The Health Benefits of Proteolytic Enzymes

For the Treatment of Inflammation, Indigestion, and More


Proteolytic enzymes (proteases) are available as supplements that promote proper digestion of food. These enzymes also help regulate metabolic functions (such as helping to break down and digest protein into amino acids). Other names for proteolytic enzymes include:

Proteolytic enzymes are produced in the pancreas, so the body can make its own supply, but they are also contained in certain types of foods. Papaya and pineapple are said to be the two plant sources that contain the highest level of proteolytic enzymes. Papaya (which supplies the enzyme called papain) and bromelain (which can be found in fresh pineapples) are used commercially to make tenderizers, because of their ability to break down the protein in meat.

Health Benefits

Proteolytic enzymes are said to have many health benefits, including:

  • Supporting a healthy immune system
  • Promoting healing of tissues
  • Encouraging muscle recovery
  • Aiding in digestive function (particularly in the digestion of proteins)

According to the Winchester Hospital Health Library, “The primary use of proteolytic enzymes is as a digestive aid for people who have trouble digesting proteins. However, proteolytic enzymes may also be absorbed internally to some extent and may reduce pain and inflammation.”

But what does the research say?

Research

As with many herbal medicines and natural supplements, there is overall, a lack of enough evidence, from clinical research trials, to support many of the claims that proteolytic enzymes are effective in the treatment of various maladies. Much of the research data is very old, and many studies were performed on animals and not on humans. There have been a few studies published, but much of the data is considered inefficient by the medical experts.

A primary use of proteolytic enzymes is to alleviate digestive problems. But a small double-blind placebo study found that there was no benefit from taking proteolytic enzymes for the treatment of indigestion (dyspepsia). The results measured a comparison between those with indigestion given pancreatic enzymes for 24 days, compared to the study group participants who took a placebo. There was no evidence of any type of short-term beneficial effect of the pancreatic (proteolytic) enzymes.

According to the Memorial Slone Kettering Cancer Center, the purported effectiveness of proteolytic enzymes for various conditions includes:

Inflammation: Some studies show benefits in treating inflammation, but there is a lack of sufficient clinical research data to definitively back these claims.

Autoimmune disorders: There is not enough clinical research data to support the effectiveness of using proteolytic enzymes to treat autoimmune disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis).

Viral infections: Clinical research evidence is lacking to support the beneficial use of proteolytic enzymes to treat viral infections.

Cancer (and cancer treatment symptoms): The research is conflicting.

Hepatitis C: There is a lack of adequate research evidence to support the use of proteolytic enzymes to effectively treat hepatitis C.

Pain

Several studies provide preliminary evidence that proteolytic enzymes may be beneficial for treating various types of pain (such as long-term neck pain) as well as osteoarthritis. For example, a double-blind placebo study discovered that there was a modest reduction of pain when proteolytic enzyme mixtures were given.

Osteoarthritis

Another study, involving 400 study participants, looked at the results of those taking proteolytic enzymes versus the group that took a standard anti-inflammatory medication called diclofenac for the treatment of osteoarthritis. The study revealed equal pain management benefits in the group that took the medication and the group that took the proteolytic enzymes. But, according to the Winchester Hospital Health Library, these studies are said to be inconclusive because there were “various flaws,” including the fact that there was not a placebo group (a group that took a sugar pill).

Sports Injuries
A double-blind placebo study (the gold standard of studies) of 44 people with ankle injuries from sports accidents, discovered that proteolytic enzymes helped to promote faster healing and 50% less time away from training, as compared with the study group who took the placebo.

Some of the more recent scientific evidence supporting the beneficial use of proteolytic enzymes, for the treatment of various conditions involves combination products such as proteolytic enzymes plus bioflavonoids or other substances.

Possible Side Effects

Although proteolytic enzymes are considered relatively safe, on occasion, they can cause allergic reactions. Another side effect that has been reported is stomach upset, including diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.

Pancreatin—which is one proteolytic enzyme—is known to block the absorption of folate (a B vitamin). When taking pancreatin, it’s important to take a folate supplement as well.

The proteolytic enzyme called papain (that comes from papaya) may increase the blood-thinning properties of the drug Coumadin (warfarin), and possibly other blood thinners, including heparin and more.

Contraindications

A medical contraindication is a specific situation (such as a procedure, a drug, or a medical treatment) in which a supplement or drug should not be used because of a high potential to be harmful to the person receiving the treatment/medication.  

Contraindications for the use of proteolytic enzymes include:

The proteolytic enzyme bromelain might also cause problems if combined with drugs that thin the blood. In addition, there are concerns that bromelain should not be mixed with sedative drugs. Finally, bromelain may increase blood concentrations of certain antibiotics.

It is not advised to take bromelain if you are taking any type of sedative drugs.

Bromelain proteolytic enzyme should not be taken when a person is on antibiotics because bromelain may increase blood concentrations of certain antibiotics.

If you are taking any type of prescription or over the counter medications or any other supplements, it’s important to consult with your health care provider before taking proteolytic enzymes (or any other natural herb or supplement).

Dosage and Preparation

The potency of proteolytic enzymes in supplemental form is expressed as milligrams or grams as well as in “activity units” or “international units.” These terms refer to the enzyme’s strength (particularly its potency/digestive power).

The proper dosage varies from person to person (depending on age, overall health, and other factors). Therefore, it’s recommended to consult with a homeopathic doctor, or other health care provider, regarding the proper dose. Also, be sure to read the label instructions; it is not recommended to exceed the dosage suggested by the manufacturer.

Preparation

Proteolytic enzymes can be derived from plant sources (such as pineapple stems) or they may be extracted from the pancreas of different animal species (pigs and cows are the most common sources).

The supplements are available as:

  • Gelcaps
  • Chewable tablets
  • Powders
  • Tablets

Some supplements contain just one enzyme (such as papaya supplements) and others combine several proteolytic enzymes into one capsule or tablet. Commonly, bromelain, papain, pancreatin, trypsin, and chymotrypsin are combined into one supplement blend.

Proteolytic enzymes can also be added to food and are said to help treat a variety of maladies when supplements and raw foods with proteolytic enzymes are taken together.

What to Look For

When buying proteolytic enzymes in supplement form, choose a product that lists its potency. Many commercial brands of natural supplements simply list the weight of each enzyme (in milligrams or grams). This does not provide any information about the potency or strength of the product you are purchasing. Select products that list “activity units” on the label.

Note, Hydrochloric acid in the stomach can break down proteolytic enzymes and render them ineffective. To prevent this from happening, select a supplement that is enteric coated. This means it is covered with a substance that prevents the supplement from dissolving before it reaches the intestine (where nutrient absorption occurs).

Products that are organic, and those reviewed by third-party agencies, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab.com, are recommended because herbal and natural preparations are not regulated by the government (such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—FDA—which strictly oversees commercial over the counter and prescription drugs).

Other Questions

Can I get proteolytic enzymes in my diet?
Yes, as mentioned, papaya and pineapple are two of the best sources of proteolytic enzymes. Other foods that are high in proteolytic enzymes include:

What do proteolytic enzymes do in the body?

Proteolytic enzymes are a group of enzymes that work to break down the molecules of proteins (which appear as chain-like structures in the body). These structures are reduced into shorter pieces (called peptides) then further broken down into amino acids.

What is the best way to prepare foods with proteolytic enzymes?

Eating foods raw is the best way to ensure that the enzymes are not broken down; this occurs when foods are heated. Minimally cooked foods (such as steamed vegetables) also maintain much of their natural enzymes. Other ways to prepare and eat foods rich in proteolytic enzymes include, eat:

  • Raw fresh fruits
  • Fruit juices that are fresh squeezed and uncooked
  • Raw nuts and seeds
  • Slightly cooked whole grains (such as wheat germ)

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that although the body manufactures its own supply of proteolytic enzymes, there can still be deficiencies that sometimes occur in some people. This is usually a result of a disorder such as pancreatic insufficiency. The symptoms of pancreatic insufficiency include gas, indigestion, abdominal discomfort and passing undigested food in the feces. A person with these (or any other symptoms) should consult with a medical professional. Never attempt to self-treat any potential medical condition with natural supplements without first consulting with a professional health care provider.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Winchester Hospital Health Library. Proteolytic Enzymes. Updated 2019.

  2.  Winchester Hospital Health Library. Proteolytic Enzymes. Updated 2019.

  3. Kleveland PM, Johannessen T, Kristensen P, et al. Effect of pancreatic enzymes in non-ulcer dyspepsia. A pilot study. Scand J Gastroenterol. 1990;25(3):298-301.

  4. Memorial Slone Kettering Cancer Center. Proteolytic enzymes. Update May 17, 2019

  5. Tilscher H, Keusch R, Neumann K. Results of a double-blind, randomized comparative study of Wobenzym-placebo in patients with cervical syndrome. Wien Med Wochenschr. 1996;146(5):91-5. 

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