Food as Medicine

The Healing Power of Papaya

This tropical fruit's healing properties are a beautiful expression of nature's wisdom
BY Emma Suttie TIMEFebruary 11, 2022 PRINT

When my children were little, we lived in the mountains of Costa Rica. Papayas, mangoes, and bananas grew in the wild, and we could walk outside and eat them off the nearest tree. The people there used local plants to remedy common conditions and were always happy to share their knowledge with a new mother hungry for their wisdom.

Learning about Chinese herbs and the healing power of food in school was one thing, but putting it into practice in one of the most biodiverse places on Earth was quite another. It was a dream come true. I went for many walks with a local medicine man who showed me the healing properties of every plant, tree, fruit, and berry. I discovered that Costa Rica is a place where people have a deep reverence for nature; they cherish and nurture it. In return, it feeds and supports them. Nature isn’t something people “visit” on the weekends; it’s intrinsic to their life. And having an intimate knowledge of the natural world around you isn’t just healthy; it can be a matter of life and death.

Knowledge Is Power

Dengue fever is common in Central America and occurs mainly at lower altitudes (below 7,500 feet) throughout the rainy season, which spans from May to November. Dengue is a disease caused by a virus transmitted via the female mosquito. Because Costa Rica has so much water and an almost biblical rainy season, diseases transmitted via mosquitos are common. Dengue can be asymptomatic, but it also presents with flu-like symptoms, such as a sudden high fever; pain behind the eyes; muscle, joint, and bone pain; severe headaches; and rashes with red spots.

There’s a dangerous and terrifying Dengue hemorrhagic fever that I remember learning about in school. You don’t want to get that one. It’s symptoms include severe abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, a high fever, and uncontrolled bleeding. It can be excruciating and fatal.

But, there’s a remedy for Dengue fever: papaya—the ubiquitous tropical fruit. Leaves from the papaya plant are made into a tea to treat Dengue fever. Studies show that papaya leaf extract increases platelet levels and white blood cell count while reducing fever duration and incidences of progression into the hemorrhagic variety, making papaya leaves an excellent treatment for viral pathogens.

Those findings are included in a BMJ discussion of Dengue fever.

“A large amount of biomedical research has been done on this subject, including three [randomized] control clinical trials,” the BMJ article reads.

When you are more than an hour away from the closest clinic, these things matter. Knowing what plants do can lessen the severity and duration of an illness and, in some cases, save your life.

Of course, you might not have fresh papaya growing on nearby trees, and you might not have any concerns about Dengue fever, either. But having a papaya around might still come in handy.

Papaya is famous for its wound-healing capabilities, another bit of wisdom that’s important when living remotely, and infections can be dangerous. Papaya skin can be applied directly to wounds to help them heal more quickly. Papayas are rich in vitamin A—a fat-soluble vitamin essential for healthy skin, mucus membranes, and vision. Papayas are also abundant in vitamin C, containing one and a half times the recommended daily amount per serving, allowing them to fight infections and serve as a powerful antioxidant, accelerating the healing process.

Papaya in Chinese Medicine

In Chinese medicine, foods and herbs have a thermal temperature, which affects the body once ingested. Papaya is considered neutral, and its flavors are both sweet and sour. Sour foods are considered slightly astringing, while sweet ones generally strengthen the body.

Papaya has powerful healing abilities and, in Chinese medicine, benefits the lungs, spleen, and stomach in particular. In Eastern medicine, papaya is used as a general tonic to improve digestion and stimulate the appetite.

During my years in Costa Rica, I had high-energy babies to feed, and one of my staple baby foods was fresh mashed papaya. In Eastern philosophy, papayas benefit digestion, which is often sensitive in babies because they’re still developing. Both parent and child appreciate anything that can calm an upset stomach or stave off a bout of diarrhea or constipation. Papayas also boost the immune system, which is helpful when you have two babies running around in remote mountain jungles. Papayas’ ability to increase milk production for lactating mothers meant that I ate my share of them as well. They’re an incredibly versatile fruit.

Here’s a list of papayas healing properties in Chinese medicine: heals skin lesions, lubricates the lungs, cleans the intestines, supports the eyes, benefits the skin, treats cough, aids digestion, kills intestinal wormsstrengthen the bones, boosts the immune system, and increases milk production in lactating women.

Papaya skin is applied topically in wound healing, and its seeds are used to expel parasites. Papayas are spicy enough to substitute for black pepper, and its bark and stems make rope.

Papayas are famous for the digestive enzyme papain, which breaks down proteins and helps promote a robust digestive system. This digestive enzyme also helps calm inflammatory conditions, such as asthma and arthritis, and cleans the intestines. Papain also breaks down deposits on the teeth, clears mucus from the body, and is a potent anti-parasitic.

Papain is so powerful at breaking down proteins that it’s extracted and sold to tenderize meat.

Papaya moistens the lungs, alleviates coughing, and remedies asthma. In Chinese medicine, the lungs and skin share a connection, so it’s interesting that papaya is beneficial for many skin conditions and moisturizes and beautifies the entire body’s skin.

Papaya also contains carpaine, a compound known for its anti-tumor properties. Tumors in Chinese medicine are considered abnormal accumulations caused by an excess of dampness in the body. Papaya is known for “draining damp” and treats many diseases resulting from excess internal moisture, such as candida overgrowth, parasites, growths, tumors, cysts, and obesity. Living in hot, damp climates makes one more susceptible to these conditions.

I learned that the locals did parasite cleanses about twice per year when I lived in Central America. In that part of the world, parasites are a normal part of life. A saying goes, “If you have a pulse, you have parasites.” In these types of climates, because of the heat and moisture, parasites thrive, and doing regular cleanses keeps your immune system strong and fends off foreign invaders. The digestive enzyme papain found in papayas is a powerful vermicide capable of killing most intestinal worms, including tapeworms. Papaya seeds are also an extremely effective treatment for cleansing the body of parasites.

The versatility of papaya still astounds me. It’s so beautifully poetic that the conditions that flourish in hot damp climates can be treated and cured by something that grows there. That isn’t an accident: It’s the beauty of nature and its infinite wisdom. The local people’s deep knowledge about the healing gifts the environment provides was humbling and a blessing to experience. My time spent in Costa Rica was a powerful lesson that people were practicing all of the learning I had done from books and many years of practice.


Emma Suttie
D.Ac, AP
Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living—a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.
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