Medically reviewed by Dr. Brian Paris, D.C on Jan. 20, 2019.
If you’ve never heard of proteolytic enzymes, you’re not alone.
It’s not likely your doctor will tell you about them — in fact, he or she probably doesn’t know much, if anything, about them.
After reading this article, you’ll have a good understanding of why proteolytic enzymes are one of the most important things your body needs if you want to live a pain-free life.
Proteolytic enzymes have incredible anti-inflammatory properties. But they do so much more than relieve pain and inflammation.
We’ll talk more about the various health benefits of proteolytic enzymes later in this article.
Use the quick links below to skip to different sections of the article.
- What are proteolytic enzymes?
- How proteolytic enzymes regulate fibrin
- Health benefits of proteolytic enzymes
- Sources of proteolytic enzymes
First, I want to give you an overview of what these enzymes are and what they do.
What are proteolytic enzymes?
Proteolytic enzymes, also referred to as “proteases,” are enzymes that break down proteins into smaller parts, eventually breaking them down into amino acids.
You can find these proteolytic enzymes in your body, or you can get them from certain food sources and from dietary supplements.
Your body actually makes tens of thousands of different enzymes that regulate various biological processes and metabolic functions, but there are some important differences between the various types of enzymes.
When most people hear the word “enzymes,” they usually think of digestive enzymes.
Digestive enzymes break down proteins in your gut. They aid your digestive system.
Digestive enzymes are very useful, especially if you suffer from regular gas, bloating, abdominal pain, heartburn or other gastrointestinal troubles.
Taking them orally may also help you from becoming deficient and straining your digestive system.
But be aware that their benefits are limited to your digestive tract.
Digestive enzymes do not survive well in your stomach acid (although giving them an enteric coating can help), so after being used for digestion they will provide little other benefit.
Systemic enzymes, on the other hand, are designed to survive your stomach acid, allowing them to enter your small intestine and be absorbed into your bloodstream — and that’s where the real “magic” happens.
Once they enter the circulatory system, they circulate throughout the body.
What is fibrin?
Fibrin is an insoluble protein that acts as a first responder whenever your body is injured.
When the call for help goes out, fibrin molecules rush to the scene.
Shaped like long threads, each fibrin molecule interlaces to form a thin mesh around your wound.
This mesh is critical for trapping the platelets and red blood cells needed to form blood clots.
As you can see in the image below, fibrin forms a mesh-like web that traps red blood cells and platelets.
Without fibrin, even small wounds would just keep bleeding.
Fibrin mesh is the base material for clots, scabs, scars, and eventual healthy skin.
When everything is in perfect working order, the fibrin that rushed to the injured site is returned to your body as you heal.
After a few days of repairs, your system sends in a second clean-up crew of enzymes to dissolve the excess fibrin and leave your muscles, nerves, and blood vessels just as they were before you were hurt.
Unfortunately, most of our bodies aren’t in perfect working order.
When we hurt, we take pills, and pain pills cancel the body’s signal for enzymatic clean-up crews. Fibrin keeps rushing to the scene.
Over time, the fibrin molecules thicken and stiffen, forming scar tissue masses that can block blood vessels, interfere with muscle function, and lead to chronic inflammation and pain.
What happens if I have too much fibrin?
This fibrin malfunction is no laughing matter. Excess scar tissue restricts blood flow and oxygen throughout your body, slowing down your healing process and keeping you in pain longer.
As the scar tissue thickens, it reduces your range of motion and contributes to chronic pain.
These enzymes work by bringing nutrients and oxygen-rich blood that remove the metabolic waste produced by inflammation.
When red blood cells caught in a web of excess fibrin, it restricts your blood flow.
The cells actually get stuck. Ultimately, those red blood cells can’t get into the capillaries to oxygenate and nourish your muscles and remove the metabolic waste that is causing your pain.
Now that you know that excess fibrin throughout your circulatory system will severely limit the amount of blood flow to areas that need it the most, you may be wondering how your body compensates for this restriction.
The answer is simple: by forcing the heart to work harder and increasing your blood pressure.
You see, our bodies will do what they need to do to keep us alive – sometimes at great cost to our overall health.
Some possible indicators of excess fibrin in your system include: chronic fatigue, slow healing, inflammation and pain, and elevated blood pressure.
There is also a medical test to measure something called “blood monomers.”
The medical community has long known that excess fibrin presents a cardiac and stroke risk.
Health benefits of proteolytic enzymes
Fights pain and inflammation
Proteolytic enzymes help deliver nutrients and oxygen-rich blood to flush your system of metabolic waste that causes inflammation.
Speeds up wound healing
Multiple studies show that bromelain and papain have wound healing properties and also promote the growth of new tissue.
And a study out of Russia in 2017 proved that ficin, which comes from figs, made antibiotics more effective against certain infections, like staph infections.(1)
Still other studies have shown that, when taken following surgery, swelling, pain and bruising were reduced by patients who were given proteolytic enzymes.(2)
Eases sore muscles
You know how your muscles get sore after a workout? It’s called DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.
Proteolytic enzymes can help with that… and research proves it.
In one study, researchers gave half the study participants a dietary supplement containing the proteolytic enzyme bromelain and curcumin (which also has anti-inflammatory properties) for 30 days. The other half got a placebo (3).
The group who took the proteolytic enzyme supplement reported less pain and tenderness after exercise than the control group. And their bloodwork showed a decrease in C-reactive protein (an indicator of inflammation).
Another study found that a proteolytic enzyme supplement taken before and after downhill running improved recovery time and had less muscle soreness (4).
This is particularly important for people over the age of 65 because they’re at a higher risk of complications from the flu, pneumonia and even the common cold.
I’ve already explained how excess fibrin builds up in your body. Viruses like to hide under the fibrin layer that coats the walls of your blood vessels.
This makes it harder for your immune system’s white blood vessels to find them and kill them.
Systemic enzymes dissolve the fibrin, exposing the viruses, enabling your immune system to wipe them out.
But that’s not all.
Proteolytic enzymes also eat up the protective outer coating of a virus, called a capsid.
Once this coating is destroyed, the virus is harmless.
Boosts Immune System
Proteolytic enzymes make your body’s natural killer cells more potent.
They also break down pathogens that can interfere with normal immune function.
These pathogenic immune complexes (when they occur in large amounts) have been linked to kidney disease, nerve inflammation and a variety of rheumatologic diseases.
And since systemic enzymes also prevent the formation of these immune complexes in the first place, this boosts your overall immune response.
Helps regulate blood pressure
Researchers from Harvard Medical School say excess fibrin gets “lodged” in your blood vessels.
This sticky fibrin enters your bloodstream. It makes your blood sticky and thick.
And how does thick, sticky blood affect your blood pressure?
Studies headed by the “father” of blood flow research – Dr. Shu Chien of Columbia University – show high blood viscosity (“thick” blood) causes hypertension (high blood pressure).
Studies show proteolytic enzymes naturally eat and dissolve excess fibrin clogging up your blood.
More health benefits of proteolytic enzymes
Because of their powerful anti-inflammatory properties and their ability to reduce excess fibrin, proteolytic enzymes are a powerful weapon in the war against virtually all chronic disease.
Just look at this list of all the other conditions systemic proteolytic enzymes have been shown to help (and keep in mind, it’s only a partial list):
- Atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) and heart disease
- Back pain
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic pain
- Fibrocystic breast
- Autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
- High blood pressure
- Herniated disc
- Spinal stenosis
- Strains and sprains
- Post-operative scar tissue
- Traumatic Inflammation
- Uterine fibroids
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s disease
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
Where do proteolytic enzymes come from?
For one, your body makes proteolytic enzymes in your pancreas.
Unfortunately, the production of these pancreatic enzymes declines as you get older — and drops off significantly after about the age of 27.
A newborn baby has 100 times more enzymes than an elderly person, and even a 20-year-old has double the enzyme levels of a 70-year-old!
That’s why it’s so important to get these enzymes from other sources.
Some proteolytic enzymes come from animal sources, but I recommend plant-based enzymes as well as fungus-based enzymes.
Bromelain and papain are two of the most widely known proteolytic enzymes,
Bromelain comes from the stems, core and juice of the pineapple plant.
While papain comes from the leaves, roots and fruit of the papaya plant. (You may already know that papain is also a popular meat tenderizer.)
Healers in South and Central America have used proteolytic enzymes for centuries — long before they even had a name.
They knew that fruits such as pineapples and papaya could be used medicinally to treat a variety of ailments.
They recognized their anti-inflammatory properties as well as their usefulness in aiding digestion and for overall well-being.
Another good food source for proteolytic enzymes is figs, which contains the enzyme ficin.
A good fungal protease is called Serrazimes®.
The reason I recommend plant- and fungus-based enzymes is because they can tolerate the gastric environment better (meaning they can survive stomach acid), so more of the enzymes make their way into your bloodstream.
Are proteolytic enzymes safe?
Yes! There are numerous clinical trials that have been done on systemic proteolytic enzymes, and we have dozens of the most relevant studies cited throughout our site.
Don’t forget: enzyme therapy has been used in Europe for more than 50 years.
And in Japan, some proteolytic enzymes are classified as prescription drugs.
In fact, oral enzyme therapy is so safe and effective that the Germany and Austria order millions of proteolytic enzyme supplements for their Olympic athletes before they compete to both treat and prevent injury and enhance physical performance.
That said, there are some people who should check with their doctor before beginning systemic enzyme therapy. They include:
- Individuals taking prescription blood thinners (Coumadin, Heparin, Plavix)
- Anyone who will be having surgery in less than two weeks
- Individuals with known ulcers of the stomach
- Pregnant or lactating women
- Individuals currently taking antibiotics
- Individuals with an allergic reaction to pineapples or papayas
Keep in mind, systemic enzyme therapy is does NOT have the same dangerous side effects as mainstream medicine’s popular solutions for pain and inflammation.
Just look at the damaging effects and risks associated with taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen.
And here’s the bottom line: Painkillers DON’T heal you. Systemic proteolytic enzymes support the body’s ability to heal itself, and they reduce the signs and symptoms of a chronic condition.
Where can I get proteolytic enzymes?
You can get proteolytic enzymes from certain foods, such as:
- fermented foods like kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut
But as I mentioned above, the best-known plant sources of proteolytic enzymes are pineapple and papaya.
I highly recommend incorporating these foods into your diet, however, it’s hard to get enough proteolytic enzymes from food alone.
Fortunately, there are high-quality proteolytic enzyme supplements available.
Choose a proteolytic enzyme formula that lists the amount of enzymes in “activity units” (proteolytic enzymes are not measured by weight). Check the label. You’ll see abbreviations like “HUT,” “FCCPU” and “USP.”
For more alternative health tips, be sure to check out some of our other articles.
Editor’s note: This article has been reviewed by a member of our medical advisory board. The content provided is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult with your physician if you have any questions about your health.