What are Protease Enzymes?
Protease enzymes also known as proteolytic enzymes or proteinase are enzymes which help us to digest various types of protein thereby aiding the digestive process. They work by breaking proteins down into small units known as amino acids.
It is possible to take protease enzymes in supplementary form but this should not be necessary because they are found in various foods such as papaya which contains papain-a protease enzyme that is used to tenderize meat.
Protease Enzyme Function
The main function of protease enzymes is to aid digestion of various foods and to ensure that our digestive process is running smoothly. However, they have other intestinal functions including removing harmful organisms from the body and breaking down harmful waste products and toxins.
Protease enzymes help us to digest small pieces of food which prevents toxic overload and ensure our immune system is working properly. Because of the importance of proper digestion, protease enzymes can help ensure overall health and immune function. They also have some specific health benefits that will be discussed below.
Types of Protease Enzymes
The three best-known protease enzymes are papain, bromelain and pepsin. Pepsin is a naturally occurring enzyme produced by the gut while the other 2 are found in certain foods like papaya and pineapple.
- Pepsin is produced naturally in the intestines and is vital in order to properly break down and digest various proteins.
- Papain is found naturally in papaya in higher concentrations when the fruit is not ripe. It is extracted to make supplementary enzymes. Papain can stimulate the digestion of various proteins and fats and helps with the absorption of nutrients.
- Bromelain is found naturally in pineapples and pineapple juice. It is an effective digestive aid that can help with bloating, gas and helps treat inflammatory bowel conditions such as IBS.
Health benefits of Protease Enzymes
1) Digestive Health
Protease enzymes are vital for your digestive health and because of the importance of proper digestion, they can also prevent any of the knock on effects that may occur. Papain and bromelain are known to aid the digestive process as well as being able to reduce gas, bloating, heartburn and inflammation.
There is some evidence indicating that certain protease enzymes might have an anti-cancer effect. One recent study published in 2014 examined the impact of protease enzymes on colorectal cancer and found that they has the potential to inhibit the development and growth of colon cancer cells. (1)
Studies are at a preliminary stage but the folate, beta-carotene and the vitamins C and E found in papaya have all been linked with a reduced incidence of colon cancer.
3) Heart Disease
Papain, the protease enzyme naturally occurring in papayas might have an important role to play in the prevention of diabetes related heart disease and atherosclerosis. The vitamins A and C found in papayas can help to prevent cholesterol from becoming oxidized.
This is important because it is only after it has become oxidized that cholesterol gains the ability to adhere to the blood vessels. This build-up of cholesterol in the vessel walls forms a harmful plaque which may eventually lead to heart attack or stroke.
A study published in 2009 demonstrated that protease enzymes had the ability to prevent this dangerous plaque build-up and may have a role in treating atherosclerosis. (2)
4) Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Several experiments have demonstrated that certain protease enzymes are key in reducing the symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases as well as helping induce remission in cases of ulcerative colitis.
- For IBS, experts recommend a dose of 5 mgs a day of bromelain which can significantly relieve the severity of IBS symptoms.
There have also been anecdotal claims that bromelain was responsible for putting ulcerative colitis into remission but there are no scientific studies to confirm this.
5) Immune Support
One of the major functions of protease enzymes are their ability to increase the effectiveness and potency of the body’s killer cells. Protease enzymes can also improve immunity by degrading pathogenic complexes which may inhibit proper immune function.
If these complexes are present in excess, they can cause a variety of complaints including kidney disease, rheumatism and nerve inflammation.
There is evidence that protease enzymes like papain and trypsin can help to prevent these pathogenic complexes from forming and break up any existing pathogens which will have a positive impact on the immune system.
6) Anti-inflammatory Properties
Protease enzymes protect the cells of the colon from damage caused by free radicals because of their ability to help with nutrient absorption. As we have already seen, protease enzymes help break down proteins and they also have natural anti-inflammatory abilities that help reduce swelling in the colon.
These actions give protease enzymes like papain and bromelain the potential to treat ulcers, Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.
7) Sprains and Sports Injuries
Studies have demonstrated that protease enzymes can help speed up the healing time for sprains, breaks, tissue damage and bruises.
One clinical study involving 30 patients with chronic neck pain found that those given a protease supplement experienced a reduction in pain and discomfort when compared with the placebo group.
Other studies indicate that protease enzymes may help with the recovery rate of certain sports injuries helping participants to recover more quickly and reducing the amount of time spent away from their sport by as much as half.
A number of studies have indicated that protease enzymes and bromelain in particular could help treat and relieve the painful symptoms of osteoarthritis. A review of the studies suggests that bromelain has potential to treat osteoarthritis but that more clinical trials were necessary to establish efficacy and proper dosage. (3)
Sources of Protease Enzymes
As we have already mentioned, it is possible to take supplements to increase your intake of protease enzymes but as always, it is better if you get them from a dietary source.
Various fresh and fermented foods are a great source of protease enzymes but it is important to note that the way you prepare your food is also key. Food is much better eaten fresh; processed, frozen and over cooked food are likely to lack the important enzymes that can do so much for your health.
Food high in enzymes include the following:
- Kiwi fruit
- Miso soup
Protease Enzymes in Baby Food
Because babies and infants do not have sufficient protease in their bodies to properly digest their baby food, it often comes pre-processed with protease enzymes in order to help the baby absorb the necessary nutrients.
Protease enzyme side effects
There are no serious adverse side effects to increasing your intake of protease enzymes but if you are adding new, raw foods to your diet you should take it easy at first to allow your body to adapt to its new diet. If you are going down the supplementary route, it is important to do your research regarding the best brand as quality varies considerably. You should also consult your doctor before starting with any supplementary program.
There is some concern that papain may increase the risk of miscarriage and therefore should not be taken during pregnancy. Check with your doctor before going ahead with supplements.
There is also the possibility that both bromelain and papain may interfere with blood thinning and blood clotting medications.