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An ancient Egyptian medical text, known as the Smith Papyrus (circa 2400 B.C.), mentions using copper as a sterilisation agent for drinking water and wounds. Another ancient text, known as the Ebers papyrus (circa 1500 B.C.) mentions the use of copper for headaches, "trembling of the limbs," burns, and itching. The island of Cyprus provided a readily available supply of copper to Greece and is known to have provided much of the copper needed for the empires of ancient Phoenicia and Rome as well. It has also been documented that Israel's Timna Valley provided copper for the Pharaohs.
Hippocrates (circa 400 B.C.), known as the father of modern medicine (and for whom the doctor's Hippocratic oath was named) mentions copper as a treatment for leg ulcers associated from varicose veins. The Greeks also sprinkled a powder of copper oxide and copper sulfate on open wounds and treated wounds with a mixture of honey and red copper oxide.
In the first century A.D., the book De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, describes using verdigris (which they made by exposing metallic copper to vinegar steam to form copper acetate) in combination with copper sulphate as a remedy for bloodshot eyes, inflamed eyes, "fat in the eyes", and cataracts.
Evidence from the time of Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus (14 to 37 A.D.), tells us that copper and its derivatives were firmly established as important drugs. In his book, De Medicina, Celsus details numerous uses for copper,
Pliny (23 to 79 A.D.) described a number of remedies involving copper. Black copper oxide with honey was used to kill intestinal worms and purge the stomach. In diluted form, nose drops were used to "clear the head"; ear-drops relieved ear discomfort and infection, and taken by mouth it relieved mouth sores and ulcers. Diluted copper mixtures were also used for "eye roughness," "eye pain and mistiness."
The ancient Aztec civilisation also used copper for medical purposes, including gargling with a copper mixture for sore throats. In ancient India and Persia, copper was used to treat lung diseases. Copper compounds such as malachite and copper oxide were used on boils and other skin conditions. Copper acetate and copper oxide were used for eye infections. Evidence also shows us that nomadic Mongolian tribes used copper sulphate, taken by mouth, to treat venereal ulcers.
The first recorded observation of copper's role in the immune system in modern times was published in 1867 when it was reported that, during the cholera epidemics in Paris of 1832, 1849 and 1852, copper workers were immune to cholera.
In 1885, the French physician, Luton, reported using copper acetate in his practice to treat arthritic patients.
In 1895, in a published review of the pharmacological actions of copper compounds, copper arsenate was reported to treat acute and chronic diarrhea as well as dysentery and cholera. An organic complex of copper developed by Bayer was shown to have curative powers in the treatment of tuberculosis. Copper treatment for tuberculosis continued until the 1940s.
As early as 1912, patients in Germany were treated for facial epithelioma with a mixture of copper chloride and lecithin, suggesting that copper compounds might assist anti-cancer activity.
Recent work with mice in the U.S. has shown that treatment of solid tumours with non-toxic doses of various organic complexes of copper markedly decreased tumour growth and metastasis and thus increased survival rate.
First observed in rats in 1936, numerous studies have drawn attention to the relationship between copper deficiency and heart disease, which effect has now been traced to both a deficiency in copper and an imbalance in the copper-to-zinc ratio in the body.
In 1939, the German physician, Werner Hangarter, noticed that Finnish copper miners were unaffected by arthritis as long as they worked in the mining industry. This observation led Finnish medical researchers plus the Germans, Hangarter and Lübke, to successfully use a mixture of copper chloride and sodium salicylate to treat patients suffering from rheumatic fever, rheumatoid arthritis, neck and back problems, and sciatica.
Copper aspirinate has been shown not only to be more effective in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis than aspirin alone, but it has been shown to prevent or even cure the ulceration of the stomach often associated with aspirin therapy.
Copper complexes such as copper aspirinate and copper tryptophanate, markedly increase healing rate of ulcers and wounds. For example, copper complexes heal gastric ulcers five days sooner than other reagents. Further, it has been shown that, whereas non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and enefenamic acid suppress wound healing, copper complexes of these drugs promote normal wound healing while at the same time retaining anti-inflammatory activity.
With reports of seizures in animals and humans who had significant and prolonged copper deficiencies in their diets, researches postulated that copper plays a role in the prevention of seizures. Further, it was found that copper complexes of all anti-epileptic drugs are more effective and less toxic than their parent drugs.
The 1973 work by Dr. L.M. Klevay at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Human Nutrition Research Centre pointed to a relationship between copper and cholesterol. In subsequent work, published in 1975, Dr. Klevay theorised that a metabolic imbalance between zinc and copper -- with more emphasis on copper deficiency than zinc excess - is a major contributing factor in coronary heart disease.
Subsequent work by other investigators has shown that copper complexes also can have a valuable role in the minimisation of damage to the aorta and heart muscle as oxygenated blood reperfuses into tissues following myocardial infarction. This action is based on the anti-inflammatory action of copper complexes.
It has been speculated that the reason that the heart attack rate in France is lower than in the rest of Europe is because of the significant consumption by the French of red wine, which has a higher copper content than white wine because it is prepared with the skin of the grape intact.
Copper's role in the immune system has recently been supported by observations that individuals suffering from Menke's disease (an inherited disease in which there is defective copper absorption and metabolism) generally die of immune system-related phenomena and other infections. Further, animals deficient in copper have been shown to have increased susceptibility to bacterial pathogens such as salmonella and listeria. This kind of evidence has led researchers to suggest that copper compounds not only can cure various conditions, but can aid in the prevention of disease.
Copper jewellery worn directly on skin has been used for a hundred years or more as a remedy for many ailments, including arthritis. Now, copper bracelets to ease joint and arthritis pain are ubiquitous in health food stores, and health magazines and catalogues.
With the understanding that copper deficiency can result in grey hair, skin wrinkles, crow's feet, varicose veins and saggy skin, copper has recently been touted as a "Fountain of Youth" for its ability to improve the elastic fibre in skin, increase skin flexibility, and act as an anti-wrinkle treatment. It has even been said to be able to return grey hair back to its natural colour.
As modern researches continue to investigate the role of copper in the functioning of the human body, the efficacy of copper as a trace element critical to human health and wellness is slowly but surely being rediscovered, since the incredible healing properties of copper have been understood and used throughout human history.