Bromelain: What You Need to Know

Bromelain, which is found in pineapple, is a popular nutritional supplement.
Bromelain, which is found in pineapple, is a popular nutritional supplement.
iStockphoto/Roberto A Sanchez

Pineapple is one of the world's most popular tropical fruits. It originated in South America and had been domesticated by Native Americans in the West Indies centuries before Columbus introduced it to Europe after encountering its tangy sweetness on a voyage to the island of Guadeloupe. Now enjoyed on almost every continent, the pineapple has been increasingly recognized for its medicinal properties. Specifically, a substance called bromelain -- found in its juice and stem -- has become a popular nutritional supplement.

Bromelain contains enzymes with a range of potent effects. One of the most powerful is its ability to reduce inflammation. In 1993, a German government commission approved the use of bromelain to treat swelling and inflammation following surgery, especially sinus surgery [source: Ehrlich]. Some studies have supported its use as a natural remedy for easing the symptoms of arthritis, including pain and joint stiffness [source: Walker et al]. Bromelain has also been reported to have beneficial effects on the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems, and possibly on the immune system. One research study even found that bromelain -- when combined with trypsin -- eased the pain associated with breast engorgement as a result of nursing [source: Wellness Trader].

This 21st century research is supported by pineapple's longstanding use by the indigenous people of the Americas, who used the juice as an anti-inflammatory, diuretic and digestive aid [source: Ehrlich]. They also drank it to ease sore throats, reduce seasickness and induce labor. And according to folk medicine, its fruit was even used to terminate pregnancies by women who ate the flesh of young, toxic pineapple [source: Morton].

Let's explore how bromelain works, and how it's used today.

Bromelain at Work in Your Body

Although pineapples have been part of indigenous America for centuries, the bioactive essence of the plant -- bromelain -- was not isolated in chemical form until the late 19th century. In 1957, bromelain was introduced to the market as a therapeutic supplement [source: Wellness Trader].

Bromelain's potency comes from enzymes, or proteins, that stimulate chemical activity in the body. Bromelain is known as a proteolytic enzyme, which means that it digests proteins (or proteases). Eight different chemicals within bromelain help digest proteins [source: PDI].

While inflammation helps heal the body during injury, too much swelling can lead to health complications and accelerate aging. By breaking down fibrins, bromelain is said to help prevent clotting and improve circulation. Similarly, supplement makers claim this enzymatic activity thins the blood, prevents the buildup of plaque in the arteries, and slows the coagulation (or clumping) of blood platelets. That's why Native Americans used parts of the pineapple plant to dress and treat wounds [source: Wellness Trader].

Bromelain also slows the accumulation of kinins, another byproduct of inflammation, and prostaglandins, hormone-like compounds found throughout the body. Prostaglandins, associated with swelling and clotting at sites of injury, can contribute to the formation of diseases when their presence is excessive. In a five-year study of more than 200 people, bromelain was found to be effective in slowing the growth of inflammatory prostaglandins [source: Endo Resolved].

Read on to find out what else bromelain could do for you.

Bromelain Benefits

In some studies, bromelain has proven to be as effective in reducing swelling as anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac (Voltaren) and Piroxicam (Feldene) [source: Ehrlich]. Patients suffering from osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis have experienced a reduction of pain and joint swelling when taking bromelain [source: Walker et al.]. Bromelain's anti-inflammatory effects may also alleviate pain and improve motor activity in patients with carpal tunnel syndrome [source: Wellness Trader].

Bromelain has been used to treat bronchitis, sinus infections and other respiratory conditions involving inflammation. Because it also can act as a blood thinner, it's been used to treat blood-related diseases like angina and thrombophlebitis, a condition characterized by blood clots causing swelling in the veins, particularly in the legs [source: Medline Plus].

Bromelain helps relieve indigestion and stomach aches by breaking down proteins. It is especially effective when combined with enzymes that digest carbohydrates (such as amylase) and fats (such as lipase) [source: Ehrlich].

Applied topically, bromelain is the source of a commercial product used after burns for removing dead skin cells, a process called debridement [source: Medline Plus]. But when putting anything into your body, you should exercise caution. Read on to find out why.

Bromelain Side Effects

Although bromelain is generally considered safer than many synthetic medications, some side effects have been reported. Among these are nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, diarrhea, increased heart rate, breathing difficulties and profuse menstrual bleeding [source: Medline Plus].

Because bromelain affects blood viscosity and clotting, people who take anticoagulants or blood-thinning medications like aspirin or Coumadin should use extreme caution [source: Ehrlich]. Those taking herbal supplements that affect the blood, such as ginkgo biloba and saw palmetto, must also be careful [source: Medline Plus]. Those with a history of bleeding disorders, peptic ulcers, high blood pressure or a history of liver or kidney disease should consult a doctor before taking it [source: American Cancer Society].

Some studies suggest that bromelain may heighten the effect of sedatives like barbiturates, muscle relaxants like Valium and Xanax, anticonvulsants like Dilantin, sleep medications like Ambien, certain antidepressants and alcohol [source: Ehrlich].One study found that bromelain increased the body's uptake of amoxicillin. Therefore it is not advised to take it while on antibiotics.

Anyone who is allergic to pineapples should also avoid bromelain, as well as those with allergies to wheat, rye, carrots, celery, bee venom, papaya and certain pollens that the supplement may trigger [source: Ehrlich].

Like any medication, you should consult your doctor before taking bromelain to make sure it's safe and to find out what dosage is appropriate. Doses vary considerably depending on the nature and severity of your condition. It's generally not advised to take bromelain longer than eight to 10 consecutive days and it has not been recommended for use by children, pregnant women or nursing mothers [source: Ehrlich]. But it is recommended for certain men. Read on to find out whom.

Bromelain and Peyronie's Disease

Peyronie's Disease, named after the French surgeon who first identified it in the 18th century, is characterized by a severe curvature of the erect penis caused by plaque or a hard lump that forms on the appendage. Peyronie's disease affects more than 1 percent of adult men between the ages of 45 and 60. And in severe cases, the condition causes great pain during erection, making sexual activity impossible. There is no known cure, but treatment options include three types of surgery. However, none of the surgical options has proven to be consistently successful and can increase the risk of impotence or further deformation of the penis [source: Sex Health in Plain English].

The cause of Peyronie's Disease is unknown, but the reason it tends to occur in older men is because as we age, the number of enzymes in our body begins to deplete. That's why we tend to lose our hearing, eyesight and memory as we get older. It's also why some men can experience a buildup of scar tissue in their penises, leading to Peyronie's Disease. There simply aren't enough enzymes to breakdown all the plaque and foreign substances that circulate in the blood stream PDI].

The key to bromelain's potential as a natural remedy for Peyronie's Disease is its affect on collagen -- the primary material in scar tissue. Of all the protein-digesting enzymes, bromelain is most effective at stimulating collagenase, the enzyme that breaks down collagen by dissolving the peptide bonds that hold their proteins together. Taking bromelain may slow or reverse the tissue buildup that causes Peyronie's -- one more reason never to underestimate the power of pineapple [source: PDI].

For more on bromelain and related topics, see the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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