Sliced fresh papaya on wooden background
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Since well before the advent of modern medicine, people used plants and other nature-derived remedies to treat and cure all sorts of maladies and illnesses. Papaya, a fruit grown in the tropical regions of Southeast Asia and the Americas, has long been purported to aid the digestive tract. Supporters assert that papaya enzymes ease the indigestion and heartburn experienced with acid reflux, but evidence proving these claims is lacking.

About Papaya Enzymes

Comprising 10 percent of your daily recommended fiber intake per cup and rich in digestive enzymes, papaya has played the role of a wonder food in folk medicine. It has been used for antibacterial and anti-inflammatory applications, cancer prevention, diabetes and asthma treatment, wound and burn healing, and veterinary deworming on top of its use as a digestive aid. Papain, the key enzyme responsible for papaya’s positive digestive effects, is extracted from the plant’s unripe fruit. Papaya enzymes are commercially available in powder, pill and tablet forms.

How Papaya Enzymes Help

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid leaks back up into the esophagus -- the pipeline between your mouth and stomach. If you suffer from reflux, you may experience heartburn, indigestion and regurgitation. Papaya enzymes help break down food proteins into simpler, easier to digest amino acids, leading to improved digestion and decreased stomach acid production. It is theorized that the digestive enzymes abundant in papain can lead to decreased acid reflux symptoms by lessening the body’s digestive workload.

What the Research Says

A small study investigating the role of papain in digestive disorders, published in the April 2012 issue of “Biogenic Amines,” reports that 42 participants who received papain experienced improvements in gas and bloating compared to 42 who took a placebo. When your stomach is distended from gas and bloating, the acidic stomach contents are more likely to travel upward past the muscular ring that separates the stomach and esophagus -- causing acid reflux. Although this study suggests papaya enzymes can be beneficial in managing acid reflux, larger studies and more extensive research are needed to confirm these findings.

Lifestyle Strategies

While it may seem tempting to try papaya enzymes to help manage your acid reflux, implementing lifestyle changes supported by research is more likely to provide symptom management. According to clinical practice guidelines published in October 2013's "The American Journal of Gastroenterology," the most effective lifestyle strategies include weight loss, sleeping with the head of the bed elevated and refraining from eating two to three hours before lying down. Routine avoidance of foods and beverages commonly thought to aggravate acid reflux -- such as chocolate, caffeinated beverages, alcohol and spicy-foods -- is not recommended due to a lack of evidence that omitting these items improves symptoms. However, these guidelines support an individual dietary approach to managing your acid reflux, including avoidance of foods that are known to worsen your symptoms.

Precautions and Next Steps

Acid reflux is generally managed by medications and lifestyle changes. Severe or frequent acid reflux is considered gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can lead to gastric ulcers and increase the risk of esophageal cancer. If you experience persistent or worsening symptoms, it’s prudent to contact your doctor. If you wish to try papain, speak with your doctor about the safety of taking this supplement -- including any known interactions with drugs. For example, if you are prescribed blood-thinning therapy, papain can increase this drug's effectiveness and increase bleeding risk. Papain should be avoided if you're breast feeding, as its safety has not been established, and also avoided during pregnancy, as it may encourage uterine contractions.

Medical advisor: Jonathan E. Aviv, M.D., FACS