What Are Proteolytic Enzymes?

These enzymes may treat inflammation, indigestion, and more

Proteolytic Enzymes tablets, capsules, gel caps, powder, pineapple, and papaya

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Proteolytic enzymes (proteases) are enzymes your pancreas makes to break down protein from your diet into amino acids, which are used for growth and tissue repair. These enzymes may also reduce inflammation and support immune function, though more research is needed.

Your body makes it own supply of proteolytic enzymes. However, you can get proteolytic enzymes from supplements as well as foods like ginger, asparagus, and yogurt.

Papaya and pineapple, the top food sources, are often used in commercially made tenderizers so that the protein-busting power of their proteolytic enzymes can soften meat. Papaya contains the proteolytic enzyme called papain. Pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain.

Other names for proteolytic enzymes include:

  • Protease
  • Proteinase
  • Peptidase

This article discusses the potential benefits of proteolytic enzyme supplements as well as the possible side effects. It also covers what to look for when buying them.

Uses of Proteolytic Enzymes

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

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

In addition to using proteolytic enzymes as a digestive aid, they may be used to reduce pain and inflammation (swelling).

Research

Like many herbal medicines and supplements, clinical research trials haven't provided enough evidence to support many health claims for proteolytic enzymes.

Much of the research data is old, and many studies were performed on animals rather than humans. There have been a few studies published, but much of the data is considered insufficient by the medical experts.

Digestive Problems

A primary use of proteolytic enzymes is to ease digestive problems. But an older small study found that there was no benefit from taking proteolytic enzymes for the treatment of indigestion (dyspepsia).

The study compared those with indigestion given pancreatic (proteolytic) enzymes with those who took a placebo (sham treatment) for 24 days. There was no evidence of any type of short-term beneficial effect of the pancreatic enzymes.

Pain

Several studies provide preliminary evidence that proteolytic enzymes may be beneficial for treating pain, including long-term neck pain. For example, a 1996 study discovered that there was a modest reduction of pain when proteolytic enzyme mixtures were given.

Osteoarthritis

Researchers have also looked at the effect of proteolytic enzymes on osteoarthritis symptoms. A study involving 400 osteoarthritis participants compared treatment with proteolytic enzymes versus a standard anti-inflammatory medication called diclofenac.

The study revealed equal pain management in the group that took medication and the group that took the proteolytic enzymes.

But, according to the Winchester Hospital Health Library, these studies are said to be inconclusive. That's because of “various flaws,” including the fact that there wasn't a placebo group (a group that took a sugar pill).

Sports Injuries

A 1965 double-blind placebo study (the gold standard of studies) compared 44 people with ankle injuries from sports accidents. They discovered that proteolytic enzymes helped to promote faster healing and took 50% less time away from training. This was compared with the study group who took the placebo.

Other Conditions

Proteolytic enzymes are thought to benefit other conditions as well. However, there isn't enough clinical research to definitely back these claims. These conditions include:

  • Inflammation
  • Autoimmune disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Viral infections
  • Cancer (and cancer treatment symptoms)
  • Hepatitis C

Some recent scientific evidence supporting proteolytic enzymes as treatment for various conditions involves combination products. One example is proteolytic enzymes plus bioflavonoids.

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. Proteolytic enzymes improve digestion, so they should not cause constipation.

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.

Contraindications

A contraindication is a specific situation in which a supplement or drug should not be used. That's because of a high potential to be harmful to the person receiving the treatment/medication.  

Contraindications for the use of proteolytic enzymes bromelain and papain include:

  • Bromelain and papain may increase blood-thinning properties of the drug Coumadin (warfarin) and possibly other blood thinners, including heparin.
  • It is not advised to take bromelain if you are taking any type of sedative drugs.
  • Bromelain should not be taken when a person is on antibiotics. It may increase blood concentrations of certain antibiotics.

Before taking proteolytic enzymes, consult with your healthcare provider and let them know if you're taking any other medications or supplements.

Proteolytic Enzymes soft gels
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Dosage and Preparation

Dosages for proteolytic enzyme supplements are 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 depending on age, overall health, and other factors. Therefore, it’s recommended to consult with a doctor, naturopath, or other healthcare provider regarding the proper dose. 

Also, be sure to read the label instructions. Don't exceed the dosage suggested by the manufacturer.

Preparation

Proteolytic enzymes can be derived from plant sources (such as pineapple stems). They may also 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). 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. Supplements and raw foods with proteolytic enzymes are said to help treat a variety of maladies when taken together.

When Is the Best Time To Take Proteolytic Enzymes?

For digestive purposes, it is best to take proteolytic enzymes about 15 to 20 minutes before you eat or as directed by your healthcare provider.

What to Look For

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

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's covered with a substance that prevents it from dissolving before it reaches the intestine (where nutrient absorption occurs).

Choose products that are organic. Those reviewed by third-party agencies, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab.com are recommended.

Herbal and natural preparations are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Summary

Proteolytic enzymes, made by the pancreas for metabolic functions, are available as supplements. They're thought to help with a number of conditions, including digestion, muscle recovery, osteoarthritis, and inflammation. However, there still isn't enough research to definitively prove that the supplements can improve your health.

Proteolytic enzymes include papain, which is found in papaya, and bromelain, which is found in fresh pineapples. When you buy proteolytic enzyme supplements, they may include more than one type of enzyme.

Your healthcare provider can help you decide whether these supplements are appropriate for your condition. They can also provide guidance on the dosage you might need and what to look for when buying it.

A Word From Verywell

Although the body makes its own supply of proteolytic enzymes, some people may still have deficiencies. 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 healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked 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:

    • Ginger
    • Kiwi
    • Sauerkraut
    • Yogurt
    • Kefir
    • Miso
  • 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:

    • Raw fresh fruits
    • Fruit juices that are fresh squeezed and uncooked
    • Raw nuts and seeds
    • Slightly cooked whole grains (such as wheat germ)
11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Forssmann K, Meier L, Uehleke B, Breuer C, Stange R. A non-interventional, observational study of a fixed combination of pepsin and amino acid hydrochloride in patients with functional dyspepsia. BMC Gastroenterol. 2017;17(1):123. doi:10.1186/s12876-017-0675-9

  2. Rathnavelu V, Alitheen NB, Sohila S, Kanagesan S, Ramesh R. Potential role of bromelain in clinical and therapeutic applications. Biomed Rep. 2016;5(3):283-288. doi:10.3892/br.2016.720

  3. Shah D, Mital K. The role of trypsin:chymotrypsin in tissue repair. Adv Ther. 2018;35(1):31-42. doi:10.1007/s12325-017-0648-y

  4. Marzin T, Lorkowski G, Reule C, et al. Effects of a systemic enzyme therapy in healthy active adults after exhaustive eccentric exercise: a randomised, two-stage, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2017;2(1):e000191. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2016-000191

  5. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Proteolytic enzymes.

  6. Mount Sinai. Bromelain.

  7. 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.

  8. 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. 

  9. Winchester Hospital Health Library. Proteolytic enzymes.

  10. Deitrick RE. Oral proteolytic enzymes in the treatment of athletic injuries: a double-blind study. Pa Med. 1965;68(10):35-7.

  11. Cell Sciences. Frequently asked questions.

Additional Reading

By Sherry Christiansen
Sherry Christiansen is a medical writer with a healthcare background. She has worked in the hospital setting and collaborated on Alzheimer's research.