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A Scuba Diving Accident, the Gut, and the Cell Danger Response

Imagine being a relatively new scuba diver. You have a few dives in the temperate waters of the Red Sea under your belt (your weighted belt, that is!).Then, overriding your better judgement, you agree to join a group of people diving in the cold waters of the Irish Sea. The team descends more quickly than you’re accustomed and you feel a bit uncomfortable, but you follow suit.

Once you’ve descended, your regulator (that’s the bit in your mouth that allows tank oxygen in and allows expired air out) starts to fill with water. You follow the protocols, pressing the button to get rid of the water while exhaling. But it keeps refilling and refilling. And you can't take a breath until you’ve emptied the water but you can’t empty the water without it refilling. Eventually, you can’t help but breathe in and, of course, you inhale sea water.

That is exactly what happened to Nikki Kenward, my guest on episode 4 of the Enlightened Anatomy Podcast with Matthew Huy. She survived that event, thankfully. And she seemed fine for a while. But a few months later, when she thought she had moved on from the traumatic event, she started having some troubling symptoms. In the interview, Nikki tells us about her road to recovery and how she learned a lot about the gut along the way.

Meet Nikki Kenward

Nikki isn't your typical health expert—she's a craniosacral therapist, yoga teacher, circus director, and the author of Overcoming Chronic Digestive Conditions: Release the Visceral Layers of Post-Traumatic Gut Disorder, which is the updated edition of her first book, It’s All in the Gut.

Nikki Kenward is a force of nature. Beyond her credentials in healing therapies, she holds a master's degree in circus directing. Her vibrant lifestyle is as captivating as her career. Imagine being invited to a Christmas party that's actually a circus workshop, complete with aerial silks, kids' games, and a full-on circus show. That's the kind of zest Nikki brings to life and healing.

Post-Traumatic Gut Disorder: A New Term for a Real Issue

Traditional diagnoses can overlook the gut's role in trauma, but Nikki introduces the concept of post-traumatic gut disorder. After her accident, doctors diagnosed her condition as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)  but current research is not clear on how PTSD affects gut health.  Nikki's insight bridges this gap, emphasizing that trauma can have lasting effects on gut health. She advocates for a holistic approach to healing that acknowledges the gut's crucial role in our overall well-being.

The Healing Journey: Yoga, Therapy, and More

Nikki's path to healing is as diverse as her expertise. From yoga to craniosacral therapy, acupuncture to psychotherapy, she embraced multiple modalities to find peace and recovery. Yoga, in particular, played a pivotal role in helping Nikki to connect to her breath and her body. Whenever she was in my class, she was always happy to jump into a hand stand! Over time, she was able to wean off her medication and regain control over her health. The message is clear: holistic healing requires a multi-faceted approach, tailored to individual needs and experiences.

The Gut’s Second Brain: Enteric Nervous System

If you’ve read my book, The Physiology of Yoga, you’ll be familiar with the enteric nervous system, also called the second brain. Nikki dives into the fascinating world of the enteric nervous system, explaining how this complex network within our gut significantly impacts our emotions and overall health. This system, comprising a vast network of neurons, glial cells, and more, is integral to our digestive processes and emotional well-being. It’s not just about digestion; it’s about feeling good from the inside out and acknowledging how deeply our gut health affects our overall vitality.

Gut Feelings: Serotonin, Dopamine, and More

Did you know most of your body's serotonin and significant amounts of dopamine are produced in your gut? Nikki and I discuss the gut-brain connection, highlighting how a healthy gut can transform your mood and mental health, delving into the science behind it and noting that disturbances in gut microbiota have been linked to conditions like ADHD, Parkinson's disease, and anxiety. This conversation underscores the importance of maintaining a balanced gut for both physical and mental health.

The Cell Danger Response

In the yoga-sphere, you can sometimes hear things like, “The body holds on to emotional trauma.” While this statement is vague about the actual physiology involved, Nikki’s books introduced me to a concept I hadn’t heard described before and which provides some credibility to the idea of trauma affecting our physiology. It is the cell danger response. When certain chemical, physical, or biological threats exceed a cell’s capacity, cells can enter this conserved metabolic response that protects cells and hosts from harm. This response can persist long after the initial danger has passed, especially if we endure continuous or recurrent stress. Nikki explains that this mechanism is not just a biological hiccup; it's a sophisticated survival response. Understanding this helps us see how deeply interconnected our body's systems are, and it underscores the importance of addressing both emotional and physical traumas in our healing processes.

Practical Tips for a Happy Gut

In this episode, Nikki also shares some practical tips for improving or maintaining our gut health:

  • Eat Well: Diversify your diet with fruits, veggies, seeds, nuts, legumes, and quality protein. Clean ingredients and a variety of nutrients can significantly improve gut health.

  • Emotional Healing: Address past traumas. This might involve therapy, mindfulness practices, or even simply taking time to breathe deeply and relax.

  • Stay Active: Whether it’s walking in nature, dancing, or even circus arts, keep moving! Physical activity helps promote a healthy gut.

  • Self-Care: Engaging in joyful and relaxing activities can work wonders for your gut health. Whether it's gardening, singing, or playing with your pet, find what brings you peace and happiness.

Conclusion: Empower Yourself with Gut Wisdom

Nikki leaves us with an empowering message: You have the power to improve your gut health and overall well-being. By making conscious choices in diet, lifestyle, and emotional health, you can transform your life. Healing is a journey, and it’s about finding what works best for you.

Check out Nikki’s books on Amazon, follow her on Instagram at @Nikki.Circus, and explore her YouTube channel "From Loon to Cosmos" for more insights into holistic health.

Stay tuned for more enlightening discussions on the Enlightened Anatomy Podcast. Subscribe and leave a review, and remember—get enlightened and help others!

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With goosebumps, I listened to Nikki Kenward. What she said resonated with me. I am suffering with endless gut issues and Nikki's comments on why, made sense to me. It was an empowering, inspiring session. The walks in nature are especially a personal message to me. Thank you so much for hosting Matt.

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