By Dr. Mercola
Enzymes are most known for their importance in digestion, but they’re actually necessary for all physiological processes.1 Enzymes, which are composed of amino acids, are secreted by your body to catalyze biological functions that otherwise would not occur at physiological temperatures, so they’re absolutely vital for optimal health and life.
How Enzymes Work
More than 3,000 different enzymes have been identified, and some experts believe there may be between 50,000 and 70,000 altogether. Each enzyme has a different function; they can be likened to specialized keys cut to fit individual locks. In this analogy, the locks are biochemical reactions. Here are just some of the activities in your body requiring enzymes:
|Energy production||Removal of toxic waste|
|Absorption of oxygen||Dissolving blood clots|
|Fighting infections and healing wounds||Breaking down fats in your blood, regulating cholesterol and triglyceride levels|
|Reducing inflammation||Hormone regulation|
|Getting nutrients into your cells||Building raw materials and slowing the aging process|
While catalyzing biochemical reactions, enzymes are not actually “used up” in the reaction. They merely assist and accelerate reactions, sometimes at a mind-boggling several million reactions per second. By lowering the amount of energy needed for a reaction to occur, they allow for reactions that otherwise would not be possible, or would be too slow to keep up with your body’s demands.
The Importance of Proteolytic Enzymes
Your stomach and pancreas create enzymes known as proteases or proteolytic enzymes,2,3 which break down dietary protein and protein-based foreign bodies. In your gut, they function as digestive aids; in your blood they act as blood cleansers that combat inflammation and rebalance your immune system by:4
1. Breaking down foreign proteins in your blood that cause inflammation
2. Facilitating the removal of inflammatory proteins via your blood stream and lymphatic system
3. Removing fibrin that prolongs inflammation. Fibrin is a clotting material that restricts blood flow, found both in your blood stream and connective tissue such as your muscles. Cancer cells also hide under a cloak of fibrin to escape detection. Once the cancer cells are “uncloaked,” they can be spotted and attacked by your immune system. It is also thought that fibrin makes cancer cells clump together, which increases the chance for metastases.
Fibrin accumulation is also responsible for scar tissue in damaged muscle or at a surgical site. If the buildup is excessive, which can easily occur if your blood flow is poor due to low enzymatic activity, then the scar tissue may lead to chronic problems.
Excess fibrin is even involved in high blood pressure. When fibrin in your blood starts to restrict blood flow to crucial areas, your body compensates by increasing your blood pressure to push the blood where it needs to go. Excess fibrin in your blood also raises your risk for a heart attack and/or stroke. Symptoms of excess fibrin include: chronic fatigue, poor healing ability, inflammation, pain and high blood pressure
4. Reducing edema in inflamed region
5. Significantly increasing the potency of macrophages and killer cells
Digestive Versus Systemic Enzymes
It follows, then, that any disease caused by inflammation and/or poor immune function — which is practically every chronic disease we face today, including cancer — can benefit from increased levels of functional enzymes in your blood. Indeed, proteolytic enzymes have been studied for a number of different conditions, and may be useful against:5,6,7,8
|Cancer||Shingles (herpes zoster)|
|Digestive problems||Inflammation and/or pain caused by sports injuries or trauma|
|Fibrocystic breast disease||Pancreatic insufficiency|
|Food allergies||Multiple sclerosis|
|Atherosclerosis (arterial hardening)||Rheumatoid arthritis|
|Hepatitis C||Sinusitis, asthma, bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease|
|Back pain||Chronic fatigue|
|Fibromyalgia||High blood pressure|
|Spinal stenosis||Sprains and strains|
|Postoperative scar tissue||Uterine fibroids|
|Bacterial, viral, mold and fungal infections||Heart attack and stroke|
While your body does produce them, there are instances where a proteolytic enzyme supplement can be quite helpful. However, you have to make sure you’re taking it properly to achieve the intended effect.
- When taken with a meal, the enzymes will work as digestive aids, speeding up the breakdown of dietary proteins
- When taken on an empty stomach, they pass through your digestive system and enter your blood circulation. So, for systemic effects, they must be taken between meals or else they won’t have a metabolic, systemic effect.
Proteolytic Enzymes May Be Helpful Against Viral Illness
Interestingly, many viral genomes contain serine proteases, one of six classes of proteolytic enzymes produced in your body, and the enzyme’s ability to break down the serine amino acid bonds in any given virus therefore also helps your body protect itself from a viral invasion. Proteolytic enzymes can also kill harmful bacteria, yeast and fungi. As explained in a report by nutraceutical researcher Jon Barron, director of the Baseline Health Foundation:9
“Just about everything that makes us sick is either a protein or is protected by a protein and is therefore subject to control by proteolytic enzymes. For example:
- Your DNA stores the code for all of your body’s proteins and enzymes. In essence, your DNA is a protein manufacturing plant. Genetic diseases are the result of your DNA no longer producing those proteins and enzymes accurately or doing it insufficiently or excessively
- Bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and fungi are all protected by proteins. Attacking those proteins is key to destroying the invaders
- Food allergens are almost all proteins
- Cancer cells are protected by proteins
Proteolytic enzymes have the ability to digest and destroy the protein based defense shield of each and every pathogen, allergen and rogue cell, thereby leading to their ultimate elimination. In addition, established cancers reprogram the production of enzymes in the body to both accelerate their own growth and protect themselves from the immune system. Supplemental proteolytic enzymes have the ability to alter that dynamic.”
How Systemic Enzymes Help Prevent Heart Disease
French researchers have also proposed that bacteria may play a significant, and possibly causative, role in coronary artery disease, and that proteolytic enzymes may help ward off heart attacks not only by lowering inflammation and breaking down fibrin, but also by killing harmful bacteria. This theory is highlighted in an article about systemic enzymes by Michael Sellar.10
Heart attacks and strokes are known to be related to inflammation, which is why C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker) can be predictive of cardiac events. Interestingly, the researchers discovered high levels of bacteria in their patients’ arterial plaques, suggesting this is why C-reactive protein becomes elevated.
C-reactive protein functions to stop the spread of bacteria in your body, and since enzymes inhibit platelet aggregation, help your immune system combat pathogens, and break down fibrin (which causes blood clots), proteolytic enzymes may offer significant benefits for vascular diseases like thrombosis, phlebitis and varicose veins. Sellar quotes enzyme researcher Rudolph Kunze:
“Although enzymes reduce inflammation and we used to think that was all they did, we now believe that the central target of systemic enzymes is the immune system. It is my belief that heart disease is an immune disease very much, although obviously not totally, related to bacterial pathogens and other invaders.”
Types and Sources of Proteolytic Enzymes
The three primary proteolytic enzymes produced in your digestive system are pepsin, trypsin and chymotrypsin. Supplements that provide these particular enzymes are typically derived from cows or pigs. Other valuable proteolytic enzymes are found in fruits; papaya and pineapple being two of the best sources. Papayas contain the proteolytic enzyme papain, which has historically been used as a meat tenderizer, while pineapples contain the proteolytic enzyme bromelain, known for its ability to inhibit inflammation.
Its anti-inflammatory properties are in large part due to its ability to inhibit the migration of neutrophils (immune cells). Other foods containing proteolytic enzymes include kiwis, ginger, asparagus, sauerkraut, kimchi, naturally fermented (unpasteurized) yogurt and kefir. Regularly eating these foods will provide you with these important enzymes — and if you make sure to eat them between meals, on an empty stomach, they’ll provide the systemic benefits discussed earlier.
A supplement, on the other hand, will provide these and other proteolytic enzymes in a more concentrated form, and may be beneficial if you’re struggling with chronic pain or disease, and/or if you eat primarily processed foods, which are largely devoid of enzymes. When considering a supplemental proteolytic enzyme formula, look for the following specifications, and remember to take them away from meals:11
- The more protease it contains, the better. Barron recommends looking for a formula with at least 200,000 HUT (hemoglobin units, tyrosine basis)
- Plant-derived enzymes tolerate stomach acid far better than animal-derived ones, so look for a vegetarian formula
- To maximize systemic benefits, look for a formula that contains a variety of different enzymes
- Certain nonenzymatic ingredients, such as papain, bromelain, rutin and/or ginger, can help boost the efficacy of the enzymes
While proteolytic enzymes are well-tolerated and safe for long-term use in most people, there are exceptions. If any of the following scenarios apply to you, you should not take proteolytic enzymes:12
|You’re on prescription blood thinners such as Coumadin, Heparin or Plavix|
|You’re having surgery within two weeks (as they can increase surgical bleeding)|
|You have a stomach ulcer|
|You’re pregnant or lactating|
|You’re currently taking antibiotics|
|You’ve had an allergic reaction to pineapple or papaya|
If you’re currently taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug for pain and want to add a systemic enzyme, be sure to take them at least one hour apart from each other. Systemic enzymes are in many ways preferable to painkillers since they effectively lower inflammation and support your body’s innate ability to heal itself, while pain medication simply masks the symptoms while raising your risk for addiction and death.
Systemic Proteolytic Enzymes May Be a Useful Aid Against Chronic Disease
Hopefully you can now appreciate just how important proteolytic enzymes are to your overall health, right down to the cellular level. Again, the many health benefits of systemic proteolytic enzymes stem from their ability to break down rogue proteins in your blood and soft tissues, thereby controlling inflammation throughout your body, repairing your cardiovascular system, optimizing blood flow, supporting your immune system and overall improving your body’s ability to recuperate and heal.
One of the easiest ways to get more enzymes into your body is to eat plenty of fresh, ideally organic foods, especially fresh fruit and fermented foods, including fermented vegetables, raw egg yolks and traditionally cultured dairy products such as yogurt and kefir. Raw apple cider vinegar is another healthy source of beneficial enzymes.