The Power of the Ninja!

“Ninja Cells" are white blood cells on a mission to fight infection. How does modest sleep loss affect these vital cells?

By Joe Castignani

Natural Killer (NK) cells, or “Ninja Cells” as I like to call them, are a type of white blood cell on a mission to assist the immune system’s defense against infections, tumors, and other abnormal cells. Ninja Cells are a part of the innate immune system, which provides an immediate response to daring foreign invaders without any prior exposure or recognition.

How Do Ninja Cells Work?

Ninja Cells are primarily known for their ability to detect and destroy infected or cancerous cells in the body. Once a Natural Killer cell identifies a target cell as abnormal, it releases toxic substances which induce cell death in the targeted cell. Like a Ninja!

But that’s not all, Ninja Cells are essential in immune surveillance, playing a vital role in detecting and eliminating cells that evade the recognition of other immune cells. This NK surveillance system is key in preventing the development and spread of tumors by recognizing and eliminating cancer cells.

The Link Between Sleep and Ninja Cell Activity

Sleep plays a significant role in supporting the optimal functioning of the immune system, including the activity of Natural Killer cells. Natural Killer cells are a critical component of the immune system's defense and their effectiveness can be influenced by sleep quality and duration. A modest amount of sleep loss can have an astonishing effect on the body’s ability to produce these vital cells.

Matthew Walker, Author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, discusses an important study by M. Irwin which emphasizes the importance of a full night’s sleep as related to Natural Killer cell production. “Irwin demonstrated that a single night of four hours of sleep—such as going to bed at three a.m. and waking up at seven a.m.—swept away 70 percent of the Natural Killer cells circulating in the immune system, relative to a full eight-hour night of sleep. That is a dramatic state of immune deficiency to find yourself facing, and it happens quickly, after essentially one “bad night” of sleep.”

In the short term, a poor night’s sleep can put us at risk for developing acute illnesses like colds and flu, but in the long term, it increases our risk for much more serious threats, such as cancer or decreased recovery from stress or injury.

An occasional poor night’s sleep may be unavoidable. However, in my blog, I’ve covered a variety of topics to support habits for restorative, restful sleep including appropriate caffeine consumption, alcohol use, and meditative strategies for relaxation. In addition, having appropriate bedding is critical, and a comfortable supportive pillow (I recommend the MVMI 6-Chamber Pillow) is an important part of a successful sleep routine.

What We Have Learned

Sufficient and quality sleep is critical to support a robust immune response. A single poor night’s sleep can dramatically reduce our ability to fight off a cold or flu virus. More importantly, however, establishing a healthy sleep routine to promote consistent, restorative sleep is a vital step to overall health.

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Dream big, work hard, sleep ambitiously,

Joe Castignani