Enzymes facilitate countless daily reactions in your body to keep you alive and thriving.

They perform many functions, including helping break down food for energy.

In particular, proteolytic enzymes help break down and digest protein. They’re found in the body, as well as in certain foods and dietary supplements.

Proteolytic enzyme supplements have recently grown in popularity due to their many purported health benefits.

This article explores the potential health benefits of proteolytic enzymes, where to find them and how to use them.

Papaya on Wooden Board

Proteolytic enzymes are essential for many important processes in your body. They’re also called peptidases, proteases or proteinases.

In the human body, they are produced by the pancreas and stomach.

While proteolytic enzymes are most commonly known for their role in the digestion of dietary protein, they perform many other critical jobs as well.

For example, they are essential for cell division, blood clotting, immune function and protein recycling, among other vital processes (1).

Like humans, plants also depend on proteolytic enzymes throughout their life cycles.

Not only are these enzymes necessary for the proper growth and development of plants, they also help keep them healthy by acting as a defense mechanism against pests like insects (2, 3).

Interestingly, people can benefit from ingesting plant-derived proteolytic enzymes.

As a result, proteolytic enzyme supplements may contain both animal- and plant-derived enzymes.

Summary Proteolytic enzymes are specific types of enzymes that play important roles in protein digestion, immune function and other vital processes. Your body produces them, but you can also consume them by eating certain foods or taking supplements.

The three main proteolytic enzymes produced naturally in your digestive system are pepsin, trypsin and chymotrypsin.

Your body produces them to help break down dietary proteins like meat, eggs and fish into smaller fragments called amino acids. These can then be properly absorbed and digested.

Proteolytic enzymes can be found naturally in certain foods and are also available in supplement form.

Food Sources

Two of the best food sources of proteolytic enzymes are papaya and pineapple.

Papayas contain an enzyme called papain, also known as papaya proteinase I. Papain is found in the leaves, roots and fruit of the papaya plant.

Papain is a powerful proteolytic enzyme. In fact, it has been used for thousands of years as a meat tenderizer due to its ability to break down protein (4).

Meanwhile, pineapples contain a powerful proteolytic enzyme called bromelain.

Bromelain is found in the fruit, skin and sweet juice of the pineapple plant and has been used for centuries by the indigenous people of Central and South America as a natural treatment for a number of ailments (5).

You can get papain and bromelain by eating raw papaya and pineapple, respectively. You can also buy these proteolytic enzymes in concentrated supplement form.

Though pineapples and papayas are the most common sources of proteolytic enzymes, other dietary sources include (6, 7, 8):

  • Kiwifruit
  • Ginger
  • Asparagus
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Yogurt
  • Kefir

Proteolytic Enzyme Supplements

Proteolytic enzyme supplements are available in capsules, gel caps, chewables, powders and tablets.

Some supplements contain a single type of proteolytic enzyme, while others contain a combination.

Bromelain, papain, pancreatin, trypsin and chymotrypsin are proteolytic enzymes that are commonly added to proteolytic supplement blends.

Manufacturers obtain proteolytic enzymes from both plant and animal sources.

For example, trypsin and chymotrypsin derived from pigs and cows are some of the most common animal-based proteolytic enzymes added to supplement blends, while papain and bromelain come from fruit.

When purchasing proteolytic enzyme supplements, look for information about potency. Some brands only list the weight of each enzyme in milligrams, which doesn't inform the purchaser about the potency.

Suggested potency levels depend on the enzyme and are still highly debated. However, trustworthy brands will list activity units, and you can compare the activity units for a particular enzyme between brands (9).

Common activity labeling units for proteolytic enzymes include HUT, USP and SAP.

Summary Proteolytic enzyme supplements are available in many forms and can contain both plant- and animal-derived enzymes. Look for brands that list the potency of their enzymes in activity units on the label.

Taking proteolytic enzyme supplements has been linked to a number of health benefits.

May Improve Digestion

One of the most common uses for proteolytic enzymes is to improve the digestion and absorption of dietary protein.

Pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) is often used in the treatment of pancreatic insufficiency, cystic fibrosis, certain types of cancers such as pancreatic, colorectal and stomach cancer, or after gastric or pancreatic surgery (10, 11, 12, 13).

Taking proteolytic enzyme supplements helps those with a deficiency or lack of these enzymes properly break down and digest dietary protein.

Both foods and supplements containing proteolytic enzymes can aid protein digestion.

Several animal studies have shown that kiwifruit extract helps improve the breakdown and digestion of proteins, especially meats, milk, cheese, fish and eggs (14, 15).

Another study found that when people with indigestion took a supplement containing proteolytic enzymes, they experienced a significant improvement in bloating, abdominal pain, belching, heartburn and loss of appetite (16).

May Decrease Inflammation

Several studies have shown that proteolytic enzymes are effective at reducing inflammation and symptoms related to inflammatory conditions.

One study found that injecting the proteolytic enzymes chymotrypsin, trypsin and serratiopeptidase into rats reduced inflammation more than aspirin (17).

Certain types of these enzymes have been demonstrated to be safe and effective treatments for arthritis.

A review of 10 studies found that the proteolytic enzyme bromelain was effective at reducing symptoms of pain, swelling and joint stiffness in people with osteoarthritis (18).

Another study showed that a supplement containing bromelain and trypsin was as effective as traditional anti-inflammatory drugs at reducing osteoarthritis-related pain (19).

Bromelain is also effective at reducing inflammation and relieving symptoms in people with sinusitis, a condition that causes the nasal passages to become inflamed (20).

May Promote Healing and Speed Recovery

Taking proteolytic enzyme supplements may be an effective way to promote wound healing.

For example, animal studies have shown that both papain and bromelain speed wound healing and accelerate new tissue growth when applied directly to the skin (21, 22).

Additionally, proteolytic enzymes have been found to shorten recovery time after surgery.

One study in 24 people who had just undergone dental surgery showed that taking a supplement containing 5 mg of the proteolytic enzyme serrapeptase reduced swelling and pain intensity (23).

Some studies have shown that postoperative treatment with bromelain can help reduce swelling and bruising after cosmetic surgery (24, 25).

May Help Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Several studies have shown that proteolytic enzymes may reduce common symptoms related to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), such as bloating, gas, constipation and abdominal pain.

For example, one study in 126 people with IBS found that a supplement containing papain led to a significant improvement in constipation, bloating and painful bowel movements (26).

Another study that included 90 people with IBS found that a digestive enzyme supplement that included proteolytic enzymes improved symptoms like bloating, gas and abdominal pain (27).

Additionally, bromelain has been shown to reduce inflammation in people with inflammatory bowel diseases, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (28).

May Reduce Muscle Soreness

Delayed onset muscle soreness can occur up to three days after a workout.

Proteolytic enzymes may help reduce muscle soreness and speed muscle recovery after an intense workout.

In one small study in men, a proteolytic enzyme blend containing bromelain and curcumin significantly reduced post-workout muscle tenderness and pain, compared to a placebo (29).

Another study found that people who consumed a supplement containing trypsin, bromelain, papain and chymotrypsin before and after downhill running experienced reduced muscle soreness and quicker muscle recovery than those who took a placebo (30).

Certain Proteolytic Enzymes May Have Cancer-Fighting Properties

Test-tube and animal studies have shown that some proteolytic enzymes may help fight cancer cells.

One test-tube study demonstrated that bromelain inhibited the growth and induced the death of human stomach cancer and colon cancer cells (31).

A similar study found that bromelain extracted from pineapple stems exerted cancer-fighting effects on colon cancer cells. It suggested that both bromelain and bromelain-containing foods like pineapple may help prevent colon cancer (32).

Another recent test-tube study showed that both bromelain and papain stopped growth and caused cell death in human bile duct cancer cells (33).

Though these results are promising, human studies are needed to examine the efficacy and safety of proteolytic enzymes in the treatment of certain cancers.

Summary Proteolytic enzymes may aid the digestions of protein, reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, decrease inflammation, ease muscle soreness and speed recovery after surgery. Early-stage research suggests they may even help fight cancer cells.

You can use proteolytic enzymes in many ways, depending on your goals.

If you want to increase your intake of these impressive enzymes naturally, focus on adding more foods rich in proteolytic enzymes to your diet.

Papaya, pineapple, kiwifruit and fermented foods are all excellent sources.

If you’re taking a proteolytic enzyme supplement, make sure to purchase them from a reputable brand that voluntarily tests their products for potency and quality.

The potency of each enzyme in activity units, not just the weight, should be listed clearly on the label.

There are countless proteolytic enzyme supplements available, each with different enzyme combinations.

Because they may vary widely in composition, refer to the supplement bottle for instructions on dosage and safe usage.

Always consult your doctor before beginning any supplement regimen.

Summary You can get proteolytic enzymes by eating papaya, pineapple, kiwifruit and fermented foods, or you can take a supplement. Be sure to read the fine print before buying supplements, checking for potency, quality, enzyme type and dosage instructions.

Proteolytic enzymes are generally considered safe but can cause side effects in some people.

It’s possible you may experience digestive issues like diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, especially if you take very high doses (34).

Although supplements are more likely to cause side effects, consuming large amounts of fruits high in proteolytic enzymes can also cause digestive upset.

Allergic reactions can also occur. For example, people who have an allergy to pineapple may also be allergic to bromelain, and ingesting it can cause adverse reactions like skin rash (35).

Furthermore, proteolytic enzymes like bromelain and papain may interfere with blood thinning medications like warfarin. Papain can also increase blood concentrations of certain antibiotics (36).

Therefore, it’s important to consult your doctor before taking proteolytic enzymes.

Summary To reap the benefits of proteolytic enzymes, consume more foods rich in them or choose a high-quality supplement. They may cause side effects in some people, including digestive distress, and can react with certain medications.

Proteolytic enzymes have many important functions in the body, including helping break down food for energy, and are found in certain foods and supplements.

Studies suggest that they can improve digestion, decrease inflammation, ease arthritis pain and possibly reduce symptoms related to IBS.

What’s more, preliminary research has suggested they may help fight cancer, though more research is needed.

Including proteolytic enzymes in your diet through whole foods or dietary supplements may benefit your health in several ways.