Can a pineapple a day keep the doctor away? This sweet, summery fruit is more than just a tropical treat. In fact, pineapple naturally harbors a mix of enzymes collectively known as bromelain. For centuries, its extract has been known to treat many different health conditions, including digestive diseases and arthritis pain. Today, we use bromelain as a dietary supplement and alternative remedy to lower inflammation, improve digestion and even fight cancer.
What is Bromelain?
Bromelain is a group of enzymes that break down proteins. These enzymes are called proteases. They are the active ingredient in pineapple juice and extracts that work to tenderize meat in various cuisines. It is present in all parts of the pineapple, including the fruit, juice and stem. You can certainly get some bromelain by eating pineapple, but most of these active enzymes live inside the stem of the plant.
Bromelain has been around since ancient times, commonly used for its medicinal properties. Its main ingredient is called a glycoprotein, which is mixed with organic acids, pigments and other minerals. Bromelain powders, creams or capsules can be used in combination with most other remedies and medications safely.
There’s something in it for everyone. It is not only a common treatment for various conditions, but it can also be an enhancer for athletic performance. Though research is limited, scientists have observed immune-boosting, anti-cancer benefits in bromelain extracts. It is generally good for promoting overall health and well-being.
Bromelain Extract Benefits
Decreased Swelling in Asthma and Allergies
One of the most popular and well-studied powers of bromelain is its ability to relieve symptoms of allergies. Its anti-inflammatory effects have long been used to help improve nasal swelling and airway reactivity, which reduces the symptoms of asthma or hay fever. A study from the University of Connecticut found that asthmatic mice given bromelain supplements had lower numbers of inflammatory cells present in the airways (x). Another pilot study, done in Germany in 2013, found that daily oral supplementation with bromelain improved symptoms in people who had chronic sinusitis (x).
These pineapple enzymes could be helpful for your daily battle against allergies. So if you’re someone who’s got the everyday sniffles or itchy eyes, bromelain could be worth a try! Though we don’t know exactly how it works, we have seen bromelain in action in the lab. One 2012 scientific review performed by Indian researchers reported lab experiments showing interactions with various immune cells such as T cells, macrophages and natural killer cells, promoting anti-inflammatory effects (x).
Decreased Joint Pain in Osteoarthritis
If you have arthritis, relief from a painful joint can change your life. Joint pains aren’t always easy to treat, and they often get worse as we age. Because swelling and inflammation are the driving forces in arthritis, bromelain is a promising candidate to relieve our aches and pains. Its powerful ability to decrease swelling has been shown to provide some relief in mild cases of osteoarthritis.
Though limited evidence exists, some patients in a 2014 study reported decreased pain and better quality of life after four months of daily bromelain supplementation (x). It’s not a total slam dunk, but bromelain benefits can be enjoyed with virtually no side effects, making it a great therapeutic option. Because it has minimal drug interactions, bromelain is an excellent choice if you’re taking any other medications as well. However, you should always check with your doctor first.
If you like to use homeopathic remedies, you can combine this tropical fruit extract with other natural plant remedies. It’s safe to use this supplement with other anti-inflammatory treatments to fight inflammation and relieve arthritis pain. One 2014 study of 42 patients found some improvement in osteoarthritis pain in patients using bromelain with other plant-based supplements such as turmeric or Devil’s Claw (x).
Its power isn’t unlimited, however. An older study published in 2006 found no detectable difference in patients using bromelain if they were suffering from more severe cases of osteoarthritis (x).
Aids Digestion and Decreases Gut Inflammation
When taken by mouth, these proteases stay relatively stable and can help you digest your food. That’s why bromelain is a great candidate to help people with digestive issues. What’s unique about bromelain is that these enzymes don’t break down easily and remain active in a wide range of acidity levels. That means they can make it through the high acidity of our stomach and to the low acidity of our intestines. Proteases help break down proteins, so for people who suffer from enzyme insufficiency, bromelain could be a natural, plant-based enzyme replacement. Examples of patients who may benefit from this include those who have pancreatic insufficiency or people who have pepsin deficiency.
Additionally, those who have Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis could potentially find bromelain healing. That’s because this plant-based extract helps reduce inflammation, the key player in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). A Chinese study done in 2017 found that bromelain can help prevent intestinal inflammation and dysfunction, promoting a healthy intestinal barrier (x).
Improved Muscle Function
If you’re an avid athlete, bromelain could help you push your limits. Intense exercise regularly injures our muscles, and the process of rebuilding that muscle is what gets us stronger. Well, bromelain’s protease activity could enhance that recovery process, and the anti-inflammatory effects are good for healing any injuries as well. Though studies are limited, one 2017 review suggested positive effects of bromelain when used in combination with other therapies to improve muscle function for intense physical activity (x). Another study by Australian and New Zealand researchers found some evidence suggesting that bromelain supplementation was effective for lowering fatigue and improving testosterone levels in cyclists after a race (x).
Bromelain has also been used to help heal strains and sprains after intense exercise. Some athletes use it to try and prevent these aches and pains after a hard workout or competition. Who knew that this tropical fruit could take your athletic performance to the next level? Some also claim that bromelain aids with weight loss too. However, there hasn’t been any research to support these claims.
Other therapeutic uses for Bromelain
Bromelain supplementation has many additional medicinal benefits, including anticancer activity. Australian laboratory scientists in 2013 published results demonstrating direct cancer cell toxicity induced by bromelain, preventing gastric cancer cells from growing and dividing (x). A recent Taiwanese study published in 2019 reported toxicity of bromelain to colon cancer cells as well, causing tumors to self-destruct in a natural process called apoptosis (x). Though we aren’t suggesting that it can cure cancer, bromelain is a powerful supplement that may help prevent and treat cancer. With a long history of using plant-based targets to guide new drug targets, it has caught the attention of the scientific community.
Aside from fighting cancer, bromelain has many other health uses as well. As a topical cream or salve, it can also treat burns and improve wound healing. That’s because the protease enzyme is good at breaking down scabs and debris that prevent healing and could harbor bacteria. When taken with antibiotics, bromelain also speeds up absorption. Because the coagulation of our blood depends on proteins known as clotting factors, bromelain also can affect the clot formation in our circulation. These effects on our circulatory system can be significant for promoting good cardiovascular health.
Bromelain Side Effects
Derived from a tropical fruit we can eat and enjoy, bromelain is considered to be natural and safe. But all supplements, no matter how good for us, can harm us if used either in excess or inappropriately. Bromelain is no exception. Though it’s very uncommon, bromelain can cause mild side effects when used as a dietary supplement. However, most people won’t experience them if they are taking it in low to moderate doses.
Bromelain side effects can involve digestive issues including upset stomach, nausea or diarrhea. Even less commonly, some people notice irregular periods, headaches and increased heart rate. If you’re allergic, bromelain can cause reactions such as hives, severe swelling and difficulty breathing. Generally, this natural vitamin can be ingested safely by most people. Based on one review, our bodies can absorb 12 grams a day without any significant side effects (x).
Though bromelain is generally safe, it’s still important to talk to your doctor before you decide to start taking a new supplement. Bromelain does thin the blood, because its ability to break down proteins slows down blood clotting factors. Because of that, scientists don’t know how this supplement may interact with blood thinners, so if you’re taking a blood thinner, you should avoid taking bromelain.
How to Use Bromelain
Bromelain isn’t an essential nutrient but can provide your body with a lot of health benefits. There are many reasons why bromelain extracts and powders are great for your overall health. However, you can’t reap these benefits by simply eating pineapple, or drinking pineapple juice. The fruit of the pineapple contains the least amount of bromelain, while the majority lives inside the stem. That’s why all commercially available supplements extract it from the pineapple stem. Pineapple stem isn’t delicious anyway, so getting a capsule or tablet rich with bromelain enzymes is a much better way to get your health kick.
Because bromelain is a mixture of active, proteolytic enzymes, we want to pay attention to the measure of enzymatic activity. These strength measurements, usually written in MDU, or GDU, describe the level of enzyme activity in the supplement you are purchasing. MCU is the most commonly used and stands for milk clotting units. You may also see GDU, which stands for gelatin dissolving units, or standardized RU, or Rorer’s units.
Unfortunately, these three measures aren’t equivalent. 1 MCU is equal to 1.5 GDU in measurement, so they don’t translate 1:1. RU’s are more obscure and refers to a standardized therapeutic unit used in the past. The RU measure for bromelain is less common nowadays on product labels.
Lastly, you’ll notice that the capsules or tablets have a weight listed, usually in milligrams. This weight tells you how big each tablet or pill is going to be. Strong bromelain supplements typically exceed at least 2,000 MCU per gram. Most doctors recommend 3,000 MCUs taken 3 times a day for a couple of days to start. Then, you can transition to taking 2,000 MCUs 3 times a day.
The Bottom Line
Who knew that the stem of pineapple could be so valuable? Bromelain as a dietary supplement can provide many wonderful health benefits with minimal side effects. It fights cancer, relieves joint pain, promotes healthy digestion and improves muscle function. This tropical extract is a powerful alternative therapy for various autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Besides a refreshing drink, we enjoy the full benefits of pineapple fruit by supplementing bromelain to enrich our health!