Holiday Cinnamon Rolls {gluten + dairy-free + vegan}

At the beginning of advent, William and I had an after-dinner discussion on holiday traditions and the ones that are most important to each of us. One of mine is baking and making gifts of the season to share. My grandma’s Apple Cake, my great grandmother’s Cinnamon Roll Cookies, the stereotypical fruitcake and mince tarts packed with dried fruit and spices that seemingly only me and my dad like. And cinnamon rolls, a new tradition in the past few years. For me, baking during the holidays is more about the joy it brings to others than really wanting or needing to eat all the foods myself. I grew up in an active, ranching family whose busy season happens to be in the winter (“spring” calving usually starts around Christmas, and regardless, animals always need fed first), so some sweet treats after being outside for hours in the cold and dark are always welcome.

After being mostly removed from that lifestyle for more than a decade, I still love to bake and send treats in the mail when I’m not visiting my parents. That’ll be the case this year. And of course, I still bake for myself and William as well. What I’ve found over the years is that most of us have a disjointed relationship to the treats that often come with the holiday season. They bring nostalgic feelings of happy memories, fill the house with comforting scents, and generally taste amazing. And then comes the guilt. We really shouldn’t. It’ll mess with our ‘diet’ or our ‘active lifestyle’ or our ‘new improved body’ we’ve worked so hard for. Or, the high sugar and inflammatory ingredients will hamper our healing process. I’ve been there on all accounts: the guilt, the feeling of needing to control my body, and in recent years, the awareness of hampering my healing.

But the other thing that severely hampers healing is stress. And stressing about every morsel that enters our mouth severely interferes with healing – of any type. We’re going to delve more into intuitive eating and what that really means (intuition versus cravings) here in the coming weeks, but first, let’s pause for the holiday season. Make, bake, and enjoy your favorite treats if you’d like, be mindful about what you really want and enjoy them with all your senses. Continue to chew your food. And generally let go of the guilt.

And if your body is in some stage of healing and you still would enjoy Cinnamon Rolls, these ones are just a bit more nourishing than most, yet still leave room for being slightly decadent, celebratory and delicious.

Happy solstice, yule, Christmas, and holiday season. I hope you enjoy in whatever way you can, and above all, remember to take care of you.

Holiday Cinnamon Rolls {gluten-free + vegan}, makes 4
A few notes on method and ingredients:
– The trick to really good GF bread and pastry is a binder and the best one(s) are a combination of ground chia or flax and psyllium seed husks. Both can usually be found in natural food stores or ordered from herbal companies online.
I’ve only made these with my gluten-free flour mix so any store bought mixes will have different textures/results. Measure flour by weight if you’re substituting. For the frosting, the hemp seeds are optional but provide a little flavor contrast. Just add in the same amount of additional cashews if you’d rather. I’ve tried all types of sugar in these, both in the filling and in the frosting. While I’ve given options, the first one listed is my favorite and first recommendation.
– These can be prepped ahead of time. Prepare them in the evening, and then place the rolls in their pan in the fridge during the rise time overnight. In the morning, let them warm up on the counter while pre-heating the oven. The baking time will likely need to be longer.

Wet Ingredients:
6.5 oz. / 185 ml / 13 Tbs. non-dairy milk
1 1/8 tsp. dry active yeast
1 Tbs. ground chia seeds 
1 Tbs. psyllium seed husk
2 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted
½ Tbsp. apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice)

Dry ingredients:
170 g / 6 oz. / 1 ½ cups gluten-free all-purpose blend
¾ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. sea salt
¼ tsp. cardamom, optional

Holiday Spice Filling:
6 Tbs. brown sugar or coconut sugar
¼ tsp. each cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice OR 1 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of sea salt
1 Tbsp. coconut oil, melted

Frosting:
¼ cup cashews, soaked
2 Tbs. hemp seeds
2 Tbs. non-dairy milk
1 Tbs. brown rice syrup, honey, or maple syrup
1 tsp. coconut oil
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
a pinch of salt

  1. Warm up the non-dairy milk until lukewarm or at 100 degrees F / 38 degrees C. Whisk in the yeast and allow to froth up for 10 minutes. Add the chia seeds, psyllium, oil and vinegar. Whisk together and set aside so it can thicken a little.
  2. In a large bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Dump the wet ingredients into the middle of the flour mix and stir with a wooden spoon. Your dough will begin to look scrappy. When this happens, set aside the wooden spoon and start kneading the dough in the bowl with your hands. Knead it lightly until it gets manageable and somewhat smooth.
  3. Roll out the dough on your counter or large cutting board that’s lightly floured. The dough should be easy to roll and not too sticky. Roll it into a large rectangle, a little more than  ¼ inch /3 mm. Combine the spice and sugar filling in a small bowl and spread it out evenly on top of the dough.
  4. Tightly roll the dough up from the short side so you have 4 1 ½-2-inch rolls. Line a small 6-inch or similar cake pan with parchment paper, and then place the rolls inside, cut-side up. Cover lightly with a tea towel, and allow to rise for 1 hour in a warm, non-drafty space in your kitchen. These should rise enough to be touching each other in the pan now. They will not double in size.
  5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake for 15-25 minutes or until the edges have firmed up. (Check after 15 minutes but my oven usually needs the full 25). Place the pan on a wire rack to briefly cool down.
  6. While the rolls are cooling slightly, blend together the frosting in a high-speed blender, and then pour and smooth over the cinnamon rolls. Add a light dusting of cinnamon on top if you’d like.
  7. These taste best when eaten warm and straight out of the oven but can be stored (covered) for about three days.

An especially important, and often overlooked, key to better digestion

One of my mentors recently shared a phrase that’s stuck with me, and really helped in my day to day. She shared in an almost offhand way, Rushing is ego. It feeds self-importance. As someone that tends to perpetually feel rushed and scattered and multi-tasks far more than I should, her statement was like a gentle but stern hand on my shoulder. And a reminder that rushing never makes me feel better in any way.

One of the main areas I tend to rush, multi-task and be scattered is when eating. Alone and left to my own devices, I tend to rarely eat without distraction. And when William and I enjoy meals in the evenings together, catching up on our days and eating while talking (quickly) is more the norm. A couple years ago, recognizing a pattern in myself, I started an experiment of several days of eating with no distraction. What I realized from that experiment was that I’ve tended to avoid being alone with my thoughts at meals because it brought awareness to things I didn’t want to feel. A few months later, I reinstated the distraction free eating practice, having lunch every day outside on the patio without technology or (my weakness), things to read. Instead I simply enjoyed my meals, listened to the summer bugs and watched the hummingbird’s daily visit to the pink zinnia. It was lovely and stress-reducing. And a few weeks into that new habit, I noticed my digestion had really improved, and that I’d begun to feel a lot better in my autoimmune pain and other symptoms. And quite noticeably, I was running and recovering really well during that time.

Summer ended and the practice gradually fell away. I went back to distracted eating and well, I’d notice my digestion was off, stress ran higher, and I didn’t tend to enjoy my meals much because I wasn’t paying attention to actually eating them!

Today, I’ve got a short but incredibly substantial tip if you’re struggling with poor digestion, GI pain (whether it’s general or after a tough workout), bloating, excess gas, etc. And it also helps A LOT if you tend to be generally mentally scattered or anxious. It’s one that you don’t have to spend a ton of money on – actually it’s free! It doesn’t take special skills or preparation. And the process of eating your meals and the hours afterward (those poor digestion side effects), will be much more enjoyable.

Are you ready?

For the next few days, try really chewing your food.

And by that I mean, chewing every bite until it’s broken down into a mush. This means you might chew 20-35 times per bite. Yes, really.

That’s going to be tolerated better than it used to…

Before food ever gets to our stomach or small intestine where stomach acids and digestive enzymes contribute to the chemical process of digestion and then nutrient absorption, digestion actually begins in the brain (just thinking about and then smelling food) and in the mouth. Digestive juices, saliva, enzymes, and digestive hormones are released and begin flowing in anticipation of a meal. Then saliva contains enzymes that further initiate digestion. Likewise, mechanical breakdown of food with our teeth is incredibly important so the enzymes, gastric acids, and hormones can then take over further along in the process.

Some people like to count the number of chews per bite, so go ahead if this helps you to establish the practice. Focus on chewing every mouthful until it is liquid.

The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, is often quoted as saying that all disease begins in the gut. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, most traditional (and much older) medical systems around the world believe the same. For all I know, some wise sage (or perhaps just my wise mentor) also came up with that phrase about rushing and feeding ego’s self-importance. Especially now in mid-December leading up to the holidays — especially now when Covid-rates are increasing stress (again), help your digestion out a little, and actually enjoy your food, by chewing it a little more.

Impaired digestion and subsequent absorption of food is one of the primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically with impaired digestion. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, fatigue, or anxiety, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I shared about the nervous system’s role in part 1 of this topic, the immune response and subsequent inflammation in part two, gut microbes and dysbiosis in part three and I’ll explain remaining categories in future articles.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI and would like to get back to feeling and training well, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Fire and Battle in the Gut – the immune response and your long list of foods that cause reactions

It seems like every year around this time, I find myself in a phase of asking myself, “what food am I reacting to?”. After half a decade or more of asking this question annually, and over the years slowly pin-pointing it down, I’ve gotten a little wiser.

William and I have grown a fairly substantial garden every year since 2016, and I’ve had some version of one in community garden plots, on balconies or patios, college rental backyards, and even dorm room windowsills since I left home as a teenager. Even before that, my mom has always grown a large garden, so having super-fresh summer produce has literally been a happening my whole life. My mom’s favorite thing to grow, from my perspective anyway, has always been heirloom tomatoes, so all the big, fat, juicy tomatoes have also been a long-time staple of summer and early fall. Yum.

But for the last several years, it has become apparent that I may like tomatoes, but they don’t quite like me—in the amounts that any tomato-growing person would need to consume them anyway.

So each year I’ve slowly reduced how many tomato plants I’ve grown. This year, instead of pulling the plants after two solid months of heavy tomato production, the thick smoke and hazardous air days earlier this month had me pulling the one plant we grew early. So there was only one month of tomato production, and I gave a bunch away just to keep up.

And yet still, by the time I pulled the plant and sent it to the compost, every time I had a tomato-based meal I was getting itchy ears and hot, flushing of my face within minutes. At the point where these symptoms were the worst, we were also in extremely hazardous air quality—likely even with the blessed indoor air purifiers—and I had been eating other nightshades regularly too; we also grow a few peppers, eggplant, and this year, potatoes—William’s pride and joy.

And while the itchy ears and facial flushing are classic allergic reactions, every year before this, I react later, after many more weeks of eating tomatoes and other nightshades, and with my more consistent go-to digestive symptom: a dully, achy, distracting pain.

Why am I sharing all this? Well, because I know many of you can relate to having various food sensitivities or allergies and not always knowing what you’re reacting to or how to deal with it—and because let’s be clear, eliminating one food after another until you’re down to a handful of “safe” foods is not the best long-term answer.  

For anyone that read my last digestion-focused article, you’ll remember part of the nervous system traverses through the gut. You may have also read that about 70 percent of our immune system is located in or around the digestive system. This is why when our digestive barriers or defenses are worn down, the immune system, whose very job is to determine what is you and what is not—and to attack what’s not—begins to take on substances that ordinarily it shouldn’t, like foods or substances from the environment.

The reason for this is partly because the lining of the gut is only one cell thick. If that sounds especially thin, it is. Just below the gut lining lies a part of the immune system called the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), whose job is to help absorb nutrients. We also have a part of the immune system called the mucous-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) which resides in the mucosal lining, as well as in other mucousy tissues (nose, bronchia, etc.). When the gut and mucous-associated lymphoid tissues’ membranes are structurally strong, then we have more ability to withstand ‘stressors,’ both actual stress and substances that might stress the body internally. When these lymphoid tissues are structurally compromised, then bacteria, food particles that cause a negative reaction, and other inappropriate pathogenic molecules get into our blood. And the cellular version of battle ensues.

Cue reactions to tomatoes, other nightshades, wheat and gluten, dairy, corn, peanuts, soy, and on and on. The immune system turns on against otherwise harmless foods.

One more thing to know before I get into what we can control about this immune response:

There are layers to the immune system with first line defense, second, what follows, etc. Likewise, when we do blood or skin tests for food sensitivities and allergies, there are different substances to test for.
Secretory IgA (sIgA), is the main way that the mucous-associated lymphoid tissue gives the message to the immune system to initiate battle. Secretory IgA are antibodies in the gut mucosa that are on constant alert for foreign substances—think of them as guards for the castle walls of your mucous-immune tissue. They initiate a non-specific response. When the secretory IgA antibodies aren’t showing up to the job or are overwhelmed, the IgG antibodies next kick in. They are what we’ll call a second line of defense and cause reactions to specific foods or substances, but perhaps not immediately. That’s why in the past, I could eat tomatoes for weeks before having any reactions and when those reactions occurred, they were hours or even days after the ‘enemy’ tomato made its appearance at the castle walls.

When IgG antibodies get overwhelmed, it is time for the IgE antibodies. These are what we consider true allergies. That’s the classic itchy throat, swelling, mucous and nasal drip, hives, itchy ears and/or eyes, flushing, and anaphylaxis symptoms. Not what any of us want to experience.

Of what we currently know of the immune system, people don’t develop true IgE allergies until all the other systems have broken down—and when food sensitivities are cleared up—that’s the IgG response—the true IgE allergy response can either partially or fully resolve. Good news when I want to eat a tomato symptom-free, or when you want to go back to enjoying any of the various foods you’ve thought you’d have to avoid forever.

So going back to factors that we can control and/or play a role. They include:

– Genetics. Many conditions such as celiac, inflammatory bowel diseases (crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, etc.), and most other autoimmune conditions have a genetic component. While that can seem discouraging, we are learning more about how to modify gene expression through what’s known as epigenetics—using food, nutrients, and environment (like stress reduction), to help us overcome otherwise ‘risky’ genetics.

– Gut bacteria and dysbiosis. Both “good” gut bacteria in the wrong place, and an imbalance between the amount of beneficial and disease-producing microbes are factors we can control. Examples include bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections. They are far more common than most of us think.

– What we eat on a daily basis. The diet of most individuals is high in refined carbohydrates and poor-quality fats and meats, and too low in fiber, vegetables, whole-grains, beans and legumes, fruit, and nuts and seeds—the very foods that are rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients and feed good gut bacteria.

– Leaky gut. When we get “holes” in that one-cell-thick gut lining, we’re going to experience increased inflammation and breakdowns/battle in the immune system. Stress, of all causes, plays a huge role in this.

Now that you know a little more about the immune system, let me know if you have questions, or if this helped clarify why with healing the gut and turning off the immune system response, you might be able to eat some of the foods you’ve thought you’d have to always avoid.

The immune response and subsequent inflammation is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically with impaired digestion. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, fatigue, or anxiety, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I shared about the nervous system’s role in part 1 of this topicgut microbes and dysbiosis in part three, and a tip to support impaired digestion and absorption in part four. I’ll explain the remaining categories of impaired digestion in future articles.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI and would like to get back to feeling and training well, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

References:
1: Lipski, L. (2012). Digestive Wellness (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.