Papaya is known for its exceptional nutritional content. The vitamins and minerals in papaya contribute to overall health, but the primary therapeutic benefit is derived from an important enzyme. Used as a medicinal herb since the 1750s, it took 100 years for the source of papaya's power to be recognized as an enzyme called papain. Since then, papain has been widely studied for medicinal and pharmaceutical uses, including wound healing, aiding in digestive problems, treating ulcers, minimizing food allergies and reducing swelling and fever after surgery.
The papaya grows wherever there is a tropical environment. The short-lived, fast-growing tree has a straight, cylindrical, hollow trunk that is green or deep purple. There are two types of papayas, Mexican and Hawaiian. Papayas from Hawaii are commonly found in supermarkets, weighing about one pound and characterized by their pear-shape and yellow skin with bright orange flesh. Mexican papayas are larger and may weigh up to 10 pounds. The flesh is yellow, orange or pink with a less intense flavor.
The papaya is a powerhouse of nutrition. It is especially rich in Vitamin C, delivering 188 mg per fruit weighing 304 g. Vitamin C is necessary for maintenance of the immune system and cellular production and repair. Other nutrients contained in papaya are vitamins A, E and B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folate, B-6 and B-12. In addition to being high in dietary fiber, papayas contain the minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorus and selenium. With 781 mg of potassium and 73 mg of calcium per fruit, papayas are good for skeletal health.
A diet including enzyme-rich papaya will provide many benefits from papain. Containing 212 amino acids, papain has protein-digesting properties in both the stomach and intestines. Papain acts as an anti-inflammatory and has a mild soothing effect on the stomach. With its superior effect on digestion, papain is often included in prescription combinations to replenish digestive enzymes diminished from diseases such as cystic fibrosis or pancreas conditions. Papain also is administered to assist protein digestion in chronic dyspepsia, gastric fermentation and gastritis, according to The Vitamins & Health Supplements Guide website.
Papain not only breaks down protein to facilitate the absorption of nutrients, its anti-inflammatory effects may have a possible effect on ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and heartburn. Due to papain's enzyme properties, food digests faster so there is less chance of acid reflux. Papain in papaya also helps the digestive system function while stomach acid neutralizes. Eating a small amount of papaya when acid reflux symptoms appear may relieve discomfort and heartburn, says Zimbio.com.
Other Health Benefits
Papain extract is used in hospitals to promote wound healing and reduce swelling and bruising. Consuming the enzyme in papaya may help to soften the texture of your skin by dissolving fats and clean dead cells and tissues from the body. With its anti-inflammatory effects, papain may be helpful in healing burns and cold sores. Because papain helps to reduce swelling and thin mucous, papaya may alleviate symptoms of colds and flu by reducing the pain of sinus and sore throat, according to For a Healthy Future.com. In addition, papaya helps to boost the immune system.
Eating raw or unripe papaya may cause disorders and sores in the mouth, esophagus or stomach. Papain can trigger allergic reactions, especially in people allergic to latex, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Symptoms may include irritation of skin in the form of hives and itching, or mucous membrane inflammation, including swelling of the lips, tongue and throat. In addition, papain may decrease blood clotting ability and should be avoided when taking blood thinning medications, according to Zimbio.com.