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Proteolytic Enzymes Reduce Inflammation and Boost Immunity

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Proteolytic enzymes - Dr. AxeAll of the vitamins and minerals we eat, plus all of the hormones our bodies produce, need enzymes in order to work properly. Additionally, enzymes, such as proteolytic enzymes, regulate metabolic functions and assist in maintaining our stamina and energy levels.

Proteolytic enzymes are the type that specifically aid in the digestion process. They help digest proteins in our diets, breaking them down into smaller units called amino acids.

Overall, these enzymes have many roles, including:

  • supporting immune function
  • encouraging healing of tissues and muscle recovery
  • aiding in many functions of the digestive system

Enzymes can be taken as supplements, but better yet, they can also be found naturally in certain foods.

Which fruits and other foods contain proteolytic enzymes?

A great example is papaya, which supplies the proteolytic enzyme called papain, an enzyme that is also used today as a popular meat tenderizer.

What Are Proteolytic Enzymes? Roles in the Body and How They Work

Proteolytic enzymes are defined as a group of enzymes that break the long chain-like molecules of proteins into shorter fragments (peptides) and eventually into their components, amino acids.  Sometimes proteolytic enzymes are called protease, proteinase or peptidase.

Your digestive tract produces a number of essential types of enzymes. The major categories of proteolytic enzymes include:

  • Exopeptidases, which work at the ends of proteins.
  • Endopeptidases, which have catalytic mechanisms and work at various sites. Examples of endopeptidases include pepsin, asparticcysteine, glutamic, metalloendopeptidases, serine and threonine endopeptidases.

Proteolytic enzymes are present in many different species, including humans, bacteria, archaea, algae, some viruses, plants and various animals. Why is it so difficult then to get these much-needed enzymes from the diet?

When we eat foods that have been cooked or processed, we lose the effectiveness of these enzymes. This is why many people find the need to use supplements during or between meals.

While proteolytic and digestive enzymes are available in convenient supplement form, the best way to get these much-needed enzymes is still through eating whole, uncooked fruits and vegetables — since these not only provide digestive enzymes, but also antioxidants, vitamins, electrolytes and more.

Proteolytic Enzymes Function and Types

According to Dr. Lauralee Sherwood in her book “Fundamentals of Human Physiology,” there are three types of proteolytic enzymes — trypsinogen, chymotrypsin and procarboxypeptidase — that are secreted in an inactive form. Then there are certain triggers that activate each of them.

Each of these proteolytic enzymes attacks different peptide linkages, and once proteins are turned into free amino acids, they are then easily absorbed by the cells of the intestinal wall.

What is the function of proteolytic enzymes?

The human body needs both systemic enzymes, which are enzymes that assist the body’s various regulatory and communication systems, and specific digestive enzymes that break down various nutrients.

In “The Complete Book of Enzyme Therapy,” author Dr. Anthony J. Cichoke, Ph.D., explains that enzymes cause biological reactions in the body and are able to be used over and over again, unlike vitamins and minerals.

They’re required for every chemical action that takes place in our bodies. The digestive system, immune system, bloodstream, liver, kidneys, spleen and pancreas — as well as the ability to see, think, feel and breathe — all depend on enzymes.

The end products that result from the action of proteolytic enzymes are a mixture of small peptide chains and amino acids. Mucus secreted by the intestinal cells protects against digestion of the small-intestine wall by the activated proteolytic enzymes.

These proteolytic enzymes are also known as proteases. The three main proteases are pepsin, trypsin and chymotrypsin. The protease enzymes are what break down protein found in meats, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs and cheese.

They are believed to be helpful for people with food allergies or those who have difficulty digesting protein.

Food Sources and Supplements

By adding fresh, enzyme-rich fruits and vegetables to our diets and eating fermented foods regularly, we can look and feel better while maintaining our health.

What foods are high in proteolytic enzymes?

Raw and fermented foods are always naturally higher in enzymes. Fermenting certain foods also reduces any enzyme inhibitors that may be present, so these are wonderful additions to your diet.

Some of the best food sources of proteolytic enzymes include:

What is the best way to prepare fruits and vegetables that contain enzymes?

Ultimately, raw and minimally cooked foods provide the most enzymes.

Focus on fresh, raw vegetables, fresh fruits, raw food juices, nuts, seeds, and uncooked or slightly cooked grain products, such as wheat germ — plus fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir and miso. These enzyme-rich foods give your cells the enzymes they need to eliminate accumulated toxic body waste and improve your overall bodily functions.

Proteolytic enzymes in food also have benefits like relieving constipation and helping the body make more of its own life-extending enzymes. Add probiotic and raw foods to your diet if you have arthritis, low immune function, nutrient deficiencies, inflammatory bowel disease and many other conditions.

Another great benefit, as noted by Dr. Earl Mindell in his book “Secrets of Natural Health,” is that the enzymes act as a guide, showing vitamins, minerals or fats the passage into specific cells in the body.

Proteolytic enzymes food sources - Dr. Axe

Supplements

In humans, the pancreas makes proteolytic enzymes to digest the proteins in the foods we eat. We can take proteolytic enzymes as supplements as well to help support our digestive systems.

What are the best enzymes to take?

The three most commonly known proteolytic enzymes that people supplement with are pepsin, bromelain and papain.

  • Pepsin is naturally produced by the intestines, while bromelain and papain are food-derived enzymes found in pineapple and papaya, respectively.
  • Pepsin is naturally occurring in the gut and essential for the digestion and breaking down of proteins.
  • Bromelain, which has many health benefits, is a protease enzyme found in the juice and stem of pineapple. It’s similar to pepsin in that it is a natural digestive aid. It is also effectively used for bloating, gas as well as digestive conditions like IBS.
  • Papain, another protease enzyme and seemingly the most popular, is derived from the latex of the papaya and is also similar to pepsin. This enzyme is especially concentrated in the fruit when it’s unripe. Papain is extracted to make digestive enzyme dietary supplements and is also used as an ingredient in some chewing gums. It stimulates the digestion of fats and proteins and is useful to improve overall nutrient absorption.

Benefits

1. Control Inflammation and Optimize Blood Flow

Ultimately, proteolytic enzymes are essential regulators and modulators that are needed to respond to stresses in the body. When our bodies are stressed, that creates inflammation, and inflammation is at the root of most diseases.

These enzymes help our bodies respond to inflammation by working to provide protection.

According to recent research, proteolytic enzymes help modulate the inflammatory process by a variety of mechanisms, including reducing the swelling of mucous membranes, decreasing capillary permeability, and dissolving blood clot-forming fibrin deposits and microthrombi.

Lane Lenard, Ph.D.; Ward Dean, M.D.; and Jim English, contributors to The Nutrition Review, tell us that by reducing the viscosity (thickness) of the blood, enzymes improve circulation. This consequently increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients to and the transport of harmful waste products away from traumatized tissue.

Proteolytic enzymes also help break down plasma proteins and cellular debris at the site of an injury into smaller fragments. This greatly facilitates their passage through the lymphatic system, resulting in more rapid resolution of swelling, with the consequent relief of pain and discomfort in the bones and joints affected.

This means there are benefits of proteolytic enzymes for treating osteoarthritis — plus they may help athletes recover faster from hard workouts and races.

What enzymes reduce inflammation?

Research suggests that bromelain, papain, pancreatin, trypsin, chymotrypsin and rutin all act as essential regulators and modulators of the inflammatory response.

2. Help Prevent Atherosclerosis and Diabetic Heart Disease

Papain, the proteolytic enzyme found in papayas, may be very helpful for the prevention of atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease. Papayas are also an excellent source of the powerful antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin A (through their concentration of pro-vitamin A carotenoid phytonutrients).

These nutrients help prevent the oxidation of cholesterol. Only when cholesterol becomes oxidized is it able to stick to and build up in blood vessel walls, forming dangerous plaques that can eventually cause heart attacks or strokes.

One way in which dietary vitamin C may exert this effect is through its association with a compound called paraoxonase, an enzyme that inhibits LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol oxidation. A study published in Molecular Imaging confirmed that proteolytic enzymes demonstrate the antiatherosclerotic therapeutic effects.

3. Can Reduce Severity of Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Ulcerative Colitis

Studies have shown that the use of certain proteolytic enzymes helps reduce the severity of inflammatory bowel diseases and induced remission of ulcerative colitis. The National Center for Biotechnology Information states that in certain studies oral administration of five milligrams per day of bromelain markedly decreases the development and severity of inflammatory bowel disease.

In one study, bromelain was also anecdotally reported to induce remission in two patients with refractory ulcerative colitis.

3 most common proteolytic enzymes - Dr. Axe

4. Clean Up Your Immune System

Among the important actions of proteolytic enzymes is an increase in the potency of natural killer cells. Also called lymphocytes, natural killer cells are able to bind to certain tumor cells and virus-infected cells in order to kill them.

Proteolytic (protein-destroying) enzymes can also degrade pathogens that can inhibit normal immune function.

While immune complexes are a normal part of the immune response, when they occur in excess, they can be the cause of certain kidney diseases, nerve inflammations and a number of rheumatologic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis.

Evidence suggests that trypsin, papain and other proteolytic enzymes can break up existing pathogenic immune complexes and even prevent their formation in the first place, enhancing lymphatic drainage. This provides a stimulatory effect on the immune system, meaning proteolytic enzymes are natural immune system boosters.

This makes them beneficial for people with conditions tied to high levels of immune complexes or autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, and multiple sclerosis.

5. Help Prevent Colon Cancer

What’s the connection between proteolytic enzymes and cancer? Studies suggest that the nutrients found in some proteolytic enzyme foods have been shown to be helpful in the prevention of colon cancer.

For example, the fiber in foods such as papaya is able to bind to cancer-causing toxins in the colon and keep them away from the healthy colon cells. In addition, papaya’s folate, vitamin C, beta-carotene and vitamin E have each been associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer.

6. Provide Anti-inflammatory Properties (Especially in the Colon)

Proteolytic enzymes provide protection of colon cells from free radical damage and may aid in the absorption of nutrients within the body. Not only do they appear to help the body break down and digest protein, but certain studies suggest they also have anti-inflammatory properties that can decrease swelling and inflammation in the colon.

In particular, this makes bromelain and papain especially useful for people with Crohn’s or coeliac disease and ulcers.

How to Use Them

What are good proteolytic enzymes to take if you suspect you could use more?

  • Ideally look for high-quality, reputable proteolytic enzymes supplements that are described as”delayed release” in capsule form and contain a mixture of bromelain, protease, papain and serrapeptase.
  • Supplemental formulas that are “enteric coated” tablets or “delayed release” capsules may be absorbed best because the coating helps protect them from being broken down too early in the stomach.

If you choose to take proteolytic enzyme supplements, keep in mind that not all supplements are vegetarian or vegan, so look for formulas that fit your dietary habits. Some enzyme manufacturers derive their enzymes from animal sources, while others are isolated from plants.

For example, supplements that contain trypsin or chymotrypsin are typically extracted from livestock, while supplements that contain papain or bromelain typically come from plant sources like papaya and pineapple. Protease is now sometimes derived from fungal sources that have similar actions to those found in animal sources.

Some proteolytic enzyme supplements may have a blend of animal and plant enzymes, which can be beneficial for providing different types of enzymes.

What dosage of enzymes should you take?

This depends on the specific product you’re using and the concentration. Start with a low dose, and gradually increase to give your body time to adjust.

Read directions carefully since dosages vary from brand to brand. Most products require taking one to three pills at a time, sometimes more than once daily.

Can proteolytic/digestive enzymes be taken on an empty stomach?

For the best results, take digestive enzymes with food, about 10–20 minutes before each meal or with your first bite. A protease supplement can be taken in between meals in addition to digestive enzymes with meals.

Start by taking enzymes with about two meals per day and adjusting your dosage as needed.

How quickly do enzymes work?

You might notice enhanced digestion in as little as several days, or it might take longer to achieve more results. Keep taking enzymes for at least several months to experience the most benefits.

Deficiency Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors

There are certain signs and symptoms that can indicate you likely are not producing enough enzymes naturally and/or getting enough from your diet. This makes you a good candidate for proteolytic enzyme therapy (in other words, supplementing).

Such signs of enzyme deficiency include:

  • Excess gas
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea and constipation
  • Premature skin wrinkles
  • Joint stiffness
  • Gray hair
  • Decrease in stamina or lack of energy

The body is forced to use a tremendous amount of its energy digesting what some experts call “enzyme-dead foods.” These are foods that have been cooked — such as baked, fried, boiled or canned — as well as processed, irradiated, dried and frozen.

This includes foods that are made with lots of preservatives and even too much salt/sodium. This is a problem because it kills the food’s enzymes, diminishing their amazing abilities.

Over time, the lack of important enzymes may result in indigestion, age spots, allergies, declining eyesight, chronic fatigue syndrome, memory loss and chronic disease.

It can be hard to tell if you might be dealing with enzyme deficiency because many of these signs are associated with aging. This may be why we so often hear people claim that they are “just getting old” whenever they develop new symptoms.

However, by eating more enzymes as we age, we help fight off deficiencies. A change in diet and an increase in enzymes, mostly through eating whole, unprocessed foods, may be able to help to naturally slow the signs of aging.

Proteolytic Enzymes vs. Digestive Enzymes vs. Pancreatic Enzymes

  • Digestive enzymes is a broad term that includes pancreatic enzymes, plant-derived enzymes and fungal-derived enzymes.
  • All enzymes are catalysts that enable molecules to be changed from one form into another. Digestive enzymes help break down large macromolecules found in the foods we eat into smaller molecules that our guts are capable of absorbing. 
  • Digestive enzymes are split into three classes: proteolytic enzymes that are needed to digest protein, lipases needed to digest fat and amylases needed to digest carbohydrates.
  • Pancreatic enzymes are found in the eight cups of pancreatic juices that most humans produce daily. These juices contain pancreatic enzymes that aid in digestion and bicarbonate that neutralizes stomach acid as it enters the small intestine.

What are the main benefits of digestive enzymes?

Without them, we couldn’t process the foods we eat. Benefits of digestive enzymes include:

  • helping treat leaky gut
  • assisting the body in breaking down difficult-to-digest protein and sugars, like gluten, casein and lactose
  • improving symptoms of acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome
  • enhancing nutrition absorption and preventing nutritional deficiencies
  • counteracting enzyme inhibitors naturally in allergenic foods

What are the best digestive enzymes to take?

Look for a full-spectrum enzyme blend for general digestive improvement. Aim for a supplement that includes a variety of enzymes, including some of the following:

  • alpha-galactosidase
  • amylase
  • cellulase
  • glucoamylase
  • lactase
  • lipase
  • malt diastase
  • protease (or acid proteases)
  • peptidase
  • pectinase
  • phytase

Proteolytic Enzymes vs. Probiotics

  • Probiotics and digestive/proteolytic enzymes both enhance digestive and immune function, but they work in different ways.
  • Probiotics are bacteria that line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection. They have been proven effective in supporting immune function, reducing inflammation, promoting healthy digestion, maintaining beautiful skin, producing vitamins B12 and K2, and creating enzymes that destroy harmful bacteria.
  • Probiotics can help restore balance to the gut microbiome and further aid in digestion, while also curbing symptoms like gas and bloating.
  • You can incorporate probiotics into your routine by eating more fermented/probiotic foods, feeding your gut bacteria with insoluble fiber found in high-fiber foods and taking a high-quality probiotic supplement in order to take advantage of probiotics benefits.

Can you take probiotics and digestive enzymes at the same time?

Yes. Take enzymes before a meal and probiotics after or between meals.

It’s also beneficial to get probiotics from fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi or sauerkraut, which also supply other digestive enzymes.

Risks and Side Effects

While they are generally well-tolerated and helpful, proteolytic enzymes side effects can sometimes include nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, gas, headache, swelling, dizziness, changes in blood sugar, allergic reactions and abnormal feces.

If you are new to eating raw foods that provide digestive enzymes, take it slow at first. It may take some time for your body to adjust to the process of digesting these foods and consuming more fiber.

However, over time, it typically becomes easier and more and more beneficial.

If you choose to use supplements, make sure you check the quality, as it may vary from brand to brand. Also, always consult your physician before starting any supplement program if you currently take medications.

It has been stated that some enzymes, such as papaya enzymes, should not be taken during pregnancy because they may increase the risk of miscarriage. In addition, papain and bromelain could interfere with blood-clotting and blood-thinning drugs.

Always consult a health care professional before supplementing with enzymes, especially if you are currently using any drugs that might interact poorly with enzyme supplements. If you have a history of liver or gallbladder disease, or ulcers, then it’s also recommended that you consult a physician before taking any digestive enzyme supplements.

Final Thoughts

  • Proteolytic enzymes are a group of digestive enzymes that are needed to digest protein and break them into smaller units called amino acids. Proteolytic enzymes are also known as proteases.
  • The three main proteases are pepsin, trypsin and chymotrypsin. The protease enzyme breaks down protein found in meats, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs and cheese and may be helpful for people with food allergies or those who have difficulty digesting protein.
  • What are the benefits of proteolytic enzymes? They help control inflammation, prevent heart disease, support the immune system and protect the colon from oxidative stress.
  • People who can benefit from proteolytic enzyme therapy (taking supplements) include those with inflammatory bowel disease, IBS, low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria), enzyme insufficiency, pancreatic insufficiency, autoimmune diseases, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, inflammation of the joints and high risk for colon cancer.
  • Foods that can help to provide you with proteolytic enzymes include pineapple, papaya, kiwi, fermented dairy, miso, sauerkraut and kimchi. Other sources of natural digestive enzymes include raw fruits and veggies, avocado, bee pollen, apple cider vinegar, and raw honey.
Josh Axe

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