Proteolytic Enzymes and Inflammation
by Lane Lenard, Ph.D., Ward Dean, MD, and Jim English
Enzymes are the unsung heroes of the body; without them, life would be impossible. It has been estimated that the human body contains at least 50,000 different enzymes that orchestrate the countless biochemical reactions that control all life functions. Enzymes also play an essential role in inflammation and other functions of the immune system. Inflammation is one of the body’s most important mechanisms for protecting itself against danger. If you’ve ever had an insect bite, a sprained ankle, a sore throat, or a bad sunburn, you know what inflammation is. Inflammation is the body’s way of imposing a measured, temporary discomfort in the interest of long-term health. The five cardinal symptoms of inflammation are:
- Restriction of Movement
These signs indicate that the body is bringing in more blood and immune resources, like white blood cells and macrophages, to remove microorganisms and other foreign matter. Redness is a sign that vasodilation is allowing more blood and other fluids to reach the affected area; local heat reflects the increased flow of warm blood from deep within the body; swelling (edema) is caused by the local accumulation of fluids; pain and restricted mobility arise from the added pressure due to the swelling.
Essential Regulators of Inflammatory Response
Proteolytic enzymes, such as bromelain, papain, pancreatin, trypsin, chymotrypsin, and rutin, are essential regulators and modulators of the inflammatory response. Among their important actions is a seven- to tenfold increase in the “appetite” of macrophages and in the potency of natural killer (NK) cells. Proteolytic (protein-destroying) enzymes also degrade pathogenic complexes that can inhibit normal immune function. These immune complexes, which consist of an antigen bound to an antibody, are a normal part of the immune response. But when immune complexes occur in excess, they are a principal cause of certain kidney diseases, nerve inflammations, and a number of rheumatologic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. Evidence suggests that trypsin, papain, and other proteolytic enzymes can break up existing pathogenic immune complexes and even prevent their formation in the first place, enhancing lymphatic drainage. The bottom line of these actions is a regulatory or stimulatory effect on the immune system.
Proteolytic enzymes modulate the inflammatory process by a variety of mechanisms, including reducing the swelling of mucous membranes, decreasing capillary permeability, and dissolving blood clot-forming fibrin deposits and microthrombi. By reducing the viscosity (thickness) of the blood, enzymes improve circulation. This consequently increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients to and the transport of harmful waste products away from traumatized tissue. Proteolytic enzymes also help break down plasma proteins and cellular debris at the site of an injury into smaller fragments. This greatly facilitates their passage through the lymphatic system, resulting in more rapid resolution of swelling, with the consequent relief of pain and discomfort.
Proteolytic Enzymes vs. Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
Italian researchers have shown that the ability of proteolytic enzymes to reduce inflammation is equal to or superior to four powerful steroidal and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: Phenylbutazone, Hydrocortisone, Indomethacin, and Acetylsalicylic Acid. Although individual proteolytic enzymes are useful, the extraordinary combination of these enzymes yields a combination greater than its sum. Systemic multi-enzyme therapy has proved helpful in cases of arthritis and related diseases, offering a wide range of benefits relative to anti-inflammatory, vasculoprotective, and immuno-modulatory effects.