You might be surprised to know there are many health-related reasons why Jell-O remains a popular hospital food for sick people. It is easy to digest, particularly for those who need to be on clear diets, and is frequently a first food after surgery for that reason. The packaging makes it shelf-stable, making it easy to store and keep on hand.
But, the reason for its continued use goes deeper than that. Jell-O contains a substance called gelatin that has surprising health benefits, particularly when you’re sick. Of course, the multi-colored Jell-O is NOT the best way to consume gelatin since it contains tons of sugar (or yucky sugar substitutes), food coloring and dyes. But, that doesn’t change the fact that the gelatin itself has incredible immune-boosting nutrients. So, let’s take a deeper look at why you should consider eating gelatin when you’re sick, and which types ARE the best.
What is Gelatin?
Gelatin is a type of protein made from boiling animal bones, tendons, and skin to extract the collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein source in animal foods with plenty of its own health benefits. But, after heating and extracting the collagen, what is left is a colorless, flavorless substance called gelatin. Once it cools, it solidifies into the jelly-like substance we’re familiar with in foods like Jell-O. Some of the health benefits from gelatin come from its gelatinous texture, which helps strengthen cartilage and connective tissues (1).
Although it may not seem super appealing to eat the skin and bones of animals, the process of boiling these parts extracts some pretty amazing nutrients. Gelatin is about 98-99% protein by weight. It is full of essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein (2). Some of the main amino acids in gelatin include: proline, glycine, hydroxyproline, glutamic acid, alanine, arginine, lysine, and aspartic acid (3). Even with all these amino acids, gelatin is not considered a complete protein because it’s missing the amino acid tryptophan. Other than amino acids, gelatin is a good source of minerals, such as copper, selenium, and phosphorous. The amino acids and nutrients are what make gelatin a great food to eat when you are sick.
Gelatin Health Benefits
1.Provides Essential Protein
When fighting any infection, eating enough protein is essential. All of your immune cells are made up of protein, so your body needs adequate amounts to make the immune cells needed to fight off infections. Protein deficiency can also lead to a poorly functioning immune system, increasing your risk of getting sick (4, 5). Since gelatin is easy on the stomach, it can be used as a source of protein when you don’t feel like eating much or when you have the stomach flu. That way you can get the nutrition your body needs, even when you can’t tolerate eating.
2. Helps Repair and Prevent Leaky Gut
Leaky gut syndrome, also referred to as intestinal permeability, is damage of the lining of the gut walls. Leaky gut causes little holes to open up in the digestive wall, allowing undigested food and pathogens, like viruses and bacteria, to enter the blood stream. When these substances enter unchecked, they cause a variety of problems, from digestive issues to infection, and even autoimmune disease (6).
Gelatin contains an amino acid called glutamic acid, a precursor to glutamine, needed to rebuild the lining of the digestive tract. Glutamine aids in healing leaky gut, fortifies the digestive lining, and prevents the gut from getting damaged again (7). Healing leaky gut not only helps you feel better if you are suffering from any of its side effects, but also helps prevent any infections or illnesses in the future. A healthy gut = a healthy body.
3. Improves Digestion
Gelatin keeps the digestive tract healthy in other ways. Glycine, one of the amino acids in gelatin, improves the balance of digestive enzymes and boosts stomach acid production. This helps reduce common digestive symptoms like acid reflux, indigestion, and bloating. Making sure there is enough acid in the stomach also helps reduce the risk of infections from viruses and bacteria. The acid is there to kill off any viruses or bacteria before they become a problem for your health.
Additionally, gelatin helps absorb water in the digestive tract, helping keep the contents inside the GI tract more fluid. This means digested food and waste move along the gut easier, ridding the body of toxins. The smooth movement of food also helps improve absorption of essential fats, vitamins, and minerals (8). The bottom line: gelatin helps maintain a smooth-moving digestive tract.
4. A Natural Detoxifier
When you are not feeling well, you want to be sure your body can naturally get rid of, or detoxify, whatever is making you sick. One of the amino acids in gelatin, called glycine, is needed for the production of a compound called glutathione. Glutathione is critical for helping the body naturally detoxify heavy metals, chemicals, and other toxic substances (9). Without glutathione, these toxins would be allowed to wreak havoc system-wide, increasing production of damaging compounds like free radicals and reactive oxygen species. When you’re sick, keeping these damaging substances at bay is important because your body is already fighting hard to heal.
Additionally, if left unchecked, these compounds can cause more serious long-term diseases like cancer and heart disease. The addition of gelatin, with its powerful composition of amino acids, can help fight both short and long-term damage from toxins, free radicals, and reactive oxygen species.
5. Helps Support Healthy Sleep
When you are sick, the most important thing you can do to get better is to get good, quality sleep. Sleeping helps the body heal and fights infection. Glycine, one of the amino acids in gelatin, has been shown to improve sleep. One study found that subjects taking 3 grams of glycine before bed reported improved sleep quality, less daytime sleepiness, and improved mental function. About a tablespoon of gelatin provides the 3 grams of glycine to improve sleep (10). The best part about using gelatin as a sleep aid is that it doesn’t have any long-lasting drowsy side effects.
6. The Secret Behind Chicken Soup
Gelatin may be one reason why chicken soup comforts you when you’re ill. In numerous studies, chicken soup consistently helps reduce inflammation and decrease the symptoms of upper respiratory infections. Research finds homemade (with chicken bones and vegetables) is most beneficial. The nutrients in the chicken and vegetables work together to create a healing combination for colds and the flu. Commercial soups, on the other hand, were found to vary greatly in their ability to fight infection, so try making a batch from scratch (11). We have several recipes for bones broth in the 131 Method.
7. Decreases Inflammation
Inflammation is the underlying cause to almost every illness and disease. Inflammation is a natural process of the immune system in reaction to any injury or sickness. When you are sick, inflammation is high because your body is fighting off an active infection. This is the body trying to make you better, and it usually works; you tend to feel better within a few days of most illnesses. But, sometimes the inflammation sticks around longer than it should. When inflammation hangs around, it becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation, where the body thinks it’s constantly under attack, leaves us depleted and prone to disease. Long-term inflammation is linked to cancer, diabetes, and even an increased risk of infections.
Gelatin contains an amino acid called glycine, which helps regulate the immune system, reducing damage caused by uncontrolled inflammation. It helps people fight serious diseases like sepsis, liver damage, ulcers, and kidney injuries. It acts upon cells that trigger inflammation, reducing the formation of free radicals (12, 13).
8. Helps Maintain Healthy Skin
Did you know your skin is an important part of your immune system? Think about it, your skin is the first line of defense against all sorts of viruses, bacteria or toxic chemicals. It keeps these illness-causers out of your body by creating a barrier.
Gelatin helps renew skin cells and reduces damage from UV radiation. This helps reverse any damage caused by free radicals, which can lead to skin cancer and wrinkles. It also helps maintain skin’s integrity and thickness, creating a barrier between your body and germs (14, 15).
Now, a lot of the research on gelatin and skin focuses on how it improves appearance. The look of your skin reflects its health. Gelatin helps stimulate the formation of collagen, helping reduce the appearance of wrinkles. One study found that taking 10 grams of fish collagen, which contains some gelatin, for 84 days, significantly increased the density of collagen found in the skin and improved skin’s overall moisture (16).
Gelatin also helps strengthen hair, nails, and teeth. One study gave people with alopecia, or hair loss, a gelatin supplement for 50 weeks. Subjects who received the gelatin reported 29% more hair when compared to a placebo, and hair thickness increased by 40% (17).
So, although looking better may not make you feel immediately better when you are sick, keeping your skin healthy by eating gelatin can help you stay healthy so you don’t have to deal with any nasty illnesses in the future. Also, who doesn’t want to have fewer wrinkles and shiny, thick hair?
9. Helps with Weight Loss
Many of us struggle with losing or maintaining weight, putting us at higher risk of chronic disease. Maintaining a normal weight is one of the best ways to live a healthy life. Gelatin is a tool that makes weight management a little easier. The protein content in gelatin helps increase the feeling of fullness and controls the hormones that increase hunger (18).
Just a word of caution, adding excessive calories to your diet (no matter how healthy they might be) can lead to weight gain, so don’t take these results to mean you should go on a new Jell-O diet!
10. Helps Control Blood Sugar
Uncontrolled blood sugar puts you at greater risk for infections and prevents the body from healing properly. With diabetes rates on the rise, we should all be concerned about keeping our blood sugar stable. Gelatin may assist in this process.
A 2008 study of 74 people with type 2 diabetes were given 5 grams of glycine (one of the amino acids in gelatin) or a placebo for three months. The group that received the glycine treatment had lower HgbA1C levels after three months and inflammation markers were significantly reduced. HgbA1C measures average blood sugar levels over a three month period, an important blood test for people with diabetes. Researchers concluded that the addition of gelatin, and in particular glycine, significantly reduces damage caused by diabetes-related inflammation and high blood sugar. Maintaining a healthy blood sugar, even if you aren’t diabetic, can help you stay healthy long-term.
Now that know the incredible benefits of gelatin, how can you use it? Despite it’s giggly fun, Jell-O isn’t a good option.
One way incredibly popular option right now is consuming bone broth, a great source of gelatin. You may have recently heard about the benefits of bone broth to heal the digestive system, due in large part to the gelatin it contains. One of the main recommendations to healing leaky gut is to start your day with a glass of bone broth, to provide those gut-healing amino acids.
If you are feeling super motivated, you can make your own bone broth at home, which is an excellent source of both collagen and gelatin. Bone broth isn’t difficult to make, it just takes about 24-48 hours to cook. All it requires is bones, which you can ask for at any local butcher, a large pot of water, a few seasonings of choice, and a little patience. You can make it in a large quantity to freeze, but it will stay good in the fridge for about a week.
If you are not that motivated, many health food companies sell pre-made bone broth. It’s relatively easy to find at grocery stores. But, be aware, we are not talking about the canned variety commonly used for soups. It must be authentic bone broth, made from boiling bones. The higher price indicates its authenticity.
If you want to get the benefits of gelatin you may need to be more intentional about adding it into your diet. Luckily, gelatin is easy to add to food since it is mostly tasteless and odorless. Powdered gelatin is quite common these days and can be used as thickener for sauces, mixed into smoothies and soups, or used make your own jams and jellies. We have even seen it mixed with kombucha for an incredible gut-healing dessert option. Or, use it to make healthier, lower sugar, gummi treats for kids, sweetened with fruit juice instead of sugar.
There are even options for people who don’t want a jelly-like consistency, but still want to have the benefits of gelatin. Since it is totally tasteless, hydrolyzed gelatin powder can be added to any smoothie or juice. The hydrolyzed powder will not gel, making it very versatile.
When purchasing gelatin, make sure it comes from organic, grass-fed, antibiotic-free sources.
With all the incredible benefits of gelatin, why limit yourself to just Jell-O? Get creative with it, especially if you’re feeling under the weather. Don’t reserve it just for sick days, try adding it daily and see how your hair, skin and nails improve after some consistent use.