The Power of Enzymes for Pain, Inflammation and Cancer – Systemic Enzyme Therapy

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM

systemic enzyme therapy and fruitEnzymes are biologically active proteins that act as catalysts to help control and speed up chemical reactions in the body. Without them, these reactions would take too long and would require too much energy to be feasible. Oral enzymes can be used for digestion or in systemic enzyme therapy that acts on the entire body.

There are three main classes of enzymes: digestive, metabolic and food-based. Digestive enzymes help us digest our food. Metabolic enzymes help run our bodies’ functions. Food-based enzymes are those we get from (mainly raw) foods.

In this article, we will cover the benefits of both, but with a focus on how systemic enzyme therapy can help with pain, inflammation and cancer. We will also take a look at how enzymes can help play a role in adrenal fatigue recovery.

The Importance of Enzymes

Enzymes are naturally occurring substances found in all organisms. Without them, animal and plant life would not be possible. These miracle workers are not only essential for aiding with life-sustaining processes – they also play a part in the production of certain kinds of foods such as cheese and bread, and drinks such as beer and wine.

Enzymes are shaped in a way that allow for other molecules to fit inside the hollow areas within their folds. When they bind or hook with other substances, they actually create a new protein. Hundreds of thousands of new chemical combinations can be formed in order to serve every organ, tissue, and cell in your body.

Enzymes operate on both a chemical and biological level, and in that role they are supremely efficient and powerful – sometimes carrying out millions of reactions per second. Researchers are now starting to observe that enzymes also have a protein carrier that contain a vital energy factor.

This vital energy factor, or life force energy, is the energy needed to begin the chemical reaction the enzyme is responsible for. It is not part of the chemical formation of the enzyme, but a factor that the enzyme is carrying.

This is what makes the difference between an enzyme and a synthetic catalyst, which can only carry out chemical actions but does not carry energy factors.

As powerful and efficient as enzymes are, they are also fragile substances that cannot survive beyond certain temperatures or pH levels. Heat kills enzymes. If they are exposed to anything above 118 degrees Fahrenheit, they are no longer active. This is another reason it is important to incorporate raw foods and systemic enzyme therapy into your diet.

The pancreas produces most of your digestive and metabolic enzymes.

Digestion and Digestive Enzymes

Digestion begins as soon as you put a piece of food in your mouth. The action of chewing the food (called mastication) and releasing saliva begins the breakdown process. Amylase enzymes in the saliva work on carbohydrates in the mouth and finish their job in the small intestine.

Once swallowed, the food passes down to the stomach where protein is broken down by the protease enzyme. Afterwards, the food goes through to the small intestine where fats are digested by lipase and where the breakdown of carbohydrates is completed. Once the food has been converted into absorbable micronutrients, these micronutrients then pass through the small intestine’s walls and into the bloodstream.

Systemic enzyme therapy and the digestive trackDigestion also releases the vitamins and minerals contained within the food so that they can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Amylase, protease and lipase are the main digestive enzymes, although there are few more that are also important:

  • Lactase helps with the digestion of lactose (found in dairy). This is especially helpful for people with lactose intolerance.
  • Sucrose helps with the digestion of sugars.
  • Maltase helps with reducing maltose to dextrose.
  • Phytase boosts overall digestion and assists with B-vitamin production.
  • Cellulase helps with the digestion of fiber.

The interesting thing about cellulase is that it isn’t actually produced by the body. It is usually given to people who need help to break down cell walls in order to receive nutrients from vegetables.

So, for example, if you’ve done everything you can to heal your gut and you’re still not getting all the minerals you need, it might be because you’re not breaking down the cell walls properly and need that extra help from a systemic enzyme therapy supplement.

Metabolism and Metabolic Enzymes

Metabolism is the umbrella term used to describe all the chemical processes that take place within the cells to keep you alive. This includes transforming food into energy and building blocks for the body, and also the elimination of waste left over from these metabolic processes.

Metabolism can be categorized into two distinctions: catabolism and anabolism. Catabolism is the breaking down of matter (which releases energy) and anabolism is the building up of matter (which consumes energy).

Enzymes catalyze all of these reactions, but they don’t only speed things up, they are also essential for:

  • The circulatory system
  • The lymphatic system
  • Building phosphorus into bone
  • The elimination organs – such as the lungs, skin, colon, liver and kidneys
  • Coagulation
  • The cardiac system
  • Oxidation and iron-binding in red blood cells
  • The conversion of food into chemical structures, new muscle, bone, nerves and glands
  • The storing of excess food in the liver for future energy needs and building requirements
  • The conversion of protein or carbohydrates into fat, and fat into carbohydrates for energy

And much more…

Taking oral enzymes between meals, for systemic enzyme therapy use, helps your cells carry out these vital metabolic functions.

Enzymes and Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands, part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) hormonal axis, begin to dysregulate in their cortisol production. Cortisol is an anti-stress hormone that has many functions such as regulating blood pressure, reducing inflammation, suppressing the immune system and maintaining the heart and blood vessels.

When your body is exposed to stress, cortisol is secreted to neutralize it, and that is a natural and healthy response. However, when stress becomes chronic, your adrenal glands have to increase their cortisol production to meet this high demand. This rise in cortisol production is indicated in the first stages of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).

If the stress does not abate, the adrenal glands become exhausted and cortisol output drops significantly, leaving the body to deal with stress without its most potent defense mechanism.

reducing fatigue with systemic enzyme therapySome of the symptoms of AFS include tiredness, brain fog, difficulty losing weight, lowered immunity, difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, anxiety, mild depression, heart palpitations, low libido and food sensitivities.

The adrenal glands are not the only organs that respond to stress in the body. The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response is a collection of organs and systems that work together to handle stress globally. It represents the entire body’s stress control apparatus.

The NEM is organized into six circuits, each dealing with stress in its own way. They include the metabolism response, the hormone response, the cardionomic response, the neuroaffective response, the inflammation response, and the detoxification response.

The NEM components can also become dysregulated from chronic stress, and at some point, they begin to weaken and wear out, bringing about other symptoms and health issues.

Many people with adrenal fatigue suffer from digestive difficulties, inflammation, and weight problems. This is why enzyme supplementation may be an avenue to consider.

Take inflammation, for example. It is a huge stressor on the body, as well as a symptom of stress. Inflammation can also trigger or compound the symptoms of adrenal fatigue, such as bloating, anxiety, depression and brain fog.

Enzymes are powerful anti-inflammatory agents, and we will see why in more detail below. However, they can also help mitigate other problems that can arise concomitantly with, or even because of, adrenal fatigue – such as gastrointestinal issues.

Digestive Problems and Adrenal Fatigue

Stress affects the microbiome and can cause dysbiosis – when gut flora gets out of balance. Gut dysbiosis lays the groundwork for a myriad of health problems, including inflammation, dysregulation of metabolism, and even autoimmune reactions. Systemic enzyme therapy can help.

The inflammation portion of the NEM stress response is composed of the brain, immune system, the GI tract and the microbiome. In fact, most inflammatory issues begin in the gut and then spread throughout the rest of the body. When this response is constantly switched on, you will begin to suffer from chronic inflammation.

So it goes without saying that since chronic stress affects the gut and the adrenal glands, their functions are inevitably intertwined as well.

Adrenal fatigue can lead to gastrointestinal issues and vice versa. Gastrointestinal issues such as infections, maldigestion, food toxicity, excess sugar and digestive disorders can also cause (or aggravate) AFS.

In the later stages of AFS, hypersensitivity and irritability of the gut can occur as the body slow down to conserve energy. Constipation and diarrhea as two of the most common symptoms. Because cortisol levels are not sufficient at these stages, the inflammation in the GI tract is left unsuppressed and out of control.

If this continues, malabsorption becomes a problem, which can then deplete the body of nutrients and energy. If these issues are not addressed properly and quickly, GI tract disorders – such as Leaky Gut Syndrome, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, food allergies and liver dysfunction may begin to develop.

As the liver is one of the main detoxification organs, if it is compromised in any way, toxins may begin to build up in the system.

utilizing systemic enzyme therapy for digestive issuesOf course, as these problems arise with digestion, absorption and detoxification, this causes more stress on the body – which then overworks the adrenals even more. This is continuous unless some changes are made to interfere with this cycle.

Digestive enzymes may be useful if you find yourself in this situation. They can relieve some of the symptoms and increase the absorption of much needed nutrients, thus helping you restore some balance to your digestive tract.

Systemic enzyme therapy can also begin to bring down the inflammation in the gut and give your adrenal glands a rest from the heavy burden of having to constantly suppress the immune response.

Digestive Enzyme Supplementation

Due to the decline in the quality of most people’s diets, especially the standard American diet, which is highly processed and low in fresh fruits and vegetables, there is a need to be more aware of enzyme deficiency and its effects. Aging also plays a part in enzyme deficiency.

Symptoms of a deficiency in digestive enzymes include:

  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Acid reflux
  • Indigestion
  • Cramping
  • Flatulence

With a gastrointestinal tract that is not functioning optimally, the immune system begins to suffer, as much of its power comes from the gut. With lowered immunity, you are then more susceptible to disease and a slower recovery time.

This is also aggravated by the fact that the need for more digestive enzyme production can actually take away from metabolic enzyme production, affecting your entire system.

Taking an enzyme formula right before eating can help with the breakdown of food, enhancing the absorption of the needed nutrients. It will also prevent the chances of bloating and fullness after a fatty meal.

Digestive enzymes can also aid with energy conservation as it takes more energy to digest food when you are deficient in digestive enzymes.

The most familiar go-to enzymes when there is a pancreatic deficiency are protease, pancrelipase and pancreatic amylase. They work well as digestive aids in healthy people, not just for those suffering from illnesses.

The use of digestive enzyme supplementation, as a systemic enzyme therapy, should not deter you from improving your diet and getting your enzymes naturally through proper nutrition.

There are several ways to do this, including:

  • Chew your food properly – this helps produce more enzyme-rich saliva
  • Don’t chew gum – chewing gum produces saliva that is not needed and depletes your enzyme resources without a good reason
  • Eat more raw foods – especially enzyme-rich foods such as pineapple, papaya, avocado, kiwi, honey and mangoes
  • Consider switching to unpasteurized milk
  • Add sprouted foods to your diet
  • Eat less
  • Avoid processed foods

This approach is especially useful if you have certain conditions where taking digestive enzyme formulas may interfere with your recovery or when you’ve been overdoing it with the supplements and getting diarrhea.

Proteolytic Enzymes and Systemic Enzyme Therapy

The vast majority of metabolic enzymes are proteolytic enzymes, or proteases. Proteolytic is a term used for hydrolytic enzymes that help with the break down of proteins into their building blocks – amino acids.

Trypsin, as one of proteolytic enzymes, and systemic enzyme therapyProteolytic enzymes include serine pancreatic proteases such as trypsin and chymotrypsin, cysteine proteases (such as bromelain and papain), and other proteases found in fungi.

Enzymes such as trypsin and chymotrypsin, which can be derived from the pancreases of cattle or pigs, have been used in systemic enzyme therapy for over one hundred years. Mostly, they have been used orally for gastrointestinal disorders, locally to remove protein clusters that might become harmful, and as anti-inflammatory or thrombolytic agents.

More specifically, cold-adapted serine proteases from the Atlantic cod have been used for inflammation, wound healing, fungal infections, acne, and other skin issues (such as eczema and psoriasis). They’ve also been used in dental hygiene.

Trypsin and chymotrypsin from mammalian sources have also been put to good use for wound healing and as anti-inflammatories.

Digestive enzyme formulas and systemic enzyme formulas will usually contain many of the same enzymes, such as bromelain and papain. The difference lies in how you take these oral formulas.

With systemic enzyme therapy, you would take the formula on an empty stomach or between meals so that it is absorbed straight into your bloodstream and directed to the cells to serve in their metabolic functions.

A medical mystery that has yet to be solved: If you look at these enzymes on a biochemical level, they are too large to cross the lining of the small intestine to enter the bloodstream, and so taking them orally would seem to be impossible for metabolic or systemic use.

But somehow they do cross, as studies have shown them to be present in the bloodstream after ingestion. How they accomplish this is still being investigated, but one theory suggests that proteolytic enzymes may increase the permeability of the mucosal epithelium, enabling their own passage into the bloodstream.

Whatever the mechanism may be, they have been shown to enhance metabolic functions when taken orally.

Enzymes, Pain and Inflammation

Pain is always a symptom of pathology underneath. Some of the gastrointestinal disorders discussed earlier cause pain in the abdomen. Some autoimmune diseases can be painful, and cancer can also cause pain. Pain of unknown origin is a symptom of chronic inflammation.

Although there are many effective pain medications out there, you may want to consider enzymes as an alternative. They not only relieve pain, but also work on the overall health of your system to boost natural healing.

For example, herpes zoster has been one of the diseases where enzymes can be helpful as part of the recovery plan. It is usually treated with an antiviral medication called Acyclovir. A double-blind test comparing the two modalities in healing herpes zoster showed hardly any differences in pain levels, side effects and even efficacy.

This indicates that therapy with systemic enzymes may be a good, as well as cheaper, alternative to acyclovir. This also holds true for older iterations of Hepatitis C treatment. Though now, thankfully, there are medications that eliminate the virus without many side effects and in less time.

reducing inflammation with systemic enzyme therapyRegarding inflammation, systemic enzyme therapy can help manage and prevent it in a number of ways. Proteolytic enzymes help reduce swelling of the mucous membranes and the thickness of the blood, thereby improving circulation and the supply of oxygen and nutrients. They also take away waste and debris from sites of injury, helping with wound healing and pain relief.

Inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis have been shown to respond well to systemic enzyme therapy with bromelain.

However, it is important to note that handling both inflammatory conditions and adrenal fatigue needs extra care, as some of the supplements that are used can actually worsen the situation. The weaker the body, the more at risk it becomes.

Papain, trypsin and other proteolytic enzymes have also been shown to enhance the immune system. Autoimmune diseases are associated with increased levels of immune complexes – which are formed between immune antibodies and antigens – in the blood. Enzymes help break down, or even prevent, these immune complexes that circulate in the system and inhibit healthy immune function.

Systemic Enzyme Therapy and Cancer

Enzymes have been shown to block cancer cells and inhibit their metastasis.

One of the primary causes of cancer is the accumulation of free radicals – highly reactive and unstable molecules – in the system. One of the best ways to fight free radicals is through the use of antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, E, bioflavonoids, carotenoids and specific minerals.

Antioxidant enzymes can also be useful, and they include superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase.

Superoxide dismutase is an enzyme that contains a reactive form of oxygen that converts the free radical superoxide into hydrogen peroxide, with zinc and manganese acting as cofactors.

Though not as dangerous as superoxide, hydrogen peroxide also generates free radicals.

Catalase, which is deficient in cancer cells, is an enzyme that is vital to the disintegration of hydrogen peroxide by converting it to oxygen and water. Without catalase, hydrogen peroxide builds up to unhealthy levels.

Glutathione peroxidase converts reactive molecules like lipid peroxides into less reactive molecules, helping to clear them from the system.

Systemic enzyme therapy has been studied as a possible alternative cancer therapy for many years. In one study, patients with advanced pancreatic cancer showed much improvement when given proteolytic enzyme therapy.

Systemic enzyme therapy can help boost cytokines, whose actions help in the destruction of cancer cells.

Decreasing inflammation and breaking down fibrin can also aid in cancer treatment. Fibrin can cloak cancer cells and help them go undetected. However, with their breakdown by enzymes, the cancer cells are then exposed to the immune system. Since enzymes can boost the immune system, they increase these cancer fighting abilities as well.

How To Choose Enzyme Supplements

One of the first things to consider is the bioavailability of oral enzyme formulas.

Digestive enzymes and systemic enzyme therapyOne issue that can cause problems for oral enzymes is the acidity of the stomach. Enzymes are sensitive to pH levels, and so the formula needs to have a good enteric coating. It seems that plant-based enzymes can withstand a larger pH range than animal-based enzymes. The broader the pH range the enzyme can handle, the better.

The reason this is important is that you want to get the enzymes all the way to the small intestine while they are still active in order for them to have good systemic therapeutic effect.

Another consideration is the quality of the systemic enzyme therapy formula you take. According to the Food Chemical Codex (FCC), the national standard for the evaluation of enzymes, enzymes should be measured in activity and not just milligrams.
It’s also really important that you get your enzyme supplements from high quality sources that contain a combination of different enzymes.

Types of Enzymes and Enzyme Formulas to Consider

There are thousands of different kinds of enzymes, but there are some that have been tried and tested and that you can count on. Here is a list of some of the most popular:


Bromelain comes from the pineapple fruit and stem. The fact that it is absorbed (unchanged) in animal experiments at a 40 percent rate is significant. Its benefits include having anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-edema and anti-coagulation effects. In some animal studies, bromelain was shown to inhibit the growth of tumors and malignant cells. It also has skin debridement and fibrinolytic activity, and it inhibits platelet aggression.

Though it is possible to get bromelain from fresh pineapple juice, the dosage you need may not be met by the quantities you drink. This is why it is useful to get it in supplement form.


Papain is a proteolytic enzyme that comes from the papaya fruit. Because it helps break down tough protein fiber in food, it is used as a digestive enzyme as well as a meat tenderizer.

This can be very useful if your digestive system is sluggish or if your AFS is affecting your digestion. Although you can get it by eating papaya, again, the benefits are dose-dependent and not many people would eat large quantities of papaya every day. Papaya fruit powder is a good option if you want to make sure you get enough papain, and some blends add bromelain for the extra benefits.


Pepsin is produced in the body and it helps with protein digestion as well as stimulating the liver and gallbladder to secrete bile into the small intestine, which helps with the digestion of fats. Pepsin also helps with the absorption of vitamin B12.

A good option here is the Betaine HCl formula, which not only contains pepsin but also contains betaine and hydrochloric acid. Betaine helps with healthy homocysteine levels, reducing heart disease and bone fracture risks. Hydrochloric acid helps with making vitamins more bioavailable and absorbable.

Pancreatin 10x Enzyme Blend and Ox Bile Extract

Pancreatin 10x enzyme blend is an all-round formula for digestion as it contains all three types of digestive enzymes needed: proteases for protein, lipases for fats and amylases for carbohydrates.

Be sure to choose a formula made from high-quality, naturally occurring enzymes.

Another good digestive aid is ox bile extract as it contains many of the digestive enzymes needed to break down food properly. It can also be useful if you suffer from nausea, diarrhea or upset stomach.

Cautionary Conclusion

Consult your doctor before undergoing any systemic enzyme therapyIf you are considering taking enzymes for a specific condition, such as AFS or for a GI tract disorder, we highly recommend that you consult your doctor first. You need to have a professional make sure you are taking the right kind of supplement, in the right way (digestive or systemic), and with the right dosage.

You also need someone who can track your progress and make adjustments along the way.

Some enzyme supplements that support adrenal fatigue can actually worsen inflammation along the way, while other supplements reduce inflammation. The shotgun approach of trying out many different supplements is strongly advised against as it can really backfire in the long run.

Also, the kind of enzymes that would benefit you really depends on what condition you have and your current state of health, your diet, and your age and gender.

Although the theory that enzymes decrease as we age still holds true, there is some new research that shows that there are nuances. For example, the enzyme amylin does decrease during middle age, but it starts to increase again afterwards. This could be an explanation for aging-related anorexia and the delay in gastric emptying.

Another study showed that men’s enzyme activity has a slight decrease as they age, and women’s lipase enzyme activity drops by a considerable amount.

As you can see, navigating the enzyme-supplement terrain can be a bit tricky, and thinking about doing systemic enzyme therapy without the right guidance can feel overwhelming. It is best to start off on the right foot by getting experts on your side.

Because everybody is different, nutritional coaching could also be a good way to make sure your diet is rich in enzymes while also being suitable for your condition.

© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

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