A British student is asking for doctors to pay greater attention to the amounts of metal that could be present in the human body, after being diagnosed with life-threatening Wilson’s disease. The illness causes a toxic build-up of copper in the body, which is deadly if left untreated.
Alicia Goss first became conscious of a problem after she was repeatedly refused entry to clubs and shouted at in the street because she was staggering and her speech was slurred. She soon became unable to hold a pen, and her symptoms intensified rapidly before doctors were able to identify what was wrong.(1)
Importance of copper in the body
Copper is important for keeping our bodies functioning properly – it plays a crucial part in the body’s production of red blood cells, keeps nerve cells healthy and helps our immune systems. Copper also helps form collagen, which is a key component of bone and connective tissue.(2)
As well as these important functions, copper acts as an antioxidant, reducing the amount of free radicals in your body that can damage cells and DNA. It also helps the body absorb iron and is crucial for energy production. In short – copper is important for your health.
Copper is found in a number of foods, particularly oysters, liver, wholegrain bread, cereals, shellfish, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and chocolate. However, the body doesn’t actually need a lot of copper to be able to function, and too much copper can be very dangerous – as Goss found out.
The dangers of too much copper
Wilson’s disease is a genetic disorder that causes a toxic overload of copper in the body, causing severe damage to the liver, brain and other organs – as well as a range of unpleasant symptoms. Motor skills can be severely inhibited, meaning that walking, talking and even writing can be extremely difficult.
This genetic defect means that the liver is unable to metabolize and remove excess amounts of copper, so it builds up and reaches toxic levels over time. However, it seems that doctors are not as familiar with the symptoms of copper toxicity as you might hope. Goss visited her general practitioner several times, and her symptoms were put down to the stress of university, rather than the life-threatening illness she actually had.
Her condition quickly deteriorated to a point where she was wheelchair-dependent and had to leave the university. An MRI scan was needed before doctors were able to diagnose the problem, by which point Goss had been suffering horrific symptoms for many months.
How can doctors track metal in the body?
Routine blood tests by her family doctor revealed a low platelet count; however, liver function tests were normal, so doctors were not immediately alerted to the possibility that her liver may not be functioning properly.
It is hard to diagnose problems relating to metal levels in the body, as the symptoms related can often be associated with other conditions. It is often not until many symptoms come to light at the same time that conditions such as Wilson’s disease can be properly diagnosed.
Goss is responding well to her treatment – a drug called penicillamine, which helps remove the excess copper – and is also taking vitamin E. However it can take up to a year for some patients to see any improvement.
The faster a diagnosis for metal-related toxic illnesses, the lower the intensity of the symptoms and faster the recovery – showing just how important it is that doctors track the quantities of metals we have in our body.
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