What Do Protease Enzymes Do?

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Slices of pineapple on a cutting board (Image: utah778/iStock/Getty Images)

Protease enzymes have one primary mission -- they break apart proteins. While they have other important jobs to fill throughout your body, proteases are best known for their role in digestion. You can take them to assist protein digestion, and they're prescribed to treat deficiencies, but more research is needed to verify their effectiveness for other health concerns such as pain and inflammation, according to NYU Langone Medical Center.

Protease Overview

Proteases are just as vital as proteins for your metabolism, energy and health. In addition to digesting dietary protein, they participate in blood clotting and wound healing, to name just two jobs they fill. Their extensive influence in your body is highlighted by the fact that more than 4,400 proteolytic enzymes are known to exist, according to the MEROPS Peptidase Database. Since they break down proteins, they can actually damage essential proteins in the cells that produce them. For this reason, they're inactive when made, then substances stand ready to activate them and control how they function in your body.

Protein Digestion

Proteins contain as many as 2,000 amino acids, attached together and twisted or folded into complex shapes. Since your body can only absorb single amino acids, digestive proteases must break down the proteins you consume. The process begins in your stomach with a protease called pepsin, which is different from other enzymes because it's activated by the stomach’s hydrochloric acid. Protein digestion continues in your small intestine, where proteases produced by your pancreas, such as trypsin and chymotrypsin, continue cleaving the amino acids. Several different proteases in the lining of your small intestine finish breaking proteins down into single amino acids before they’re absorbed into your bloodstream.

Proteolytic Enzyme Supplements

Supplements often contain digestive enzymes to help break down carbohydrates and fats, as well as proteins. You can also buy specific protease supplements. Two natural proteolytic enzymes -- bromelain and papain -- come from pineapples and papayas, respectively. Supplement labels should indicate the enzyme’s potency by reporting activity units. The activity units for proteolytic enzymes are reported as HUT or PU, which stand for hemoglobin unit on a tyrosine basis and papain unit. A standard dosage has not been determined to date because the amount you need varies according to the type of protease, its potency and your health status.

Safety Concerns

Even though proteolytic enzymes are generally safe for most people, they can cause an upset stomach and diarrhea. If you’re allergic to wheat, celery, pineapple, carrots, fennel or grass pollen, you may also have an allergic reaction to bromelain, according to MedlinePlus. Do not take bromelain without consulting your physician if you need surgery or take prescription medications. It can interact with some medications and may increase the risk of bleeding during and after surgery. Its safety for a developing baby has not been established, so pregnant women should avoid taking bromelain.

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