Health Benefits of Papain

Papaya extract may speed the healing of wounds and shingles

close up of a halved papaya on a reflective surface
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Papain is an enzyme found naturally in the fruit of the papaya plant (Carica papaya). The enzymes help break down proteins, the process of which makes it ideal as a meat tenderizer.

Papaya has long been used in folk medicine to relieve pain, swelling, and inflammation. Others believe that it can improve digestive health and treat certain common infections. In addition to getting papain from papaya, you can purchase papain in supplement form or as a topical ointment.

Health Benefits

In alternative medicine, papain is touted as a natural pain reliever. It is also used to promote wound healing and may aid in the treatment of allergy, diarrhea, indigestion, psoriasis, shingles, and sore throat.

In traditional Chinese medicine, papaya is used to treat intestinal worms, promote lactation in breastfeeding women, heal skin lesions, soothe an upset stomach, and reduce irritability caused by warm weather. Some of these claims are better supported by research than others.

Here are some of the more established benefits of papain when used as a supplement or topical ointment:

Wound Healing

Papain shows promise in the treatment of wounds, according to a 2012 review of studies published in the Portuguese journal Revista Gaúcha de Enfermagem.

Analyzing studies from 1987 to 2010, the researchers concluded that papain was safe and effective in promoting wound healing when applied topically. Mild pain and burning at the wound site were the only notable side effects. The conclusions, while promising, were limited by the low quality of the research and the inclusion of only one clinical trial.

Similarly, a 2001 study from India found that Wobe-Mugus, an oral supplement containing papain and other plant-based enzymes, reduced skin toxicity in women undergoing radiation therapy by as much as 87 percent compared to a placebo.

Papain has a long history of use in treating sports injuries. An early study from the American College Health Association reported that an oral supplement of papain shortened the injury recovery time in athletes from 8.4 to 3.9 days.

Papain was also once used as a debriding agent in the prescription ointment Accuzyme. It was believed to improve wound healing by gently debriding (removing) dead skin cells. Accuzyme has since been discontinued, along with other papain-based debridement agents, due to the risk of severe hypersensitivity reactions.

Shingles

There is growing evidence that papain may help treat shingles (herpes zoster), the often-painful reactivation of the chickenpox virus commonly seen in older adults.

In a small study published in the German journal Fortschritte der Medizin, researchers found that papain was as effective as the antiviral drug Zovirax (acyclovir) in relieving shingles pain and promoting the healing of lesions.

After 14 days of treatment, there was no difference in outcomes between either of the two agents.

A 2016 review in the Journal of Immunotoxicology supported the findings, suggesting that papain suppresses an inflammatory protein, known as transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β1), that can intensify a shingle outbreak. By blocking TGF-β1, the pain, severity, and duration of an outbreak may be significantly reduced.

Possible Side Effects

Papain supplements and ointments are generally safe for short-term use. High oral doses may cause side effects, including stomach upset and throat irritation. Dosages in excess of 1,500 milligrams (mg) per day are associated with an increased risk of esophageal perforation. Papain ointments and salves may cause mild pain and burning, especially on broken skin.

Little is known about the long-term safety of papain supplements. Due to the lack of safety research, papain should be avoided in children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers.

Allergy

Perhaps the greater concern is the risk of allergy in people exposed to papain. The risk appears to be greatest in people with a known allergy to latex or kiwi. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and includes an itchy mouth, watery eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion, excessive sweating, and diarrhea.

On rare occasion, exposure to papain can lead to a potentially life-threatening, whole-body reaction known as anaphylaxis.

Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room if you develop a rash, hives, shortness of breath, wheezing, rapid heart rate, or the swelling of the face, throat, or tongue after taking papain or using a papain ointment.

If left untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to asphyxiation, coma, cardiac or respiratory failure, or death.

Drug Interactions

Papain can slow blood clotting and should be avoided in people who take anticoagulants like Coumadin (warfarin) or antiplatelet drugs like Plavix (clopidogrel). Stop using papain at least two weeks before surgery to avoid excessive bleeding.

Papain can also lower your blood sugar and should be used with caution if you are on diabetes medications. Taking these together can lead to an excessive drop in blood sugar, known as hypoglycemia.

As a general rule, always advise your doctor about any dietary supplement you are taking to avoid interactions and unforeseen side effects.

Dosage and Preparations

There are no guidelines directing the appropriate use of papain supplements or ointments. Most papain supplements are available in capsules form but are also sold as tablets, chewable tablets, gummies, and powders.

Dosages between 25 and 100 mg per day are generally considered safe and well-tolerated. Avoid dosages larger than 400 mg per day. To reduce the risk of side effects, take the supplement in divided doses with meals.

Papain ointments can be applied lightly to the skin. Stop and call your doctor if the ointment causes any redness, inflammation, rash, or pain.

What to Look For

Dietary supplements are not stringently regulated in the United States. To ensure quality and safety, opt for supplements that have been tested and approved by an independent certifying body like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International.

When making a purchase online or at your local pharmacy or health food store, only buy supplements that include "papain" on the product label along with the milligram dose. Many "papaya enzyme supplements" will list papain among the active ingredients but fail to tell you how much is included.

Some papain supplements will also include the USP unit count on the product label. By way of reference, 12,000 USP units of papain equal roughly 100 mg.

Other Questions

How much papain is in a serving of papaya?

Papain is found in papaya but not in quantities considered to be therapeutic. The papain found in supplements is obtained from the sticky latex of the papaya fruit. Latex, by definition, is the milky emulsion that is exuded from certain plants and congeals when exposed to air.

After collection, the papaya latex is dried and purified. It then undergoes a process wherein the latex is liquified and the papain enzyme extracted in crystallized form. After powdering, the papain is incorporated into supplements and topical preparations.

It is the latex in papaya that most people will be allergic to.

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