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Papain: Nature's Own Digestive Aid

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Image for papain article The papaya (also called papaw, pawpaw, mamao, or tree melon) is believed to have originated in southern Mexico, Central America, or the West Indies, but is now grown in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. It is a pear-shaped fruit with skin that turns from green to a bright orange-yellow as it ripens. It is also the source of one of nature’s own digestive aids: papain.

What is Papain?

Papain is a milky latex that is collected by making incisions in unripe papayas . It is one of a group of proteolytic enzymes found in papayas, pineapples, and certain other plants. Proteolytic enzymes help you digest the proteins in food.

Where Does Papain Come From?

Papain comes from the papaya, a tropical fruit that is about six inches long and can range from 1-20 pounds in weight, depending on the variety. Inside, the papaya has silky smooth, orange-yellow flesh and a large center cavity full of shiny grayish-black seeds. The flesh is juicy and has a subtle, sweet-tart or musky taste, somewhat like a cantaloupe.

Papaya is now widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries. There are about 45 species of papaya. The most common variety in the United States is the Solo papaya, which is grown in Hawaii and Florida. Mexican papayas are much larger than the Hawaiian types and may be more than 15 inches long.

To extract papain latex from a papaya, the skin of an unripe papaya is cut. After the latex is collected, it is dried either by the sun or in ovens and sold in powdered form.

Pineapple stems are also a rich plant source of proteolytic enzymes.

What is Papain Used for?

The primary use of papain is as a meat tenderizer. It has also been used as a digestive aid for people who have trouble digesting proteins. However, a small double-blind, placebo-controlled trial found no benefit from proteolytic enzymes as a treatment for dyspepsia (indigestion).

There is weak evidence to suggests that papain, taken in combination with other enzymes, might improve the rate of recovery from various types of injuries and reduce the chronic pain and discomfort of conditions, such as neck pain and osteoarthritis . However, the studies that found these benefits all had significant problems, so the results aren't reliable. Proteolytic enzymes have also received mixed results as an aid to recovery from surgery and as a treatment for shingles .

Many practitioners of alternative medicine believe that papain may be helpful for food allergies and autoimmune diseases. However, there is little to no meaningful evidence as yet supporting that papain actually works for these conditions.

Some Precautions to Consider

In clinical studies, papain and other proteolytic enzymes are believed to be quite safe, though they may occasionally cause digestive upset and allergic reactions.

If you are taking warfarin, aspirin, or other drugs that thin the blood, you should not take proteolytic enzymes without first discussing it with your doctor.

  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

    http://nccam.nih.gov

  • National Institutes of Health

    http://www.nih.gov

  • Canadian Interdisciplinary Network for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research

    http://www.incamresearch.ca

  • Homeopathic Medical Council of Canada

    http://hmcc.ca

  • Papaya. University of Florida Extension website. Available at: http://sarasota.extension.ufl.edu//FCS/FlaFoodFare/Papaya.pdf. Accessed May 8, 2014.

  • Papaya: general crop information. Knowledge master. University of Hawaii website. Available at: http://www.extento.hawaii.edu/kbase/crop/crops/I%5Fpapa.htm. Accessed May 8, 2014.

  • Proteolytic enzymes. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated August 22, 2013. Accessed May 8, 2014.