Proteolytic enzymes aid in the digestion process by helping digest proteins, breaking down protein from our diets into smaller units called amino acids. Overall, these enzymes have many roles: supporting immune function, encouraging healing of tissues and muscle recovery, in addition to aiding in many functions of our digestive systems. All of the vitamins and minerals we eat and all of the hormones our bodies produce need enzymes in order to work properly. Additionally, enzymes regulate metabolic functions and assist in maintaining our stamina and energy levels. Clearly, enzymes are very important!
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 used as a popular meat tenderizer today.
Where do we get proteolytic enzymes from? 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, which 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.
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. (1) 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, aspartic, cysteine, glutamic, metalloendopeptidases, serine and threonine endopeptidases.
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. (2)
How do enzymes work in the body? 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. (3) 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 single 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. (4)
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.
Top 6 Proteolytic Enzymes 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 the inflammation by working to provide protection. (5)
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. (6)
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. These enzymes can 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). (7) 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. (8)
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. (9) In one study bromelain was also anecdotally reported to induce remission in two patients with refractory ulcerative colitis.
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
The nutrients found in some proteolytic enzyme foods have been shown to be helpful in the prevention of colon cancer. (10) 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 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. (11)
Proteolytic Enzyme Uses in Ayurveda, TCM and Traditional Medicine
Proteolytic enzymes come from many sources. Digestive enzymes only became available in supplement form in the past 50 years or so, but long before this people were encouraged to consume raw and probiotic foods that naturally contain enzymes. Some enzyme foods have been very popular for centuries, especially for treating indigestion and reducing inflammation. For example, pineapple has a very long history of use among natives of Central and South America, while papaya has been utilized in places like India and Hawaii for hundreds of years.
According to Ayurvedic medicine, papain, which is found in papaya, has digestive qualities, reduces bloating, is a diuretic and reduces inflammation. (12) Papain supplements are also recommended to help soothe heartburn. In addition to eating foods with enzymes, Ayurvedic medicine also recommends supporting “digestive fire” (called agni) by removing causes of indigestion (such as eating while stressed or close to bed time) and using herbs and home remedies to strengthen the digestive organs. Spices play an important role in supporting digestion in Ayurveda, especially ginger, turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel, cardamom, fenugreek, cinnamon, rosemary, sage and oregano.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), signs of poor digestive health include poor hair, nail or skin health; stomach aches; bloating; fatigue; gas; diarrhea; and constipation. The quality of someone’s tongue, hair, skin and nails directly reflects the quality of that person’s nutrition and ability to absorb and digest nutrients, including protein.
Digestion is said to be improved by eating a balanced diet that includes raw fruits and lightly cooked veggies, as well as through acupuncture, herbs, movement and stress management. Other ways to encourage digestive health include eating local/seasonal foods; choosing organic, unprocessed, non-GMO foods; limiting intake of added sugar, liquids during meals and cold foods; chewing foods thoroughly; not skipping meals; not eating within two to three hours of bed time; and practicing tai chi, yoga, exercise and stretching to increase appetite.
Proteolytic Enzymes 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. Such signs of enzyme deficiency include:
- Excess gas
- 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 (maybe this is 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.
Best Food Sources of Proteolytic Enzymes + How to Get More Proteolytic Enzymes in Your Diet
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 will 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.
These types of foods not only help reduce blood pressure, naturally relieve constipation and help the body make more of its own life-extending enzymes, but they can keep you youthful. 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 “The 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. (13)
Proteolytic Enzyme Supplements and Dosage
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 is 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. Papain stimulates the digestion of fats and proteins and is useful to improve overall nutrient absorption.
Ideally look for a high-quality, reputable product that is described as”delayed release” in capsule form and contains 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 will be 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 will 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. 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
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. (14)
- 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 to 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; and 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. Look 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 and 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 vitamin 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 sour and fermented foods, feeding your gut bacteria with insoluble fiber found in high-fiber foods, and by 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.
History/Facts About Proteolytic Enzymes
As stated, the main purpose of proteolytic enzymes is to break down protein into its building blocks, amino acids. The National Center for Biotechnology Information states that proteases likely arose at the earliest stages of protein evolution as simple destructive enzymes necessary for protein catabolism and the generation of amino acids in primitive organisms. (15)
Papain is an enzyme that gained popularity in the 1900s through extensive studies that revealed its role and benefits. G.C. Roy first investigated the action of papain in 1873 in an article published in the Calcutta Medical Journal entitled “The Solvent Action of Papaya Juice on Nitrogenous Articles of Food.” (16) Papain was first named in the late 19th century and was simply recognized as a proteolytically active constituent in the latex of tropical papaya fruit.
Throughout the mid-1950s and 1960s, purification and separation techniques improved greatly, and pure papain was isolated. The study of papain allowed for great advances in understanding how enzymes affected digestion of proteins. In 1968, papain was the second enzyme to be crystallized and its structure determined by X-ray methods. Papain was the first cysteine protease to have its structure identified and remains one of the most popular proteolytic enzymes today.
Precautions/Side Effects of Proteolytic Enzymes
While they are generally well-tolerated and helpful, digestive 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’re currently taking 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 on Proteolytic Enzymes
- 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 taking proteolytic enzyme 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.
From the sound of it, you might think leaky gut only affects the digestive system, but in reality it can affect more. Because Leaky Gut is so common, and such an enigma, I’m offering a free webinar on all things leaky gut. Click here to learn more about the webinar.
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