Proteolytic enzymes have more than just a cool-sounding name. Pronounced prō-tē-a-li-tik, they offer superior health benefits, as well. As digestive aids, these enzymes break down protein in the foods you eat. They also help to build your cells, boost energy, reduce systemic redness and swelling, and stimulate the immune system.
Your body naturally produces proteolytic enzymes, but you can also get them from foods. For example, papaya contains papain and pineapple has bromelain. You can also take proteolytic enzymes in supplement form for digestive and systemic support.
What Are Proteolytic Enzymes?
Enzymes help your body’s chemical reactions occur more efficiently, and they are very specific. Each one only works on one type of macromolecule — proteins, carbohydrates, or fats. Proteolytic enzymes, also called proteases or proteinases, break down proteins. Specifically, they catalyze chemical reactions to break proteins into smaller molecules. Larger polypeptide chains get broken into individual amino acids.
Several types of proteolytic enzymes exist. Your body produces pepsin, chymotrypsin, and other proteolytic enzymes. Others come from food or dietary supplements and are helpful to your body.
As you get older, your body may produce fewer enzymes, which may lead to more digestive concerns. Some people may just produce fewer enzymes naturally. It’s always best to teach your body to increase its natural enzyme production — or to get more enzymes from foods. You can work with a naturopathic doctor on how to find the root cause and solve it. Supplements can often fill in the gaps, as you are working to heal.
Top 5 Proteolytic Enzyme Benefits
Proteolytic enzymes are especially useful for people who eat meat or dairy, but they also break down plant proteins such as those found in beans.
Proteases can work as either digestive enzymes or systemic enzymes. It’s obvious what digestive enzymes do: they break down your food. Systemic enzymes work throughout the body to break down protein-based "gunk" in the body. They are sometimes used for “enzyme therapy” in clinical practice.
Below are the top five benefits proteolytic enzymes provide for your body.
After you eat, proteolytic enzymes are busy at work breaking down proteins in your food. Sometimes, a heavy protein meal can cause uncomfortable symptoms, like gas, bloating, or heaviness in the stomach. Taking supplemental proteolytic enzymes may help such issues.
When people took a supplement containing papain, it eased bloating, constipation, and abdominal discomfort in people who had various gastrointestinal concerns. Likewise, the enzyme bromelain promotes normal levels of inflammation-causing compounds in the body, which helps digestion.
Bromelain is unique because it can survive in an acidic or alkaline environment. That allows it to pass from the stomach to the intestines without losing its potency. While eating pineapple fruit provides some enzyme power, supplemental bromelain comes from the stem.
Reduce Redness & Swelling
Proteolytic enzymes promote a normal response to inflammation. When you have inflammation in the body, this results in systemic redness and swelling, which leads to discomfort and even disease. Proteolytic enzymes may help.[4, 5]
For example, serrapeptase, a proteolytic enzyme in the trypsin family, has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory. People used it in ancient times, and it’s still used today by medical experts in clinical practice to ease body discomfort and inflammation.
Soothe Sinus & Respiratory Ailments
If you're feeling stuffy, consider proteolytic enzymes. In the body, these enzymes break up nasal mucus, clearing up congestion and allowing you to breathe easier.
When adults with sinus issues took oral enzymes — including bromelain — they reported that it thinned out their nasal mucus.[6, 7] This can reduce head discomfort and “that stuffy feeling.”
Proteases may also mitigate certain food allergies. These enzymes help break down the protein that causes an allergic reaction to latex in certain foods.
Support Heart Health
Proteolytic enzymes provide excellent support for cardiovascular health. When your blood clots, your body produces a protein called fibrin. Most clotting is healthy and normal (for example, when you want to stop bleeding). But sometimes, clots form when they shouldn't, and these can cause serious illness. Proteolytic enzymes play a normal role in the body breaking down these unwanted protein-based molecules and other unneeded proteins in the bloodstream.
When consumed in the diet or as a supplement, the enzyme bromelain also breaks down cholesterol plaques and thins out platelets — which play a role in blood clotting. Bromelain also promotes normal blood viscosity or thickness.
Assist with Wound, Burn, & Ulcer Care
Papain, a proteolytic enzyme from tropical papaya (Carica papaya), has a long history of use in sports medicine. This powerhouse enzyme promotes a normal and speedy recovery from sports injuries and may ease muscle soreness. In the body, it acts as a debris-removing agent while having no harmful effect on healthy tissues: in other words, papain specifically targets unhealthy cells.
Proteases found in mountain papaya (Vasconcellea cundinamarcensis) — not to be confused with the tropical papaya — can help with third-degree burns. Applied topically, its enzymes help clean up dead tissue in wounds, sores, and ulcers.
Proteolytic enzymes may also promote normal recovery of ulcers, playing a protective and healing role in the stomach.
The Best Proteolytic Enzyme Sources
Human bodies synthesize their own proteolytic enzymes, but you can also get them in the following foods.
The tropical papaya is rich in digestive enzymes. It’s most known for papain, found in the fruit, leaves, and stems. It enhances the digestive process and helps your body absorb more nutrients from protein-based foods.
Papain may offer relief from allergies, may help with stuffy, congested nose and sinuses, and may even help improve a leaky gut. As mentioned above, it can also help with minor wounds and sports injuries.
Heat can destroy their digestive enzymes, so eat them ripe and uncooked. However, if you are pregnant, avoid unripe or semi-ripe papaya, which contains a type of latex that can bring on uterine contractions.
The flesh, juice, and stem of the pineapple (Ananas comosus) contain bromelain. The stem’s enzymes provides the most powerful action for digestion. Since you most likely won't eat the stem, you can get that enzyme in supplement form.
Bromelein is actually not a single enzyme, but a complex of several proteases. Pineapples have a long history of use to aid digestion: South American indigenous cultures historically used pineapples to reduce stomach upset and irritation.
Ginger is a leading source of a protein-digesting enzyme known as zingibain — also called zingipain or ginger protease. Ginger protease may stimulate muscle contractions in the gastrointestinal tract. This helps you digest food faster.
People have traditionally used ginger for nausea and vomiting. Seafarers know this and chew on ginger to stave off seasickness. And now, research backs that up!
Kefir, a sour fermented beverage, contains several beneficial digestive enzymes, and proteases are among them. Kefir packs more probiotics than its better-known peer, yogurt. It is similar but tends to be a thinner consistency.
To make kefir, you use kefir "grains." These starter cultures consist of clumps of probiotic bacteria and yeast. These grains contain proteolytic enzymes. The starter gets added to milk — traditionally cow's milk, but I recommend using organic non-dairy nut or oat milk. Check out our article with step-by-step instructions to make coconut milk kefir.
Kiwifruit (aka kiwi) contains actinidin, a proteolytic enzyme that can break down a wide range of food proteins. Actinidin breaks down proteins even faster and more completely than other natural digestive enzymes. It may help soothe digestive issues.
Figs contain a proteolytic enzyme known as ficin, which is less known and studied than some of the other plant-derived enzymes. Like other proteases, ficin may help to counter infections and soothe wounds.
Sauerkraut, an excellent fermented food, offers a good source of proteolytic enzymes. Made from cabbage, it's best to eat raw or unpasteurized sauerkraut to get active enzymes. High temperatures will deactivate the enzymes.
Other fermented fruits and vegetables may provide similar benefits. Kimchee, the staple Korean side dish of spicy fermented cabbage, is another excellent choice.
Proteolytic Enzyme Supplements
We should first try to get our nutrients from a wholesome, plant-based diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Supplements can fill the gaps for those who don't produce enough proteolytic enzymes or those who seek out their additional health benefits.
If you do take a supplement, try one with a variety of enzyme combinations. It should include proteolytic enzymes, as well as ones that break down fat like lipase, and carbohydrates like amylase.
Most proteolytic enzyme supplements come from animal sources, but research suggests plant and microbe-sourced enzymes are high-quality and highly effective. I recommend always choosing plant-based, vegan-friendly enzymes and supplements.
Precautions & Side Effects
Digestive enzymes are safe for most people when taken in appropriate amounts. Rarely, some individuals may experience an allergic reaction or mild gastrointestinal discomfort. Take extra precautions if you have known allergies to foods that contain protease enzymes, such as pineapple, papaya, kiwi, and figs.
Any time you try a new food or supplement, it’s always a good idea to begin in moderation. That way, you learn how your body tolerates the changes.
Points to Remember
Proteolytic enzymes break down proteins during digestion. These enzymes also work throughout the body (“systemically”) to break down protein-based waste. They can reduce redness and swelling, ease stuffy noses, support heart health, and assist with wound, burn, and ulcer care.
The body naturally produces proteolytic enzymes. Certain foods also contain enzymes, such as pineapple (bromelain) and papaya (papain).
While a diet rich in plant-based, whole foods is an optimal source of proteolytic enzymes, you can also take them in supplement form. Look for supplement formulas that are high-quality, vegan, and toxin-free. I recommend Veganzyme®, a proprietary blend of the most powerful systemic and digestive enzymes.
Have you tried proteolytic enzymes? Did you take them for digestive or systemic support? Share your experiences below!
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.