratio for the absorption from the body, along with the amino acids methionine and cysteine needed for zinc absorption.

Fresh oysters with lemon
Oysters are an excellent source of Zinc (and Copper and Iron)!!

How do we lose Zinc?

It is relatively easy to lose zinc via sweating, semen ejaculation, menstrual bleeding, urine, faeces, stress, diabetes, breast feeding, and pregnancy. Medications like antidepressants, oral contraceptive pill, hormone replacement therapy, ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure, diuretics, anaesthetics, NSAID's like Nurofen, antibiotics, anticonvulsants also contribute to zinc loss. A high fibre diet can also affect zinc absorption, as the grains have phytates that may inhibit zinc absorption. Raw spinach, chocolate, tea and berries also have oxalates that may also inhibit zinc absorption. Everything in moderation is the key!.

What about Copper in the Zinc and Copper Ratio?

Copper often gets seen in a negative light, but it is also an essential mineral that is integral for protecting us against oxidative stress. The issue with copper is when it is out of balance and then it can become highly toxic.

We want the majority of copper to be bound and incorporated into ceruloplasmin to prevent free copper ions from catalysing oxidative damage (think rust). Ceruloplasmin loads iron onto transferrin (again to prevent free iron ions from participating in reactive events). Transferrin will release iron stores in times of need. As noted in my blog on Iron Deficiency Anaemia, the iron released is then regulated by Hepcidin (which is also activated by copper). Special note: Hepcidin will not allow iron to be released in times of inflammation!

Elevated Copper Levels

Copper is consumed from similar food sources as zinc. It is actually very important when in balance with Zinc. However, elevated copper levels impact negatively on the maintenance of healthy Zinc levels.

Elevated copper levels may present as Iron Deficiency Anaemia, Metabolic Syndrome, Hormonal imbalances, Thyroid dysfunction, Fatty Liver, Sluggish bile, Gallstones, flushing, red skin, infections, delayed healing, constipation, arthritis, depression and mood swings, early greying hair and hair loss etc.

Xenoestrogens, in our modern lifestyle that come from pesticides sprayed on our food crops, plastics, hormones, hormone mimickers, petroleum etc in our lives, impact our body's ability to excrete copper. Tipping the balance in favour of copper may lead to hormonal imbalances, joint pains, chronic fatigue, anxiety and depression as described above.

Our modern lifestyle may mean we have issues with excreting Copper which means we may easily get out of balance with Zinc levels.

How do we protect ourselves against excess Copper?

We need Metallothionein (to store Zinc) to protect our body against the effects of excess copper. How do we get metallothionein? Sufficient zinc, along with cysteine is needed for the production of metallothionine. To ensure we understand how fine this balance is, prolonged high doses of zinc interfere with metallothionein!

Metabolism is a finely tuned machine and wherever possible we should be getting our nutritional sources of these minerals from our organic foods as 'Mother Nature' knows the correct balance.

Cysteine is important for the body's antioxidant ability. If it is deficient, the body will break down glutathione in order to obtain it. As discussed in my blog on Homocysteine, Glutathione is our body's major antioxidant protecting us from free radicals, so deficiency may set up the body for potential health issues.

Cysteine is found in most high protein foods, such as chicken, turkey, yogurt, cheese, eggs, sunflower seeds, and legumes. Good amounts of Cysteine and Glutathione, with zinc at optimal dose, will help zinc get absorbed, which helps us keep copper in check.

Nutritional balance is so important for optimal health. If you would like to discuss your personal circumstances, or have your pathology results reviewed in line with your current situation, feel free to make a booking with me on the bookings tab on my website.

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  • Hidden J & Drake V, 2012), An Evidence-based Approach to Vitamins and Minerals, 2nd Ed, Thieme

  • DrTisDigital, (2015),Visual Textbook of Nutritional Medicine


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